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Controversial Cartoonist Remembered

By Rob Tranchin, KERA News

Dallas, TX – If you've ever seen a cartoon that made you laugh out loud at something you know is not funny, it was probably drawn by John Callahan. Many of his cartoons portrayed disabled people in a way that some found offensive. The controversial cartoonist died last month, and KERA's Rob Tranchin talked to two North Texas artists who see something special in his work.

John Callahan was a songwriter with a sweet voice, but when he died last month in Portland at the age of 59, he was better known as an irreverent, provocative cartoonist whose images of the disabled in particular were called tasteless, insensitive and cruel.

Callahan was quadriplegic, the result of a 1972 car accident. He made his drawings by painstakingly pushing one hand across the page with the other.

One of his cartoons accompanied his obituary in the New York Times. Two gunfighters face off in a showdown. The older one says, "Don't be a fool, Billy." It's standard issue dialogue, except that Billy has no arms - they've been amputated above the elbow.

Callahan's work was syndicated worldwide, appearing in more than 200 newspapers and in magazines like The New Yorker. Outraged readers complained regularly.

Angry Letter: "Dear Sirs. I noticed a highly distasteful Callahan card that showed a group of cowboys in the dirt with an empty wheelchair. The caption read, Don't worry, he won't get far on foot.' I find your marketing of his insensitivity positively disgusting."

That letter was read for a Dutch documentary about Callahan's life. But there were many other people who loved his cartoons.

Rene Moreno: First of all, who's saying it's bad taste? They're hilarious to me.

Dallas-based theater director Rene Moreno has used a wheelchair since an accident nearly twenty years ago. Back then, as he struggled to come to terms with his new life, Moreno began collecting Callahan's cards.

Moreno: I mean I had a year and a half of deep, deep, deep grief, but you know, once that time was over and I was getting on with my life, I felt like Callahan was speaking to me personally, and that through his art he was touching me in a way that I was totally in on the joke. And working in the theater we talk about this all the time, tears and laughter, it's pretty much the same emotion, it's just opposite ends of the spectrum. Laughter is healing, and laughter is what you want.

During his lifetime, advocacy groups for the disabled showered Callahan with awards.

But to the end, he remained stubbornly independent, as in this interview from a Dutch documentary.

Callahan: I never worry about the image of handicapped people. It takes care of itself, you know. It's not like I get out of bed and say, "Oh my God! How can I improve the image of handicapped people today? No way."

Susan Schewe: I had a lot of admiration for him because he was tough.

Susan Schewe has lived with cerebral palsy since birth. She's co-directed a film about her experiences called Learning to Walk.

Schewe: What appeals to me about John Callahan's cartoons is that he is direct and it's a confrontation, actually. You have to look at the cartoon and you have to react. And you can react positively or negatively, but it is a reaction. And that's better than no reaction. That appeals to me because that's what I want from my fellow human beings. I want to be acknowledged too.

Moreno: Every day of my life as I move through the world there are people that are uncomfortable with seeing me in a wheelchair. Really, a lot of what he was saying is you can't ignore us-- we are here, and we're human. We're like everyone else.

Schewe: I think that some people are afraid about disability. They want to be correct about it. He questioned what is that -- to be correct. You don't have to be correct, this is life. And life is unfair. And it's hard. Everyone has a hard time. And you don't know. We can be injured. Things can change in an instant. I think his cartoons kind of ease that.

Email Rob Tranchin

John Callahan's Website:

Dutch Documentary Excerpt on YouTube:

New York Times Obituary: