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Thread: RIP John Callahan

  1. #1

    RIP John Callahan

    Gleefully satirical Portland cartoonist John Callahan dies

    Often controversial artist mostly turned tragedy into laughs

    By Jim Redden
    The Portland Tribune, Jul 25, 2010, Updated 5 hours ago

    Portland cartoonist/artist/musician John Callahan is shown here in 2001 with his pug, Annie, who often was a source of inspiration for his cartoons. Callahan died July 24 at age 59.
    Tribune file photo

    Portland cartoonist, author, musician and man about town in a wheelchair John Callahan died on July 24. He was 59.
    Callahan, a quadriplegic who was paralyzed by an automobile accident, poked fun at himself and life in his frequently politically incorrect drawings, writings and songs. He and his large black wheelchair were often seen in Northwest Portland, where he spent much of his adult life.
    He died at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital from complications due to his paralysis.
    Callahan was adopted as child and had five siblings. He frequently talked and wrote about his struggles with alcohol as a teenager and young adult. He admitted being drunk in the 1972 accident that left him paralyzed at the age of 21. He continued drinking for six more years, when he gave up alcohol and began drawing cartoons with a pen held between both hands.
    Callahan’s cartoons have been compared to those of Charles Adams and Gahan Wilson. Two animated cartoons have been based on his work, including Pelswick, a children's show on Nickelodeon, and Quads, a Canadian-Australian co-production. A biographical movie starring Robin Williams has been proposed but never completed.
    Portland writer David Milholland published many of Callahan’s earliest cartoons in his former publication, Clinton St. Quarterly.
    Here is what Milholland wrote about Callahan after learning of his death:
    John Callahan is adopted by a Catholic family in The Dalles, Oregon soon after his birth to a young, unmarried Catholic woman in nearby Portland. Mrs. Callahan, unfruitful to that moment, almost immediately becomes pregnant and soon thereafter turns out a full complement of siblings.
    "The young Callahan, with his life-long mane of red hair, sets a quick pace for his provincial western community — a mischief maker from an early age. In one of several cartoon features we publish in Clinton St. Quarterly, John is pictured stabbed with a fork, as are all his five siblings, for breaking house rules laid down by their no-nonsense father.
    Exaggeration? No, artistic license refined to a high pitch early in his career.
    Another CSQ feature captures the recent high school graduate working in the local mental hospital, now Columbia Gorge Community College. John and his late-night-shift colleagues learn all about and experiment with the psychotropic medicines they dose out, administer electro-shock therapy, befriend and befuddle their essentially incarcerated wards.
    No wonder that John early on dials into abusive alcohol consumption. This depressing work makes any vision for the future far from appealing. His tales of bravado under the influence, staple yarns of extended adolescence, catch the fancy of his peers stimulating even wilder bacchanals and near-mythic fables.
    But this cycle fades away. The true opening of John’s bildungsroman takes place on a Los Angeles freeway off-ramp when John and a drunken-driver buddy flip and pile into oblivion. In the cartoon version, before discovering that he’s paralyzed for life, John tells the attending patrolman, “There’s a five-dollar bill in my left shirt pocket, get me a short case.”
    Needless to say he keeps drinking with lamentable results, until years later, in Mt. Angel, Oregon, John has an epiphany and puts the bottle aside, for good. The CSQ feature on this entire process “I Think I Was an Alcoholic” is a succinct masterpiece.
    I first meet the recently sober Callahan living in public housing just behind the newly constructed Food Front Co-op. I am editing its newsletter. In short order John is turning out canny cartoons featuring “relentless” cheese and unveiling his takes on our culture, which coupled with his rapier wit, launches a syndicated one-panel comic career and the autobiographical features we publish in CSQ. Several books and multiple television series loom on the horizon, but John lives in the here and now, mostly one comic image at a time.
    Watching John develop a single cartoon, nearly all produced under looming Willamette Week deadlines [en route to international syndication], is a short course in the creative process. John banters around ideas, plumbs anyone nearby or near a phone for suggestions, and then plays with 2 or 3 possibilities, flipping them around — mentally and verbally — until a punch line emerges. He then clutches a sharpie pen in both hands and begins drawing an image to fit the phrase. Sometimes he hits it on the first round, but more often image and phrase duel a while, with both subject to mutation in the process. Then boom, they fit together like a glove, and he’s off the hook for another week.
    John is a relentlessly creative and social human being. He marries the two whenever possible. Though he craves the sun, misty Portland is a perfect petri dish for his talents; a foil for his politically incorrect notions. Callahan craves a gut-roiling laugh, quite frequently at his own expense, but just as frequently against the grain of what many considered reasonable. John’s quadriplegia is both a debilitating handicap and a springboard for insight and expression of what others are experiencing, if not daring to utter.
    With John no cow is sacred. Whatever pain we feel, we all self censure, crane around for justification, look for a route off the hook. Callahan’s cartoons stick the fork in and probe disquietude, that “not me Lord” feeling of embarrassment, whether it’s being caught unzipped, in over one’s head, or, for the never-been-embarrassed, in full-tilt hypocrisy.
    Rather than pinning politicians to the insect display, to avoid terminal boredom and in his wit and wisdom, Callahan sees fit to examine us all. Whether his subject is a head on a skateboard, a portly woman wearing a muumuu, “Fat” writ large across its surface, or the Pope — they’re all busted. The post-alcohol realist message is — no whining, get over it, and on with it. Over and over the phrase resounds — “how does he get away with it?” The sole response: he just keeps turning it out.
    “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” (1989) raises his high-profile onto another plain. Soon John is bedeviled with long-distance phone calls, most frequently women drawn to his plight, vulnerability, and profound humor. His phone number changes, and changes again. Not long after its appearance, Robin Williams options the work for a major motion picture. For nearly two decades the possibility looms and then slowly, despite high-profile rewrites by the likes of Gus Van Sant, fades away.
    The book appears in Dutch — Man Op Wielen. Perhaps that edition draws filmmaker Simone de Vries to seek out the subject of her biographical Touch me someplace I can feel (2007). The film catches John on both good and bad days, his endless attraction to young women, and his budding career as a singer-songwriter. The camera probes so close to the skin that after the premiere John says in the NW Film Center lobby, “I’m going out for a dermaflage.”
    I’ll never forget Callahan’s sly smile, which emerges whenever a beautiful woman passes his way; as he nails a joke — in conversation or on the page; after meeting his hero Bob Dylan backstage at a Portland concert; or following his powerful performance of songs from his CD Purple Winos in the Rain, with Terry Robb, at NW Portland’s Music Millenium, now dark.
    Suddenly, on a bright July day, John’s no longer with us.
    Or he’s with us forever, in a differently-abled way.
    He gives us his all for 30 years as an active artist, and 60 years on the planet.
    Today, mere hours after his passing, people remark they saw him days ago wheeling down Northwest 21st Avenue, or through the Portland State University halls. Callahan just keeps rolling along.
    In my vision, John is now striding out, not perhaps in heaven but far from a dark place, his wheelchair ditched forever.

    Copyright 2010 Pamplin Media Group, 6605 S.E. Lake Road, Portland, OR 97222 • 503-226-6397

  2. #2
    He was an original. A great mind and rapier wit. His gallows humor gave me a much needed lift back in the day.

    To paraphrase one of my favorite cartoons of his: People like him are a real inspiration to me.

    Rest up, John.
    Last edited by stephen212; 07-25-2010 at 11:36 PM.

  3. #3
    That is a shame. I watched all of his films on U-Tube a few months ago when someone here posted one.

  4. #4
    Senior Member ChesBay's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2001
    Coastal Virginia
    RIP John Callahan. You lived large.

  5. #5
    no no no no i can't read this. no no no godammit NOOOOO CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE please.
    Last edited by cass; 07-26-2010 at 03:25 AM.

  6. #6

    RIP John Callahan

    He died on Saturday due to SCI related complications.

  7. #7
    What a bummer. He was quite a guy.
    - Richard

  8. #8
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    last house on the left
    This is still more sad news in what feels like a big string of them lately. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I loved his darkly humorous cartoons. He will be missed.

  9. #9

    John Callahan

    So sad! He was so funny..............and politically incorrect! I Will miss his humor.

  10. #10
    I remember John being interviewed on 60 Minutes by Morley Safer. If I recall correctly, after John was injured he abused drugs for ten years. Then one day he was in his chair on a public sidewalk. He had his hat in his lap and some people started to put money in it. He thought it was rather odd because he wasn't panhandling. He was able to accomplish a lot in his life. Sad news.

    I think the interview was about five years ago. I won't forget him.
    The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom
    --General George Patton

    Complex problems need to be solved collectively.
    ––Paul Nussbaum

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