I can't let the death of John Callahan on July 24 pass unremarked, if only because I remember the experience of looking at my first Callahan cartoon so vividly. The cartoon was a single-panel drawing--a chicken-scratch, really, because no one will ever call Callahan a great draftsman--of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy lying in side-by-side hospital beds, in a room marked "AIDS Ward." The caption? An inevitable "That's another fine mess you've gotten me into."
Of course, Callahan's life was as transgressive as his art. In his biography Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (1990), Callahan unblinkingly chronicles his troubled childhood, his years of unrelenting alcoholism, the DUI car accident that put him in a wheelchair for life at age 21, his years-long journey through Alcoholics Anonymous' Twelve Steps, and his technique as a two-handed quadriplegic cartoonist:
My Portland apartment had a huge bathroom with perfect light and I set up shop there in front of the mirror and drew continuously, trying to simplify everything, getting down to the bare-bones style I admired in Gross, in Kliban, and in a few others. Then and now, I worked on a tablet on my knees, holding the pen loosely in my right hand and bracing it with my left. I have to keep pressure on my fingers to keep them closed around the pen. My drawing comes from the shoulders, not just the arms and wrists. (158)
This description doesn't do justice to the difficulties Callahan had pushing a pen across paper. The fine documentary Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel (Simone de Vries, 2007) opens with extreme close-ups of Callahan's shaking hands clasped around a black marker, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he works to produce legible, funny lines. (A grainy clip from the beginning of Touch Me is here.) There was something heroic in Callahan's struggle to transcend his physical limitations and create art.
I have a personal story that speaks to the power and irreverence of Callahan's vision. In the early 1990s, I was an adjunct faculty member at Parkland Community College in Champaign, Illinois. The label "adjunct" refers to teachers hired not on the permanent, full-time tenure track, but to folks hired to teach classes on a piecemeal, ad hoc basis from semester to semester. Adjuncts are never paid as much money as tenure-track professors, and usually don't get perks like decent health insurance and their own private offices. We adjuncts at Parkland "officed" in a single room filled with about ten desks and chairs, which was about 20 less than we needed if all of us wanted to sit down at a desk at the same time. Administrators figured, though, that since we all had different teaching schedules, we cycle in and out of the room at different times, and thus could easily share a desk with two or three of our colleagues. (And yes, the substandard treatment of adjuncts continues to be a shameful problem in higher education.)
Anyway, one day in spring 1992, I was in this very crowded, very public Parkland adjunct office, having a conversation with my friend Charlotte, a fellow adjunct. For a reason I no longer remember, we started talking about Gary Larson's The Far Side and other single-panel cartoons we liked. "Have you heard of John Callahan?" I asked, and Charlotte hadn't, so I described, in too loud a voice, some examples of Callahan's raunchy, politically incorrect, take-no-prisoners sense of humor. I told her the Laurel and Hardy AIDS gag, and I described a lot of the cartoons in Callahan's collection Digesting the Child Within (1991), which I had just bought and read the week before. In particular, I zeroed in on two of my favorite cartoons from Child, a couple of irreverent blasts about (of all things) Tourette's Syndrome. Here they are:
While Charlotte and I cracked up, someone else in the office, a middle-aged woman wearing glasses that neither of us recognized, got up from one of the communal desks, walked over to us, and asked "Where did you find those cartoons?" I mentioned Callahan and Child, and said "So you think those cartoons are pretty funny, huh? Do you wanna get the book?"
"I'll buy it for my husband," the middle aged woman replied, "because he has Tourette's Syndrome."
I spent most of the next half-hour apologizing repeatedly to this woman--I still feel guilty as I write about this incident almost twenty years later--while she laughed and assured me that she'd taken no offense from either Callahan's cartoons or my over-enthusiastic summary of them. Rather, she was going to give Child as a birthday present to her husband because she was convinced that he'd find "Your order will be ready when I yell 'Mother-fucker'" hilarious too. This was enlightening: you mean people with handicaps have senses of humor? And they can laugh about their troubles just like us normal people? Seriously?
In a 1992 interview, Callahan said that the only audience for his cartoons that he cared about were handicapped readers: "My only compass for whether or not I've gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands. Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and patronizing. That's what is truly detestable." I get it now, John.
Incidentally, don't we need an update of National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless and Twisted Cartoons that includes Callahan's work? Or maybe a new collection of taboo-busting single-panel cartoons, featuring Callahan, Evan Dorkin, Ivan Brunetti and Johnny Ryan?