Remembering John Callahan

Part of me wants to believe that John Callahan willfully chose this weekend to pass away at the age of 60. With his bold, confrontational, hilarious and unabashedly wicked sense of humor, John Callahan died on the weekend leading up to the twentieth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Did I mention that John was a quadriplegic?

Professionally, John was best known as a cartoonist. I grew up reading his cartoons in the pages of Willamette Week at a time when I dreamed of being a cartoonist/comic book illustrator. His no-holds-barred, fuck-you-if-you-can’t-take-a-joke sense of humor was an inspiration to me. And like many Portlanders, I would pick up Willamette Week just to see what outrageous or offensive cartoon John had managed to produce, despite the fact he could barely hold a pencil. The one cartoon that stands out the most was of a family of angels sitting around—a father, mother and children—and the kids are saying something like, “Daddy, tell us the story about the time you killed us all in suicidal rage.” I cut that one out of the paper and showed it to everyone I knew (and most failed to see the humor). And of course, there is the classic cartoon that inspired the title of his acclaimed autobiography…

I met John for the first time when I first moved to Portland back in 1980 or 81. My mom had met him at the Galleria, and she introduced us. In the late 80s, I was aimlessly drifting through life and taking classes at Mt. Hood Community College, including a cartooning class that wasn’t challenging me at all. But it provided me with an excuse to approach the wheelchair-bound icon that I had only met briefly, but had spotted countless times racing through the streets of P-town (usually with some hot chick along for the ride). Honestly, I don’t recall much of that conversation, other than John saying he would come out and talk to the class, and his encouraging me to keep chasing after my dreams.

Years later, I had given up drawing cartoons, and had started applying my comedic ideas to an aspiring career in stand-up comedy. This was the early 1990s, and I was a finalist in the Annual Portland Laugh Off. Callahan was one of the judges during the final round of competition, and after I lost, taking home third place, John pulled me aside. He told me how much he loved my stuff, and how he fought with the other judges over how much I deserved first place. He went on to explain that the other judges were a bunch of feminists that had been offended by colorful use of profanity and my frank talk of sexuality (my routine included jokes about bestiality and necrophilia). “Oh well, what are you going to do?” I said.

And I’ll never forget what John said to me: “Fuck those broads. You’ve got to be true to yourself. The people that matter most will appreciate you.”

And that was John. Since that memorable night nearly twenty years ago, I continued to laugh at Callahan’s cartoon and saw him many times. He continued to inspire me, not because he managed to make a name for himself despite being in a wheelchair, but because he was damn funny and he never allowed what other people thought of him or his work get in his way. Some people thought John was an insensitive asshole who didn’t care if he offended people. But the truth is that he was an incredibly sensitive soul, who felt that the ideologies and feelings of others should not get in the way of whatever truth was lurking beneath the facade of polite political correctness.

Maybe that’s why I see some sense of irony in Callahan dying on the eve of the ADA anniversary. Much of his career was spent finding humor in the tragedies, ugliness and hypocrisies of life, and I can’t recall a single cartoon he ever did that begged for sympathy or compassion (or, in some cases, basic comprehension). He made fun of everything and everyone.

During a good chunk of the last decade, I worked at the very publication that first introduced me to Callahan’s incredible genius. I owe a lot to Willamette Week, but sitting here, thinking about John, I realize that one of the greatest gifts that paper ever gave me (aside from a steady paycheck and the most consistent piece of ass I’ve ever had) was the incendiary humor of a politically incorrect cartoonist. Here is a link to a story the newspaper did on John back in 2005. And here is a link to John’s website.

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