Eleven years ago John Callahan sat in a wheelchair, alone in his Portland, Ore., apartment, desperately trying to uncork a bottle of wine with his teeth. A quadriplegic and an alcoholic, Callahan, then 27, had propped the bottle between his legs, angry that his attendant had left and forgot to remove the cork. When the bottle slipped to the floor and rolled away, Callahan erupted in a fit of self-pity. He railed against God for the night six years earlier when he and a friend, both drunk, had crashed into a utility pole at 90 mph. His friend, the driver, escaped with a collapsed lung and a broken leg, but Callahan’s spine was severed, paralyzing him from the diaphragm down and leaving him with limited use of his arms. Suddenly, Callahan felt something like a hand pat his back. “It was,” he recalls, “as if someone said, ‘This guy’s had enough suffering. I’m going to take it from him.’ ”
Staring at the bottle across the floor, Callahan felt a flood of resolve as he realized his basic problem was not quadriplegia but alcoholism. That day he called a treatment program. Though he never again drank alcohol, his rehabilitation was a joke—in fact, hundreds of them, all told through cartoons that poke fun at alcoholics, the handicapped, even the dead. Today, after years of painstakingly sketching gags by clutching a pen in his weakened right hand and steadying it with his left, the self-proclaimed “Alfred Hitchcock of cartooning” is becoming America’s master of this mordant art.
“I feel driven, like an animal performing some primitive function,” he says. “Humor has become my way of coping.” His work has appeared in Omni, Penthouse, Harper’s and other magazines and is syndicated in 18 newspapers. Last month he began a national tour promoting his autobiography, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Says his friend and early mentor, cartoonist Sam Gross: “He has a gift for taking the totally outrageous and totally tasteless and making it funny.” Callahan occasionally receives reproving letters from handicapped individuals, but most of his mail is positive.
“Sometimes I still feel like a freak; I want to slip into a Dumpster and hang out with the rest of the refuse,” admits Callahan, 38. “I probably have too much rage for common folk, but I try to disarm the horror and find the humor. I direct a lot back, onto myself, my own hard times.”
Those, he explains, began early. Born in Portland to parents he never knew, Callahan was adopted by David Callahan, a grain broker, and his wife, Rosemary, who believed she couldn’t become pregnant but who then bore five children. When David and Rosemary told the youngster he was adopted, he began to think of himself as strange. He wondered what had happened to his birth parents and became obsessed with the subject of death. By third grade in Catholic school, he says, he was “the ultimate dork” and a teacher’s pet—until the day he passed around his cartoon of a nun, wearing nothing but a headdress. At 12, he passed out from too much gin at his grandmother’s wake; by 14, he had so much acne that classmates would tease him about playing connect-the-dots on his face. He quit college to work in a mental hospital, where he stole the patients’ pills. He moved to L.A. to live with a girlfriend, and on the night of July 22, 1972, met with the accident that changed his life.
But first he had to endure four painful years in a string of rehab wards and nursing homes, where he coaxed orderlies to bring him liquor. The night, two years after his release, that he was stymied by a wine cork, Callahan began to take charge of his life. He got his B.A. in English at Portland State University and drew for the college paper. Penthouse published his first cartoon in 1985 after rejecting 10 drawings a week for a year.
Today Callahan lives in a tidy Portland apartment, where he draws in bed till the early morning hours. Often he wheels out for dates and visits his old street haunts, though he seldom sees his adoptive family. Social Security pays his medical bills, but someday Callahan hopes to achieve financial independence through cartooning. To that end, he is now marketing Callahan mugs and other novelties. He does not expect fame to change him. “My attendant still puts on my pants one leg at a time,” he says. “When they do my autopsy, under the microscope they’ll see the cells of a humorist, not a human being.”
—Ron Arias, Diane S. Lund in Portland