Wednesday, July 28, 2010

John Callahan and the Rest of Us Crips

There are two nice elegies for John Callahan, the cartoonist who died a few days ago. One in the New York Times by Bruce Weber, but the more affecting one, for me at least is in the Washington Post, written by Gene Weingarten, one of the first editors to give Callahan's work a wide audience. He writes ...
Typically, Callahan's humor was judged against the backdrop of his disability -- he was, in effect, given a pass for what would be considered tasteless if done by anyone else. He objected to that, and for good reason. Callahan's genius -- and it was genius -- may have been informed by his disability, but it was not dependent on it or beholden to it; Callahan's work needed no special accommodation for the handicapped, and to suggest it did is a disservice to him and to humor itself. Callahan's crippled characters were stand-ins for all of us; he saw all of humanity as being lame -- disabled by prejudice, by sanctimony, by vainglory, by small-mindedness, by self-absorption.
 That may be so, but to move beyond Weingarten characterizing Callahan as "fearless," I think the best word for his art would be "fierce." For all his troubles, each nicely listed for those who would care to criticize, I admired that most about him: his fierceness.

Too often people with disabilities -- at least the sort that make us dependent on other people for the simple tasks that keep us alive -- must navigate their way through the world with a cynical, self-serving blend of guile, hypocrisy, and calculated good manners. We must be better than our true selves simply out of self-preservation.

I may be wrong, but I don't think Callahan did that, allowed that compromise, that accommodation into his world. His cartoons -- let's identify his work instead as his commentary -- was too ferocious.

My favorite Callahan piece glared from the page with a sardonic light that perhaps only another gimp could appreciate. An old west posse on horseback is gathered around an overturned abandoned wheelchair. The caption reads, "Don't worry. He won't get far on foot."




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