The cartoonist John Callahan received a lot of hate mail. So much, in fact, that there’s an entire section of his website devoted to showcasing his controversial cartoons along with the particular ire they garnered. “I think you have a warped sense of humor that in my view is anything but fun,” wrote one New Jersey woman in response to a cartoon depicting an “Alzheimer’s Hoedown,” in which people in a square dance can't heed the caller's directive of "return to the girl that you just left."
Most ironic of all is a letter Callahan received about his iconic cartoon in which a group of cowboys stand before an empty wheelchair. The caption reads, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” In response, Allison F of Boston wrote, “Until Mr. Callahan can understand the emotions behind such a life of struggle, I feel he should not fell to freely about poking fun at the disabled.”
What Allison F didn’t know, however, was that Callahan understood this "life of struggle" intimately: He was a quadriplegic from the age of 21 until his death in 2010. The aptly titled biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, out Friday, July 13, explores the factors that fueled his incendiary, devil-may-care cartoons, including his disability and his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. In the film, Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan (though originally, Robin Williams was slated to fill the role).
By the time he was in a drunk driving accident in 1972 at the age of 21, Callahan had been drinking seriously for nine years. At the time of the accident, he was living in Los Angeles. After whiling away a day at a pool party and a strip club, Callahan climbed into the passenger seat of the Volkswagen Beetle his friend was driving. The car crashed into a Con Edison pole going 90 miles an hour. The pole severed Callahan’s spine, rendering him a C5-6 quadriplegic. He would never walk again.
So began the darkest period in Callahan’s life. He spent the next six months in the hospital undergoing gruesome operations — and he spent most of the next six years drunk. Callahan’s turning point arrived after his attendant left him for the day, and Callahan was unable to pick up his fallen liquor bottle, leading to an emotional breakdown. “He went through all kinds of angry emotions over this, and I think it wore him down to the point where he was experiencing physical withdrawal. But he was so upset with his situation, with being taunted by a bottle, that he knew something was horribly wrong,” Tom Callahan, John’s younger brother, told the New York Post.
After that awakening, Callahan sought treatment through Alcoholics Anonymous, enrolled in the English program at Portland State University, and eventually began his cartooning career. Despite not being able to move his arms, with intensive therapy, Callahan could grip a pen hard enough to draw. Humor played a crucial role in how Callahan processed his disability — and all of life’s difficulties. “I’ve used humor as a buffer and a kind of lubricant to myself to help me sort of skid my way along tough spots many times in my life, and I think it’s the humor that’s allowed me to reduce the trauma of things and put them into perspective,” he said in an interview with Ballantine Books.
From his cartoons’ initial placements at the Pacific State University Vanguard came spots in the New Yorker and nationally syndicated newspapers. Callahan made jokes about everything: race, class, sex, harassment, crime, and disability. The comedian P.J. O’Rourke described the experience of looking at Callahan’s anti-PC work aptly: "When you see someone laughing like hell and saying, 'That's not funny,’ you know they're reading John Callahan." Some of his most famous cartoons included a blind man spray-painting braille graffiti on a wall, and a showdown between two quadriplegic cowboys with the caption, “This town ain’t accessible for the both of us.”
Occasionally, Callahan got in trouble. One particularly tasteless cartoon got him banned from the Miami Herald forever. For all the ire they provoked, though, a lot of people thought Callahan’s cartoons were downright hilarious. His famous admirers included Richard Pryor, Bill Clinton, and Bob Dylan. "He had a big following. When he was published in the L.A. Times magazine, I received calls and letters [for him] from everyone from celebrities to prison inmates. It didn't matter. He spoke to all of us," his former manager told the L.A. Times.
The negative reactions never got to Callahan — he hung hate mail on his refrigerator. For Callahan, there was only one "line" he never wanted to cross. “My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands,” he said in an interview in the New York Times Magazine in 1992. “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 died in 2010 from complications of quadriplegia and respiratory problems. His Gus Van Sant-directed biopic, which is based on his autobiography, will hit theaters on July 13, 2018.