Acerbic and irreverent cartoonist John Callahan dies at 59

By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, July 29, 2010; B06

One cartoon displays an aerobics instructor telling quadriplegic exercisers, "O.K., lets get those eyeballs moving." Another showed a man sitting at a bar with two prosthetic hooks for hands as the bartender tells him, "Sorry, Mike, but you can't hold your liquor."

And still another shows the storefront of "The Anorexic Cafe," with a sign in the window: "Now Closed 24 hours a day!!!"

John Callahan, 59, the acerbic cartoonist responsible for those irreverent-to-polarizing drawings, died July 24 at a hospital in Portland, Ore. He was an alcoholic and a quadriplegic, and his work attracted a devoted following -- it was syndicated for many years -- and many detractors who found it shocking and tasteless.

That was the point.

"I'm happiest when I'm offensive. I have a desire to tear people in half," he told the Miami Herald in 1989. "I want to move people out of the suburbs of their mind. I want them to suffer, to feel something real. I have a lot of anger. I want to hurt people. At least a little."

He said life as a quadriplegic, the result of a car accident when he was 21, was a "carnival of horrors." He said he felt like a "head stitched to a dead body."

The causes of his death were complications from his quadriplegia and respiratory problems.

In his 27 years of cartooning, Mr. Callahan drew praise from Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who said Mr. Callahan's works were "rude" and "depraved" -- in short, Groening said, "all the adjectives that cartoonists crave to hear."

When Mr. Callahan's artwork appeared in print, newspapers inevitably received buckets of hate mail and dozens of phone calls from angry advertisers threatening to pull out.

In his 30s -- nearly a decade after his accident -- Mr. Callahan rediscovered his talents as a cartoonist while doodling in his English classes at Portland State University. Holding a pen between his hands, as if in prayer, he bent over sheets over paper to produce the signature scraggly lines of his cartoons.

He began to churn out nearly 10 cartoons a week for local alternative papers and was eventually syndicated in the mid-1980s with the help of an agent. At his peak, Mr. Callahan's cartoons appeared in nearly 300 publications worldwide, including Penthouse and Esquire.

"What is interesting to me are problems: tension, despair, tragedy, disability; things that are very taboo, like people who are maimed," Mr. Callahan said in 1989.

One of Mr. Callahan's cartoons shows headless bodies streaming out of a restaurant with blood spurting from their severed necks. The restaurant is named, "The Low Ceiling-Fan Cafe." Another cartoon is called "A.A. in L.A.," and has a man standing at a lectern saying: "My name is Mort and I represent Chuck who's an alcoholic."

Mr. Callahan once submitted a lewd cartoon about a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. to the Miami Herald that was instantly rejected.

But during production, a worker mistakenly inserted the cartoon for publication, and the Herald ended up having to destroy 500,000 copies. Mr. Callahan's artwork was forever banned from the paper.

"Being in a wheelchair has nothing to do with why he can do the things he does," Sam Gross, a veteran cartoonist for the New Yorker and National Lampoon, once said. "He is in the vein of sick humor -- but sick humor that's funny. He's intelligent and witty -- that is why he gets away with it."

Mr. Callahan was born Feb. 5, 1951, in Portland, and was the child of an Army major and a single mother. He was adopted as an infant by David and Rosemary Callahan, who named him John Michael Callahan. They raised him in The Dalles, about 80 miles outside Portland. He was the oldest of their six children. With his red hair and rebellious attitude, Mr. Callahan labeled himself a pariah in the devout family.

He found solace in his first stolen bottle of liquor at his grandmother's wake and barreled into his teenage years as a veteran alcoholic, defending his antics through comedy. After his high school graduation, he worked in menial jobs at a state mental institution and an aluminum plant because, as he said, he could perform his duties while drunk. He eventually moved to Los Angeles in search of a wilder life.

On July 22, 1972, Mr. Callahan guzzled a half-pint of tequila to cure the shakes from a hangover. After hours of drinking, Mr. Callahan and a friend slammed a car into a utility pole at 90 mph. He severed his spine and was paralyzed from the diaphragm down. That didn't stop his drinking.

One day in 1978, Mr. Callahan spent an hour trying to pry open a bottle of liquor with his teeth. The bottle slipped from his weak hands and dropped to the floor, rolling out of his reach. He stared at it, then burst into tears.

Mr. Callahan said he realized his paraplegia was not the problem; his alcoholism was. He enrolled in a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous chapter and never took another sip.

Survivors include his mother, Rosemary, of Tigard, Ore.; three brothers; and two sisters.

Hollywood comedian Robin Williams owns the movie rights to Mr. Callahan's life. Should the film ever appear on screen, Mr. Callahan once said, he wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to star.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company