Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cartoonist John Callahan is dead at 59.

John Callahan, the cartoonist known for his bleak and caustic sense of humor, died yesterday at 59 "from complications due to his paralysis." (Via Metafilter.)

I was never a huge fan of his work (which often seems overly self-conscious in trying to shock and offend), but I always found him a fascinating character. And I have to admire his nerve -- both for making cartoons that he must have known in advance would be hated, and for choosing an occupation from which most people would have thought him plainly disqualified. As a quadriplegic, he had to hold his pen between two hands, which accounts for his crude drawing style.

He was profoundly affected by a sequence of tragedies in his life that occurred from ages 8 to 21. This 2004 article told the story:

Callahan traces his first artistic stirrings to the fourth grade at St. Mary’s Academy. “I started drawing cartoons of rodents to amuse my friends in class,” he says. He also sketched Sister Joseph of Mary, a nun who liked to isolate him from other kids. “While they played at recess, I had to sit on a bench with her,” he remembers.

At the age of 8, he was sexually molested by a female teacher. To deal with the trauma, John began drinking at the age of 14. “I used the alcohol to hide the pain of the abuse,” he says. “I felt like an outsider in my family,” John recalls.

“It was a circumstantial thing. The relations with that nun really messed things up.”

Upon graduating from St. Mary’s Academy in 1965, John went to public school. “Catholic school was much more strict than public. In comparison, public school was boring.” As a result, John often skipped classes to drink with friends.

Gradually, his dependence on alcohol increased. “My philosophy was drink and live for the day,” he says. “On any given day, I’d have maybe twelve beers, wine, and whiskey.” He also experimented with other drugs, including marijuana and LSD. “LSD scared me, and pot made me paranoid,” John explains. Still, alcohol was his drug of choice, and would play a significant role in the event that would change his life forever. . . .

At the age of 20, John moved to Los Angeles. A year later, he was confronted with a life-altering twist of fate.

“I was simply riding with a friend,” he recalls. “I got too sleepy and too drunk, so I let my friend drive the car. He passed out at the wheel, and crashed into a signpost at 90 miles per hour. After that, I just remember a lot of lights and sirens.”

Although his friend was not hurt that badly, John’s spinal cord was severed, leaving him a C5-6 quadriplegic.
He kept drinking after the accident but stopped for good when he was 27.

You can buy several of his books on Amazon -- collections of his one-panel comics plus an autobiography. Two animated cartoon series were also based on his work. One is a show for adults that's still on the air in Canada and Australia and that, according to Wikipedia, "retains the violence, joie de vivre, and political incorrectness of his cartoons." The other one, surprisingly, was a children's show on Nickelodeon.

He posted his favorite hate mail on his website. I love this one:
Dear Sirs:

I am currently a guest at a htel [sic] in Boston, where these is a card store in the lobby. I noticed a highly distasteful and absolutely DISGRACEFUL postcard on the shelf. it was a John Callaham [sic] card that showed a group of cowboys in the dirt, with an empty wheelchair. The caption read "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot".

My Brother sits in a wheelchair, a quadrapalegic [sic], as a result of a diving accident at 19. Until Mr. Callahan can understand the emotions behind such a life of struggle, I feel he should not fell to freely about poking fun at the disabled. I find your marketing of his insensitivity positively DISGUSTING!


Allison F
That letter is so perfect that I wonder if it was actually written by a savvy fan just to make his day.

He also made music on the side, releasing an album of his songs in 2006. His music is very amateurish and probably wouldn't hold much interest if we didn't know who it was by. But watching him perform one of his songs in his living room is oddly touching:
Life is hard but death is worth it
Nothing is certain of being real
Give me something cheap but perfect
Touch me someplace I can feel