John Callahan: The Greatest Artist That We Never Talk About Anymore

Think for a moment about how a quadriplegic man drew more visually appealing cartoons than most modern artists do.
Source: Around Portland w/ PDX Guy

Those who have followed me for some time now know that I like shining a spotlight on up and coming artists in various fields. However, I felt compelled recently to talk about a great talent that nobody seems to mention that has, sadly, not been with us for some time and I regret only now learning of him.

John Michael Callahan, born on February 5th of 1951, was thrust into one the most difficult lives one could imagine. He was adopted as an infant and, at the age of eight, was molested by his teacher. He reported that he turned to alcohol abuse at the age of fourteen in order to, “… hide the pain of the abuse.”

This destructive behavior only got worse on July 22nd of 1972 when, in the midst of a night of bar hopping, Callahan’s friend who had been driving crashed their car at 90 miles an hour. The collision severed his spine, making him a quadriplegic at the age of 21.

Callahan continued to struggle with his alcoholism during his rehabilitation that left him permanently wheelchair-bound. Finally, at the age of 27, he swore of alcohol completely and decided to find a new outlet for his thoughts.

Callahan took up cartooning with much of his work appearing in the alternative newspaper Willamette Week. This was even more impressive when you consider that, due to his fingers remaining non-functioning after the accident, he could only draw by gripping his pen with both hands. This resulted in a rougher, more simplistic art style that was uniquely his.

One of the running themes of Callahan’s cartoons was his sense of black humor – especially regarding taboo subjects or if it offered him a chance to laugh at himself. Although many critics paned his work (many threatened Willamette Week with protests and boycotts due to the ‘political incorrectness’ of his subjects), he cast them aside to enjoy the reactions of his fans – fellow disabled fans in particular. He spoke of them in The New York Times:

“My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands… 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.”

Callahan’s work eventually resulted in the creation of two animated television series. The first and longest running was Pelswick, a children’s show about a teenage boy that emphasized how, despite being in a wheelchair, he lived a perfectly normal life.

The second was Quads which retained the more mature nature of Callahan’s original works and is notable in animation history as being the first series to be completely animated via Macromedia Flash, which has since become a staple of animation.

In addition to his cartoons for newspapers, television, and several books, Callahan also experimented as a songwriter and released his first CD in 2006. He has works with many notable names in music including acoustic blues guitarist Terry Robb and eccentric music icon Tom Waits.

Sadly, Callahan’s amazing career was cut short in July 24th of 2010 when complications following a surgery for chronic bedsores resulted in respiratory problems. He died at the terribly young age of 59.

John Callahan – cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and musician – was one of the few people who could honestly say that he did everything he could as an artist despite what others saw as ‘limitations.’ In his actions and in his work, he pointed out that whether you’re disabled, disfigured, or (god forbid) just plain normal, we are all human and kin and we all deserve to be respected as such with all of our quirks and flaws.

That is why, on principle alone and regardless of whether or not I agree with his opinions, I say that he is one of the greatest artists ever.

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