Sunday, February 5, 2017

Birthday: John Callahan was destined to be in pictures.

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John Michael Callahan (1951-2010)

Of all the orbits into which I’ve been briefly drawn as a human asteroid, one of the most interesting was that of John Callahan at the beginning of his career.

Portland, Oregon in 1980 was still a small, isolated Northwest city where it was possible to move around the hipoisie of the arts purely because it was interesting. There were no doormen checking to see if you were pretty or a rich potential patron. The cool kids had yet to raise the drawbridge behind them.

That’s how I met John Callahan at a party. He was four years older than I, a quad in a wheelchair, a year out of Portland State. He had an improbable scarecrow mane, blond running to red.

I struck up a conversation. Having gone to St Andrews Presbyterian College- designed from the ground up to be handicapped-accessible, wheelchairs didn’t make me squirmy the way they did many. Plus which, it was interesting watching him draw on a tray on his chair.

John was paralyzed from the diaphragm down. He got that way at 17, when he and a friend were out drinking. His friend mistook a phone pole for- well, something else, I don’t know what- and ran John’s car into it at 90.

John was a talented caricaturist as a kid. You pick up skills like that in Catholic school. How can you not draw nuns?

He taught himself to draw all over again. He guided one hand with the other, and moved them with his shoulders, in the way President Roosevelt used his upper body to throw his legs forward, one, then the other, in a simulacrum of walking.

His limitations meant his cartoons were pretty sparse affairs. Nuance was not a feature. I always thought they looked like what William Steig would have produced had he been a zen practitioner.

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We sort of hit it off, chatting when we crossed paths over the next few years. He had a very dark sense of humor that prompted spit-takes or outrage, depending on the viewer.

I remember his first published cartoon. It was in Willamette Week, the local paper that launched the careers of geniuses like Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Katherine Dunn. It showed a street beggar:

Willamette Week was John’s home for the rest of his life, though he published widely and syndicated his cartoons in up to  200 papers.

His work was, on its face, funny, but it was also Portland, with its depressing weather and insularity and ancestor-worship and strange magnetism to the weird of every political stripe. To have been there at the creation gives an extra kick to John’s work, like the chain-link fenced construction site bearing the sign: DO NOT ENTER-THIS AREA PATROLLED BY LESBIANS.

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When I moved to Seattle, I was convinced John had been to one of my neighborhood’s bookshops when I saw this in The Weekly:

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John flourished. Robin William called him the funniest thing on four wheels. He wrote books (his memoir was titled, Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?), made short films based on his cartoons, and even made a CD Tom Waits sat in on. His work was turned into two television cartoon series, one of which featured a teen in a wheelchair on Nickelodeon.

“This is John, I’m a little too depressed to take your call today,” the message on his answering machine said. “Please leave your message at the gunshot.”

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When he died, the fashion photographer Bruce Weber remembered him for The New York Times:

There was the drawing of a restaurant, the Anorexic Cafe, with a sign in the window saying, “Now Closed 24 Hours a Day.” There was one showing a group of confused-looking square dancers unable to respond to the caller’s instruction to “return to the girl that you just left,” with a headline reading, “The Alzheimer Hoedown.”

In another, a sheriff’s posse on horseback surrounds an empty wheelchair. The caption gave him the title of his 1990 autobiography: “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”

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And there was the drawing of an aerobics class for quadriplegics, with the instructor saying, “O.K., let’s get those eyeballs moving.”

“My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands,” John said in an interview in The New York Times Magazine in 1992. “Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.”

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The more successful he got the less I saw of John at parties. That’s the way the world works.  But for several years in our mid-twenties, we were part of each other’s vie boheme, our community production of Rent-on-the-Willamette.

I can see him now, advising St Peter on whom to let in, passing him cartoons. “God, you’re funny! (We can say that here, you know! He lets us”).

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