Brand building through storytelling

Missing John Callahan, warts and all

I’d never heard of cartoonist John Callahan the day I wandered into a book store, looking for diversion, and happened on his memoir, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. The cover photo showed the author with a pen in his hand, a dimple in his chin and that defenceless, trusting expression usually seen on pesky little boys who’ve gotten into no end of trouble and hope to charm their way out of it. He sat in the wheelchair that had confined him since age 21, when he and a buddy went for a drunken joyride and hit a utility pole at 90 mph. Already an alcoholic, he was left a quadriplegic. A cartoon in the memoir captures the scene: Callahan in a pool of bodily fluids, bleating to a police officer whose eyes are popping out of his head, “There’s a five-dollar bill in my shirt pocket, go get me a short case.”

My kind of humour, black and ruthless.

Callahan poked subversive fun at the blind, the limbless, the anorexic, the demented, the addicted, the suicidal. He savaged the myth of disability as both pitiful and ennobling. He once drew two beggars reduced to disembodied heads in carts. Says one to the other, who is blind, “People like you are a real inspiration to me.”

There are labels for this kind of zinger. Tasteless, offensive, politically incorrect. But humour is rooted in brokenness, and everyone has a missing piece. Callahan mined that theme, driven by the constant reminder of his own inescapable, self-inflicted brokenness. He once told an interviewer that he felt like “a head stitched to a dead body.”

On July 24 John Callahan died of complications from quadriplegia. He was 59. When I read his obit in the New York Times, I felt as if I’d lost a friend. I searched the Internet for stories of his life since Don’t Worry…, published more than 20 years ago.I hung out on his website, revisiting favourite cartoons like the one of two Ku Klux Klansmen dressed in their sheets to sow fear and looking almost cuddly. Chortles one to the other, “Don’t you just love it when they’re still warm from the dryer?”

Irate readers accused the cartoonist of glorifying hate-mongers who deserve to be reviled. They missed the point. There’s nothing the least bit brave or funny about attacking Klansmen. Callahan exposed their human side, capturing the banality of evil with a few squirm-inducing strokes of the pen. When I look at this cartoon, I think of all the countries in which torturers go home to hug their kids after another day wielding the machinery of pain.

My reading spree restored the Callahan I knew I’d miss—the fearless, iconoclastic wit. But it also revealed a side of him I didn’t want to know. To laugh at some of Callahan’s cartoons, you have to think that feminists have no sense of humour, that women’s sports are boring, that lesbians are ugly man-haters, that Chinese people eat their dogs and have funny-looking eyes. I could go on but I can’t bear to. Fact is, an artist I admired produced stuff that appalls me. Who was this man, anyway? A few years ago, he told the Willamette Week (the first publication to print his work) that he’d come to regret his cartoons about women. “I almost feel like I owe people an apology,” he said. “But I had to work out some baggage.”

Almost? That doesn’t cut it. Baggage? Oh, please. It’s not as if John Callahan didn’t know a lame excuse when he heard it in an AA meeting (whines an alcoholic in one of his cartoons, “I drank because I have an electric machine attached to my back which forces me to drink!” Callahan eventually quit drinking, a greater challenge than I’ve ever taken on. I have to give him credit for that. And for being there when I needed a jolt of insight.

I discovered Callahan at the ideal moment. In my early 40s, I still raged at my long-dead, alcoholic father for drinking my childhood away. I thought that if he’d really loved his family, he’d have said, “Enough, I’m on the wagon” and made it stick. What the hell stopped him? Callahan’s memoir helped me understand. The cartoonist didn’t sober up until he got sick of opening bottles with his permanently chipped teeth and then cursing God when one fateful bottle rolled away from him. In his story, I saw a little of my father, an artist who struggled to hide his inner scoundrel behind an ascot and a walking stick. At the same time I recognized a glimmer of myself. Like Callahan, I had grown up an outsider in my own family—haunted by guilt at my lack of Maynard team spirit yet proud of my refusal to fake it.

What intrigues me most about Callahan’s cartoons is how touchingly alike all the characters look. Big noses. Eyes wide with befuddlement. Shoulders hunched. We’re all in this together, the drawings say. And no matter what’s become of our limbs, our eyesight or our mental faculties, we’re all broken.

Click here to read a related post, “The not-so-funny business of making people laugh.” 



Posted by Rona

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