John Callahan, 1951–2010: The Man from Whom Excuses Ran




John Callahan, 1951 – 2010

Original story on | Wednesday, July 28, 2010

As far as media figures go, quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan wasn’t a pleasant man to look at or even learn about. It’s said that when he walked — or rather rolled – into a room, those of lesser character would inchworm the walls to the nearest exit.

My first exposure to John Callahan’s work came in the form of a cartoon entitled “Inconvenience Store,” which depicted an angry cashier pelting a customer with coins. I cut it out and have carried it with me for over 20 years. It hard to let go of how creatively empowering it felt to discover it, though to say that Callahan’s cartoons are an acquired taste is a colossal understatement.

John Callahan has been described as a once-mad alcoholic who wrecked a car early in life and was rewarded with quadriplegia, and as a spiteful cartoonist who offended everyone and picked especially upon the disabled. He’s been called a “survivor” with a blend of resentment and respect, mainly for forcing others to see the world through his eyes and watch him live in it. And live he did, diabolically.

Excuses darted around the man like squirrels in Central Park; Callahan could have speared one anytime and kept it for himself, but he made no excuses. He lived with a mouthful of un-chewable admonitions, yet he offered no justifications. He apologized to no one for his mean-spirited humor, yet was (mostly) always willing to stop and be good listener or explain a meaning. There was nothing beautiful about this guy’s life. He never seemed likable and was branded a misogynist. He drew cartoons with one dead, twisted arm guiding the other, and the result looked like it. He died of complications from bedsores (imagine how unhurried and horrendous that must have been!). And despite being a guy who would tell you to your face that your question is DUMB, he poked more fun at himself than anyone else. He was a vulnerable example of genuine recovery from alcoholism, of rebounding with purpose and of living without pity, which he viciously despised above all else.

His fellow cripples, drunks, musicians, and comedians, both little-known and famous, fiercely defended John Callahan. The psychiatric community and scholars alike saw him as a necessary wickedness.

Kara Germeroth, in a 1998 analysis published in the Howard Journal of Communications, considered whether Callahan’s “activist humor” could be a viable tool for changing society’s attitudes toward the disabled. The writing is so academic that it’s harder to read than Callahan’s cheeks, but the author must’ve won a prize for applying an obscure 1959 theory called “Perspective by Incongruity” to Callahan’s doodles. The disabled, at least the many who deeply cherished Callahan, would be more likely to join him in rejecting Germeroth’s somber examination of catheter humor.

There’s a lot more out there on the guy; Callahan is easily researched and a number of obituaries have been written for and about him. For my part, I’ll leave it at this: rest in peace, John Callahan, run as fast as you can, use those legs and run right over to wherever Christopher Reeve is and annoy the hell out of him.