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Wheelchairs and Alcoholism Funny? Yes Said Cartoonist John Callahan

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The year was 1989. Millions of wheelchair-users were about to be recognized for the first time by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Millions of other Americans had come out of "family abuse" closets to join Adult Children of Alcoholics 12-step groups. And John Callahan's just published autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, made fun of both groups.

Callahan, a cartoonist, alcoholic and quadriplegic, passed away last week at the age of 59.

At a time when the disability rights movement was telling the nation that mobility impaired people were not "crippled" or "confined to a wheelchair" (and should never be patted on the head), Callahan made jokes about people getting out of their wheelchairs to "heal"... like dogs on the side of able bodied people. Ouch!

Callahan

At a time when self-help groups for alcoholics, children of alcoholics, overeaters, gamblers, cocaine addicts, marijuana addicts and sex and love addicts were just getting popular, a Callahan cartoon showed a woman at a 12-step meeting for arm amputees crying "I just need hug." He titled an entire cartoon book, Digesting the Child Within.

When the nation was trying to get past the Rodney King incident, a Callahan cartoon shows a Los Angeles kiosk giving the time, weather and number of Rodney King arrests.

When Michael Jackson was first accused of molestation, a Callahan cartoon shows parents watching their son on a bicycle and saying, "He's thirteen years old and never been abused by Michael Jackson. Where did we go wrong?"

And when news anchors searched for a euphemism for Lorena Bobbit's crime, a Callahan cartoon depicted a "severed penis drop box."

In addition to addicts, alcoholics and people with disabilities, Callahan laughed at fat people, anorexics, bulimics, feminists, gays, the homeless, people in therapy, people not in therapy who should be, women, politicians, prisoners, judges, pet owners, recyclers and victims in general. One cartoon shows separate bathrooms for "victims" and "evil oppressors."

He once joked to me on the phone that his pet cat "owed" him because he had saved its life from the shelter.

He also named names in his cartoons and skewered Rush Limbaugh, Phil Donahue, Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Simmons, the Pope, Regis and Kathie Lee, Tonya Harding, Dick Clark, Elvis, the mass murderer John Gacy and Madonna.

Some Callahan cartoons, like the "Short Attention Span Boomerang Club" in which throwers are self-impaled, are as splat as the best of the late Don Martin, Mad magazine's legendary cartoonist. Others, like two ducks in bed, one reading, "Getting him to Talk" connote James Thurber with his penchant for putting seals in the living room.

And cartoons like the "Vote for Spot" rally in which the press asks the canine candidate, "Is it not true Senator, that you once ate cat s-?" seem like something you'd see in the New Yorker.

Still it was Callahan's droll navigation of his dual disability of spinal cord injury and alcoholism that catapulted him to fame and earned him his original fans.

Alcoholism affected Callahan's spinal cord injury in two ways: it caused it through a drunk driving accident that left him a C5-6 quadriplegic at 21 (though he was a passenger) and it worsened it through his "coping" with paralysis by drinking.

Keith G, a fan of Callahan who also became spinal cord injured from a drunken car accident and kept drinking, describes going to the "dope man" in his wheelchair, being proud of a knife hole in the back of it that showed he was still tough. He also describes the "enabling" medical professionals who let him have alcohol as he was healing in the hospital because they were in as much denial about the alcohol as he was - and felt sorry for him.

No one depicted alcoholism and its denial like Callahan. Who can forget "Santa's Little Enablers" with a dissipated old man surrounding by empties, puddles and syringes, bruises on his face, while the happy elves in the background bring him more to drink? Or the cartoon about his childhood in which he says alcohol gave him the courage to do things he couldn't normally do - and a little child is shown at the dinner table saying, "Please pass the peas"?

Callahan was just as merciless about recovery, showing in one cartoon a man ordering from a liquor store clerk, "A six-pack of non-alcoholic beer and a couple of rubber vomits to go."

Laugh About Everything; Drink About Nothing was clearly Callahan's motto and his cartoons continue the therapeutic irreverence.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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