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Posted at 6:05 AM ET, 07/27/2010

A CARTOONIST'S TRIBUTE: Let us not forget the unflinching wit of John Callahan

By Michael Cavna


If you were a teen cartoonist in the '80s, trying to figure out how best to shock the world with a punch line, there was one man you especially had to come to a reckoning with. He loomed unconquerable. His name -- synonymous with his entire unique approach to comic art -- was "John Callahan."

Much of the comics-reading public in the '80s liked to say that Gary Larson was "twisted" in his own far-out "Far Side" way. But his massively popular work was warmly and approachably twisted, in the same way that Robin Williams -- another comedy genius, then at his standup zenith -- was said to be "out there," with a wink and a guffaw. I saw both men perform on college campuses in the '80s, and both left me laughing warmly with deep appreciation. Steven Wright was also in the same vein: Comedy as embraceably quirky.

John Callahan, though -- whom I first found in that same era -- was something else entirely. His satiric cartoons resonated like an angry curse at the world, a shaken and gnarled fist raised to the skies of fate, if not social correctness. To equate Callahan the cartoonist to standup acts of the day, he promised the penetrating strains of Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison and the equal fearlessness of Andy Kaufman. It was fitting that he reportedly counted Richard Pryor among his fans. Of Callahan, friend Gary Larson himself said: "There are two basic reasons I enjoy Callahan's work so much: First, I think his cartoons are just plain funny; second, he makes my own work seem normal."

There was nothing, it seemed, Callahan wouldn't do, nowhere he wouldn't go.

You didn't go to a college amphitheatre to experience John Callahan. You read him in the campus library or a dorm room in relative quiet, snickering or gasping and wondering how he kept getting away with offending so many sensibilities.

Which is why -- when news came that Callahan had died over the weekend at age 59, in his hometown of Portland, Ore. -- you didn't immediately see news break-ins and wire alerts. John Callahan was too divinely idiosyncratic to be a mere Trending Topic.

Still, I fear that his legacy, while large, remains too largely underappreciated.

Because Callahan -- a quadriplegic since age 21 as the result of a drunken driving crash (he was a passenger) -- not only drew lines, which he did with no small physical strain. He also drew the lines that almost no other cartoonist would cross. At least not anyone since the underground comix movement of a coupla decades earlier. But no one else did it so crisply or succinctly or nakedly as Callahan. There was no high, crosshatched artistry to elevate the point. With a mere few squiggly lines, the scarlet-haired Callahan was a scatalogical Zorro.

By comparison, when Gary Larson wrote a dyslexia joke (an '80s staple, like one-liners about mimes or coke lines), he drew a hoisted banner that read: "Dyslexics of the world untie!" When Callahan wrote a dyslexia gag, though, he did it with the line: "Let's talk about that dyslexia problem." Except the wording read right to left, so most of his audience also shared in the difficulty of trying to read it. Talk about inclusive.

To remember and appreciate Callahan's cartoon legacy is not to bless everything he ever did. (Many people were offended; many others said they related to the real-world emotions within his satire, or saw his biting wit as consciousness-raising.) More, as a cartoonist, it is to marvel at a fearless gag writer who ventured where the rest of us on the playground dared not go, at least not for publication.

To be an "edgy" cartoonist implies that there actually is an edge on which on a "daring" humorist resides. But when Callahan was creating such animations as "Quads," climbing in his artistic wheelchair and soaring long past the cliff's edge with reckless abandon, other humorists could only look in awe at the trajectory of the flight.

May your legacy long soar on, "Callahan." At your best, you were undeniably funny and powerful and human. So we salute your uniquely squiggly and "transgressive" lines while listening to the lines, and strains, of your own poignantly penned song, "Lost in the City."

RIP, Callahan. RIP.


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By Michael Cavna  | July 27, 2010; 6:05 AM ET
Categories:  General  | Tags:  John Callahan  
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