Friday, 1 October 2010
Review: Digesting The Child Within-John Callahan
'John Callahan is no ordinary cartoonist' starts the brief introduction to this book. The idea of any cartoonist being ordinary is quite a laughable one to me. Comics (or at least the type of comics I'm partial to) are usually the venting of the guilty, the repressed, and the downright neurotic. Callahan certainly ticks all the alternative comic artist boxes in this sense, and gets extra brownie points for a difficult and religious upbringing (it seems one of the key ingredients in some of the best comic artists out there-Crumb, Justin Green etc, is Catholic guilt). Not only this but Callahan was an alcoholic at 12 and a quadriplegic at the age of 21. My friend commented that he was one of those people who couldn't t draw but who gets away with it because of the humour inherent in their work. Now whether or not Callahan could draw before his car accident, I can't be sure, I do know that cartooning was something that he came back to almost as part of his recovery process from alcoholism. But it is not entirely a deliberate primitive style on his part but actually because he can't move all his fingers and has to use his left arm to guide his right when drawing, although in my opinion it does add to the overall effect.
Callahan's gag cartoons to me epitomise the phrase 'gallows humour'. Instead of drawing cartoons and attaching words about how hard his life is and was, Callahan doesn't play the victim, and lampoons everyone and everything he can. Even though his cartoons are not about him you can tell he pours himself into them, and you can tell that the humour he adopts is cathartic, his own personal way of dealing with his lot. It is refreshing to see someone with a disability laugh at themselves, reminding us not to be too oversensitive, and indeed that laughter is the best medicines. But he doesn't just laugh at himself. no stones are left unturned: from cocaine addicts ('It doesn't seem like Christmas without snow') to schizophrenics and people in L.A. These cartoons are like the politically incorrect evil twin of the classic New Yorker gag cartoon, or better yet Johnny Ryan with brains. Even the cartoons without captions, even though they are crude, are remarkably easy to decipher and instantly hilarious (see below).
Deceptively simple, twisted, but not without a message, Callahan (who sadly died this year) was an innovative master of his craft and an inspiration for many (as the accolades from Matt Groening, Gary Larson, and Don Martin on the back of the book show). Having read this small collection I feel inspired to go out and get his best selling illustrated autobiography 'Don't worry, He won't get far on foot' which I can imagine will contain as much wit and perseverance as the drawings in this collection.