John Callahan (cartoonist)

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John Callahan
John Michael Callahan

(1951-02-05)February 5, 1951
DiedJuly 24, 2010(2010-07-24) (aged 59)
Portland, Oregon, U.S.
  • Cartoonist
  • artist
  • musician

John Michael Callahan (February 5, 1951 – July 24, 2010) was an American cartoonist, artist, and musician in Portland, Oregon, noted for dealing with macabre subjects and physical disabilities.

Accident and career[edit]

Callahan became a quadriplegic in an auto accident at age 21.[1][2] The accident happened in Callahan's car after a day of drinking; his car was being driven by a man with whom he had been bar hopping.[citation needed]

Following his accident, he became a cartoonist, drawing by clutching a pen between both hands, having regained partial use of his upper body. His visual artistic style was simple and often rough, although still legible. It has been likened to that of William Steig, James Thurber, Richard Condie, and Ben Wicks.

Callahan's cartoons dealt with subjects often considered taboo, including disabilities and disease. His black humor may be exemplified by the title of his "quasi-memoir," Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up? The subject matter and treatment of his cartoons share something with the work of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, and especially Charles Rodrigues, although it is much more aggressive than even the Playboy cartoons by these cartoonists.

From 1983 until his death 27 years later, Callahan's work appeared in the Portland newspaper Willamette Week. The controversial nature of his cartoons occasionally led to boycotts and protests against the paper.

Callahan scoffed at the reactions of critics who labeled his work politically incorrect, while delighting in the positive reactions he received from fans with disabilities. "My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands." Callahan said. "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."[3]

Two animated cartoon series have been based on Callahan's cartoons, both produced by Nelvana: John Callahan's Pelswick and John Callahan's Quads!.

Friends said Callahan realized that his cartooning was a form of emotional venting, which led him to pursue a master's degree in counseling at Portland State University. However, his deteriorating health prevented him from finishing his first term.[4]

In 2005, Dutch filmmaker Simone de Vries directed a documentary about Callahan titled Raak me waar ik voelen kan (Touch Me Where I Can Feel).[5]

Callahan died on July 24, 2010, following surgery for chronic bed sores.[6] His brother stated the causes of his death were complications of quadriplegia and respiratory problems. He was 59 years old.[2]

A biographical film, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, and Jonah Hill and directed by Gus Van Sant, and based on Callahan's memoir of the same name, was released in 2018.[7]

Other careers[edit]

Graphic art[edit]

John Callahan worked on nudes and a portrait project, shown in several galleries throughout its progression.


Callahan was also a songwriter. He released a CD, Purple Winos in the Rain, in 2006.[8] He wrote and composed his own lyrics, and sang and played the harmonica and ukulele. The record was released on BoneClone Records and produced by blues musician Terry Robb, who also plays guitar accompaniment on several tracks, with a special cameo appearance by Tom Waits. Callahan personally illustrated the album cover.[9] In 2018, track 14, "Texas When You Go," a duet recording of Callahan and Robb, was included in the film score for Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.

The Independent called his songs "beautiful, but dark." He wrote all the music and lyrics himself and was backed up by many notable musicians. A Dutch film crew recorded the studio sessions in which Callahan played a simplified piano version of "Roll Away the Day."

Personal life[edit]

John Callahan was adopted as an infant and grew up in The Dalles, 80 miles east of Portland, with five siblings. He attended a Roman Catholic elementary school, St Mary’s Academy, and graduated from a public high school.[10][11] At age 8, he was sexually molested by a nun.[10][a] He began drinking at the age of 12. "I used the alcohol to hide the pain of the abuse," Callahan said. After the car accident that caused his spinal cord injury, he went through extensive rehabilitation. At the age of 27, he gave up drinking alcohol. He made his home in Portland, Oregon.[13]


  1. ^ According to his memoir, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, the nun, Sister Joseph of Mary, chose him as her surrogate child and insisted he sit with her at recess and not play with the other children, constantly telling him how special he was. In his book, Callahan said, "I can imagine myself sitting on that bench and thinking Boy, this will be called child molestation twenty years from now."[12]


  1. ^ Lydgate, Chris (March 9, 2005). "Hell on Wheels". Willamette Week. Retrieved June 24, 2009.
  2. ^ a b Weber, Bruce (July 28, 2010). "John Callahan, Cartoonist, Dies at 59". The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2010.
  3. ^ Egan, Timothy (June 7, 1992). "Defiantly Incorrect". The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2010.
  4. ^ Dungca, Nicole; Hottle, Molly (July 26, 2010). "Cartoonist kept humor to the end". The Oregonian. p. B6.
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 16, 2011. Retrieved May 7, 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ McLellan, Dennis (July 29, 2010). "John Callahan dies at 59; politically incorrect cartoonist was a quadriplegic". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 29, 2010.
  7. ^ Fretts, Bruce (January 16, 2018). "New Trailer: 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot'". New York Times. Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  8. ^ "Purple Winos in the Rain - John Callahan - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic.
  9. ^ "Purple Winos in the Rain - John Callahan - Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic.
  10. ^ a b Wood, Lori A. (November 24, 2004). "John Callahan: Back to the Drawing Board!". Action online. United Spinal Association. Archived from the original on January 10, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-19.
  11. ^ Weber, Bruce (July 28, 2010). "John Callahan, Cartoonist, Dies at 59". The New York Times. Retrieved April 7, access
  12. ^ Callahan, John (1989). Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot: The Autobiography of a Dangerous Man (1st ed.). New York: Morrow. p. 36. ISBN 978-1-55-710010-8.
  13. ^ Slovic, Beth (December 27, 2006). "Tales From The Crip". Willamette Week. Portland, Ore. Archived from the original on October 16, 2008. Retrieved May 5, 2008.

External links[edit]