Quads!: articles

Callahan's cartoons aren't pretty, but they're real

Reality TV isn't what you think it is.

For example, you don't tune into reality by watching a group of "survivors" play games for the camera, and the cash, in the Australian outback.

No, if you want reality on television today, watch cartoons.

Animation is liberation when it comes to bringing the real world to your home theatre of the absurd.

"Cartoons and animation frees you to be more real in a way," says John Callahan, whose cutting cartoons appear in newspaper syndication as well as publications ranging from Penthouse to National Lampoon, Esquire and Harper's.

"I think society is becoming more surreal all the time. All you have to do is look at Americans like George W. Bush and Jesse Jackson… we live in a cartoon society. So, using animation ends up being more real than using live action."

Callahan's humour leaps from the printed page to your TV screen late Friday night (early Saturday, actually), when his new animated series Quads! has its world premiere on Canada's Teletoon (Ch. 38) network at 12:30 a.m.

The American debut is still being negotiated. The show centres around Reilly, a quadriplegic former alcoholic whose cast of characters—"the Magnificent Severed"—reside in a mansion they call Maimed Manor. It was purchased for Reilly by the guilt-ridden driver of the car that hits him outside of a bar during the show's opening minutes.

Reilly's friends include a former masseuse to the stars who now has hooks for hands, and Blazer, who is in fact nothing more than a talking head on a skateboard. There are also more "normal" humans about, like Reilly's politically correct girlfriend who spends time attending a Whale Massage Workshop.

The show mirrors aspects of Callahan's own life. While drunk, at age 21, he was in a car accident that severed his spinal cord and put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

"Reilly, like myself, suffers not so much from anger as severe maladjustment," says Callahan who, after his accident, drank heavily for six more years before abstaining from liquor and beginning his career as a controversial cartoonist.

"On the one hand, being in a wheelchair is like being a beautiful girl… you have to convince others that you're not brain-dead. On the other hand, being paralysed is a licence to kill," says Callahan during a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Ore.

"The perk, though, to being recognized as an edgy cartoonist is that people do treat you as a thinker rather than offering you a piece of candy."

Callahan's most renowned cartoon is of two Ku Klux Klan members wearing sheets, with one saying to another, "Don't you just love it when they are warm from the dryer?"

His fans find his humour hilarious. His detractors have labelled him sexist, racist, you name it. The bottom line is he's been profiled on TV's 60 Minutes and a movie is in the works—starring Robin Williams—based on Callahan's biography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.

Quads!, his first foray into TV animation, won't disappoint longtime fans or newcomers to his particular brand of humour. It walks "the razor's edge" that Callahan says he loves.

"I came up with these characters little by little until it was like a gun was put to my head and somebody said: 'Make a show or else'… only thing is, I put the gun to my own head. I do that all the time."

By James Muretich
Calgary Herald
January 31, 2001

Welcome to Maimed Manor

Nothing is sacred for partially paralysed cartoonist John Callahan

Heard about the cast of characters in the new cartoon series Quads! yet? Well, there's a quadriplegic who's a recovering alcoholic, a blind black guy, a former masseur who now has hooks for hands and a sex-crazed amputee who's lost everything below his neck.

Hmm. The Simpsons this ain't.

What it is, though, is the first adult animated series sprung from the warped mind of John Callahan, the American cartoonist whose corrosive comics appear in 75 newspapers, magazines and alternative weeklies. That he happens to be a quadriplegic and a former alcoholic himself probably figures into the equation somewhere.

John Callahan's Quads!, produced by Canada's famed animation house Nelvana, premieres tonight at 12:30 on Teletoon (Cable 42, 31). Needless to say, it carries a strong viewer advisory warning.

And with good reason. Quads! follows the exploits of Reilly O'Reilly, a character based loosely on some of Callahan's own experiences. After stumbling around drunk in the road and being run over by a car, the now-paralysed Reilly is given a million-dollar mansion by the car's guilt-ridden driver. Fleeing his "cripple-loving misery vampire" of a rehabilitation worker, Reilly invites his new cadre of disabled friends to live with him in the house they dub Maimed Manor. Classic Callahan.

People seem to either love the 49-year-old cartoonist fervently, hate him passionately or have no idea who he is. For the latter group, the short version of Callahan's history is this: He grew up an orphan schooled by Catholic nuns, got into drinking in his early teens and was the passenger in a booze-fueled car crash when he was 21. The crash severed his spinal cord between the fifth and sixth vertebrae, leaving him paralysed from roughly the chest down and with only limited use of his arms.

After the crash, Callahan continued to use booze to battle the soul-crushing misery of his paralysis until he had an epiphany and—as trite as it may sound—beat his addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous. He learned to draw using his right hand to guide the pen and left hand to apply pressure, and now enjoys his status as one of the world's most demented cartoonists.

"America's got this horrible political correctness thing," Callahan said on the phone from his Portland, Oregon, home. "I'm like a vulture, feeding off political correctness."

And feed well he does. He's been called racist, sexist and just about every other -ist word in the book. An equal opportunity offender, he's poked fun at Alzheimer's sufferers, religion, anorexics, Sally Struthers and, not surprisingly, the disabled.

His simple single-panel cartoons are famous for not just crossing the line of good taste but vaulting over it with sheer abandon. Like, for example, the one in which the bartender refuses to serve the guy with hooks for hands: "Sorry, Sam, you can't hold your liquor.''

Callahan's unmistakable and unforgiving brand of humour runs through Quads! like a life-giving artery. When Reilly first realizes he's paralysed, he moans to his buddy Griz, "Look at me! I'm half a man!''

"Naw, half a man would have full use of his arms,'' Griz replies helpfully.

But despite the twisted humour, Quads! has its own subversive messages. Like, whether or not a person has working legs, eyes or anything at all below his Adam's apple, we're all human. And deserving of the same amounts of both respect and chop-busting.

"I don't really want to do a show with sick humor. I think you should try to make a point," said Callahan, who acted as creator, executive producer, character designer, script approver and all-around hands-on guy for Quads!

"I think being outrageous or being offensive should be a byproduct of being truthful. I don't like to shock people just for fun. I think it's more important to barrel down the middle of the field and if it offends people, so be it."

Quads! will air for 13 episodes before likely making its way to American and British TV. In the meantime, it's business as usual for Callahan, who has produced seven collections of cartoons, 10 books and a children's animated series for Nickelodeon about a boy in a wheelchair. Plus, Robin Williams has signed on to play Callahan in a movie version of the cartoonist's autobiography Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, to be directed by Gus Van Sant (Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting).

But for all of his hard-won success, Callahan says it's important that he remain shocking and offensive to a good chunk of the general population. The outrage he generates isn't only necessary to his art… it's also kind of fun.

"I would think you'd be failing at your task if everyone liked you," Callahan said. "It's gratifying."

Edmonton Sun
February 02, 2001

John Callahan's animated series is hell on wheels

'The main difference between us and the 'abled' is that we never obsess half as much about our own handicaps as you guys seem to," quadraplegic animator John Callahan tells me over the phone from his home in Portland, Ore. "You get all hot under the collar and insulted on our behalf whenever somebody makes a cripple joke. Meanwhile, people like me are rolling on the floor, enjoying the laugh—even though we know we're probably gonna need help getting back in our chairs afterward."

The animated characters of Callahan's new series, Quads!, are a motley crew of self-confessed freaks, including a Church-phobic lapsed Catholic barfly who'll chug rubbing alcohol to get himself drunk enough not to care he's lost all mobility from his armpits down in a hit-and-run accident, and a sweet-natured panhandler who's "blind and black, but not musical" and whose cluelessly politically correct white disability counsellor feels she has to speak to him in painfully correct Ebonics ("He be apologizeratin' for dissin' you-all").

They call themselves "the Magnificent Severed," and spend their half-hour time slot striking out at everything the "normal" world finds most sacred. But for something debuting on Teletoon, a channel that deals in unreal worlds, Quads! is based in a reality both harsh and hilarious. It's the same reality that Callahan inhabits and strip-mines daily to create his own brand of bleak, black humor.

Viewer discretion is certainly advised, since some audience members will find this stuff offensive, including its very premise. But, as Callahan himself takes great pains to point out, he expects comparatively few formal complaints about Quads!'s content to come from his fellow "gimps."

Which isn't to say that everybody, disabled or not, always gets the humour.

"I've been called sick," he says. "I've been called self-hating. I've had organizations that represent the disabled tell me I'm making money by making fun of invalids and animals—which is true, I can't deny it. But my only compass for whether I've gone too far is always the reactions I get from double amputees and people in wheelchairs. Like me, they're fed up with being spoken for, fed up with all the pity and the patronizing. Besides, I don't see why I should have to defend anything I find funny, especially when other people find it funny too."

Paralyzed in an accident shortly after his 21st birthday, Callahan has been scribbling nasty yet hilarious little cartoons for years now—he uses his one partially mobile hand to steer the other around, literally dragging a pen across paper. Nationally syndicated, his work can now be seen in over 75 publications, while his autobiography—Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot—made it to the New York Times best-seller list. (TriStar Pictures has the movie rights, and is currently developing it for Robin Williams and director Gus Van Sant.)

The Canadian connection with Quads! started early on.

"I first decided I was gonna go for it when I broke Dan Ackroyd up with my pitch," Callahan says. "And Nelvana International was always my first choice, in terms of animatio n. By and large, Canadians seem far less caught up in all the touchy-feely PC bullshit we have to wrestle with down here, which is pretty refreshing.

"So far, all the dumbest questions anyone's asked me about the show have come from south of the border—like whether or not the writers find it hard to write about disabled characters when they aren't disabled themselves, for example. To which I usually reply that since I'm the creative and executive producer for Quads!, and I deal with the premises for each episode—along with looking at submissions, editing scripts and vetting the animation to make sure it looks like somebody paralyzed drew it—I don't really see that as a problem."

Callahan is simultaneously creating and executive producing Pelswick, now airing on CBC-TV—an animated show about a "smart, feisty" 13-year-old who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Like Quads!, the show is about what he calls his favourite obsessions.

"I remember back when somebody first told me I should write my autobiography," Callahan says. "I just grabbed a napkin and scribbled down all the stuff I thought counted—adoption, Catholic school, alcoholism, paralysis, etc. And ever since then, I've just been kind of faking a lot of it, you know? Just doing endless variations on all those themes."

By Gemma Files
February 15, 2001

Quads! cartoon smacks of truth

TORONTOQuads! is a new TV series on the Teletoon network in Canada. According to its creator, the main character, Reilly is your typical, garden-variety, alcoholic quadriplegic.

Reilly, a young man on a bender, ends up as a quadriplegic after a horrific car crash. The show smacks of truth—that's because Quads' creator lives the part.

John Callahan lives and draws in Portland, Oregon, where he grew up in a strict and devout Irish Catholic family. A teenaged alcoholic, he was injured in a car accident after a bout of drinking when he was 21. It left him paralyzed from the chest down, with minimal use of his arms.

Callahan has been cartooning for as long as he can remember:

"I used to draw cartoons in kindergarten and the teacher was quite impressed with my ability. She called my mother in and said, 'This kid's got tremendous talent. But we could do without the abortion gags.' I mean, I drew strange things from early on."

And it didn't stop after his accident. Callahan's nationally syndicated cartoons appear in more than 75 publications. Feminist Camille Paglia calls him "one of the most important anti-politically correct voices we have." Actor Robin Williams, a friend, will play him in a film by Gus Van Sant, director of Good Will Hunting. Van Sant is also a long-time friend.

Quads! is produced by Toronto-based TV company Nelvana. Michael Hirsh is CEO:

"It's cutting edge in my opinion. It's further out there than South Park. In the end, it's a very uplifting show, and people are going to have a lot of fun with it."

Callahan says being a quad has given him special insight into the disenfranchised, but don't expect him to be an advocate for anyone. His status lets him play "court jester," and he happily aims his humour at both extremes of the political spectrum:

"I do admit that when I find a thin skin, or a group with a thin skin, I will poke a few cartoons their way—just once in a blue moon, just for kicks—because there's something perversely satisfying about a group that resists all humour … something suspicious. You sense that and smell blood."

Quads! is Callahan's second animated TV series. The first, about a droll student named Pelswick, is a gentler version of life in a wheelchair. CBC broadcasts Pelswick Saturday mornings.

Quads! is far racier. Teletoon Canada broadcasts it late-night, and Nelvana is still waiting for a U.S. broadcaster to pick it up.

Callahan's walls are covered with both fan mail and critiques. Richard Pryor loved this one. Charles Schulz hated that one. Many of the negative letters made it into his "quasi memoir."

He respects the honesty of these messages:

"People who deal with you in politically correct terms, they are sort of social worker types with hyphenated names who use terms like 'handicapable' or 'person with a disability.' It's very alienating and ridiculous or silly. All it does is distance people. It's so patronizing and goofy. Personally, I'd rather be called an invalid or a gimp and just be done with it, rather than fool around with these terms. It's just like going up and putting Saran Wrap around someone."

March 19 2001
On the arts with Laurie Brown
CBC Newsworld

Wheels of fortune

Most would consider paralysis a stroke of bad luck. Not John Callahan. He talks to Jacqui Taffel about his controversial animated series.

Meet Reilly O'Reilly, an alcoholic quadriplegic who lives in a mansion with Franny, his hippy girlfriend, Spalding, his gay Australian physical therapist, and best friend Griz, a foulmouthed bartender. Completing the household are Fontaine, a blind black man with no musical talent, Lefty, a former masseur with hooks for hands, and Blazer, a vicious head on a skateboard.

This motley mob comprises the cast of John Callahan's Quads!, an animated series that makes its Australian debut on November 12 on SBS. The animated characters come from cartoons that Callahan has been drawing for years. Widely syndicated in US newspapers and magazines, and with his own line of greeting cards, Callahan attracts his fair share of controversy, often due to his take on disabled people.

What his detractors frequently don't realise is that Callahan himself has been in a wheelchair since a car accident left him paralysed at 21. Just don't call him "differently abled". The "pussy-footing bullshit of the politically correct" has always irritated him.

"It's very off-putting and patronising when people treat you like some sort of Martian: 'What shall we call you? Do you want us to take you to our leader?'"

At the same time he's eternally grateful for the PC brigade: "That's what gives me my living—to poke holes in the politically correct. I'd be screwed without them."

When Callahan was approached to develop an animated TV series, he took some of his favourite creations and installed them in Maimed Manor. The house is bought for O'Reilly in the first episode as a guilty pay-off by a millionaire who runs over him, leaving him wheelchair-bound.

Quads! is a Canadian/Australian co-production, with the bulk of the animation done by Animation Works in Perth, imitating Callahan's style. Australians also directed, produced, composed the music, voiced characters and wrote several scripts. Callahan is one of the script editors, picking up "if things aren't funny enough, or Blazer isn't nasty enough".

One scene Callahan did write himself is O'Reilly's accident with the millionaire. "I wanted to make him drunk to have him run over." Why? "It's the best time to be run over for various reasons. It seems to fit." He pauses. "It's more squalid."

Like O'Reilly, Callahan was drunk when he had his accident and is now a reformed alcoholic, but he insists the resemblance is just a coincidence. "I wrote it in such a way that it isn't really me."

Clearly, this is not a show that tries to make disabled people look good. Callahan's favourite character is Blazer. "That's a nasty little bastard. He's always looking up women's skirts and things; it's great."

Some feminists have taken exception to Callahan's work ("I can't go down the streets in certain parts of the country—they hate my guts") and his Web site has a page dedicated to hate mail. Does he aim to offend? He says not. "But I think it's funny to choose topics that are hot potatoes—you can sense when there's a balloon that needs to be popped. The bigger the balloon, the more fun it is to pop it."

Callahan has quipped that becoming a quadriplegic was a good career move, and he is only half-joking. "I'd be all washed up if I hadn't been paralysed. I'd be nothing without this wheelchair. If I were able-bodied I'd probably be down on the unemployment line."

He has certainly met some interesting people since being paralysed. He counts Robin Williams as a friend (Williams is apparently planning to play Callahan in a biographical movie) and has been singing his original songs over the phone to Tom Waits (one number is called Touch Me Somewhere I Can Feel).

After screening in Canada for the past nine months, Quads! has been nominated for several awards. Callahan hopes Australia will also embrace his creations. Australians, he thinks, are more likely to appreciate the humour than his fellow Americans (the show is yet to appear in the US).

"It's a weird set-up, but it just seems funny to me," he says. "It's an odd goddamn show, though, isn't it?"

October 31, 2001
Sydney Morning Herald

Callahan's QUADS! Wins Festival's Top Prize

John Callahan's QUADS!, a controversial animated cartoon that takes a darkly humorous look at disability, took the top award at the first annual Picture This... film and video festival. The festival, featuring works produced by or about people with disabilities, was held in Calgary Oct. 19 to 21.

The series took the festival's top honour—best overall picture—and the PTA Award in its category for the outstanding entry that involves a disabled producer, writer or director.

"Overall, our jury liked this over other programs because it is so irreverent, and ‘in your face'," explains Festival Director Vern Reynolds-Braun. "The characters in this animated 1/2 hour program don't apologize for their disabilities, they shout about them! We received over 100 entries to our festival, from around the world. Many fine programs. However, our jury was most appreciative of works that just couldn't be classified as traditional disability fare, and this is certainly not traditional."

The central character is Reilly, a quirky quadriplegic who lives under the same roof as a host of other politically incorrect characters who call themselves "the Magnificent Severed" and spend their half-hour time slot mocking everything the able-bodied world finds sacred.

Written by award-winning cartoonist John Callahan, the show airs weekdays on Teletoon, the Canadian cartoon-only channel. But this is no ordinary run-of-the-mill cartoon—Callahan, a quadriplegic who lives in Portland, Oregon, has given the series a distinct dark side that has resulted in a following of both fans and critics.

For example, in the first episode, Riley exclaims in the middle of a group therapy session, "I'm not having trouble, I'm not differently abled, I'm freakin' paralyzed! This isn't a special challenge, it's—it's a goddamn tragedy! I can't walk!"

Given it's controversial subject matter, it's no surprise the show airs at 11:30 PM (weekdays only), and it isn't likely to show up on primetime any time soon. To date, no American networks has touched it, although European and Australian broadcasters have joined Teletoon in buying the series.

The show was also nominated for "Best Comedy Program or Series" and "Best Direction in a Comedy Program or Series" in Canada's Gemini Awards, scheduled for late October.

QUADS! is produced in Toronto by the Corus Entertainment-owned Nelvana animation house.

Callahan is also the creator and executive producer of Pelswick, a sort of kids' version of QUADS!

Status Report
The Quarterly Newsletter on Disability Issues in Alberta
November 2001 issue

One of us

Next to a huge forest in the weird, Bohemian part of Portland, Oregon, where all the freaks live, there sits a big old sea captain's house full of old dogs.

This is where John Callahan lives. He takes the old dogs nobody wants and lets them live out their last days with him. It's something he says he does for the good of humanity.

Many people would say it is the only good Callahan does for humanity.

At 50, Callahan, a quadriplegic for 29 years after a car crash, is easily the most politically incorrect cartoonist in America and it has won him a lot of high-profile admirers. Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson says he likes Callahan's work because it makes his comic vision of the world look normal. Friend Christopher Reeve calls Callahan "the anti-Quad". Robin Williams has the film rights to Callahan's book Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot and likes to wear his merchandise T-shirts.

Callahan's single-panel sketches are often controversial, featuring a wide range of mainly handicapped characters in situations that some find funny and liberating, and others find tasteless and deeply offensive. His humor is brusque and frequently targets the patronising tone reserved for the disabled by well-meaning, invariably able-bodied do-gooders. It's a twisted vision of the world, Callahan admits, but he calls it how he sees it.

A favorite cartoon that highlights the attitude he so resents features two disembodied heads in conversation. One head has an eye patch. The other says: "People like you are a real inspiration to me."

Callahan's style has now been adapted to TV in his sensitively titled cartoon series, Quads! The main character is a wheelchair-bound gent called Reilly O'Reilly who lives in a huge house with some disabled friends, one of whom is a disembodied head who moves around on a trolley. It is Callahan's favorite character.

If you want to get an instant rise out of John Callahan, you need utter only two words—political correctness. He's not against the concept, per se. "There's always that core goodness and truth in PC before it gets carried over and warped," he says, eager not to be misunderstood. "It has good intentions."

Indeed, for a man in a wheelchair, Portland, Oregon is Ramp City. "Oh, this is a very, very, very super-PC town. It has all the ramps. Everything is ramped. Even the hookers have got disability symbols on their crotches."

But it is from the PC camp where Callahan gets the bulk of his complaints and angry letters. He used to respond, now he no longer bothers. They all say pretty much the same thing, he says, and, upon request, he instantly recites the standard anti-Callahan diatribe:

"He's insensitive to the disabled, he's purposefully misogynistic, he makes fun of everything from people's weight problems to Alzheimer's to amputees, the blind and disabled, the mentally ill."

So, what is his standard response?

"I really think that disabled people don't like to be treated with kid gloves or to be walked around on eggshells. They want to be treated as normal people. I'm not above jarring people into a response. I'd rather be hated than pitied. In a lot of ways being paralysed is like being a beautiful woman. You've got to jar people out of the trance you put them in.

"It's not so much that I'm drawing about taboo things, it's that people are asking artists to restrict themselves from drawing about things that are a vital part of life."

Much of Callahan's work, including Quads!, a co-production with SBS Independent and local outfits Media World Features and and Screen West, suggests that he regards being patronised as a process of dehumanisation.

"Political correctness as a process of dehumanising?" he muses. "Yes, I do think it is, because what it does (is) it shuts down normal communication and it stifles people. It's like a disease and it retards healthy, spontaneous communication.

"Big girls and big boys, they can communicate without having political correctness stultify and censor them."

A line from the first episode of Quads! typifies his attitude. Reilly turns on a patronising nurse and calls her a "cripple-loving misery vampire". That really hit the nail on the head for Callahan.

"I love that line," he says. "It says so much about what my whole struggle has always been with jarring people and learning to impale people with words for what they're doing, because you have to wake people up to get you off that pedestal. People very willingly put you on that pedestal as if you're a little angel. This show is not created by a little angel, that's for sure."

As if to remove all doubt, Callahan embraces the proposition that Quads! shares a common theme with the Todd Browning's 1931 horror classic Freaks.

In the climax of that film, the cast of real-life freaks turn on the beautiful able-bodied woman who has been manipulating them. Slowly they advance on her, reciting the haunting chant "One of us, one of us, one of us… "

Callahan enthusiastically agrees that the sentiment of that line reflects the philosophy that underlies much of his work—that disabled people are, in fact, part of the same species as able-bodied people. 'One of us', so to speak.

"Yeah, one of us," Callahan says. "I would be complimented if people thought Quads! was in line with Freaks."

John Callahan sounds a lot more strident and angry on the page and on TV than he does over the phone from Portland. It's 11pm, and with his pet dog

Pug having been gently shoved into another room, Callahan speaks softly and sedately. He's a mellower man.

"At 50 you reach a point where you can see where things go in cycles. You see the torch being handed on from the middle aged to youth. I think we get to lighten up a little bit and have a little more understanding with people. I have a little bit more patience with people—except for people who are trying to bomb my country!"

It's a big change from 20 years ago. "I am more comfortable in my skin. I can't feel half my skin, but I feel comfortable in it because you have to become more skilful at living, so there's much more enjoyment in my life.

"I suffered like an idiot a lot of my life as an alcoholic and a narcissist and with a victim mentality. But you have to grow out of it. Now, I have a good time. I'm always happy just to be creating, and that's all I care about. I feel happy creating. If people like it, that's cool, but if they don't, that's also cool.

"I never set about to offend. Really, the sad thing is that I really see the world this way. To me that's normal. People accuse me of going out of my way to offend people and to shock, but I don't. That's just my world."

When he was 21, Callahan was a passenger in a car being driven by a drunk friend. The car crashed, leaving Callahan a quadriplegic. His drinking problem at the time of the accident quickly worsened. For years Callahan pushed his wheelchair from one source of alcohol to another. It was often beer, but he preferred stronger stuff like gin and vodka because "it got me there quicker".

Then came the moment of truth. By his late-20s he finally saw how pathetic he had become.

"It was a tremendously strong spritual moment in my life," he recalls. "I finally made the connection with the pain of my life and the alcoholism. It was such a disease of denial. It's insane how difficult it is to make that connection.

"It was just a moment when finally the camel's back broke and the shit hit the fan. I was sort of reborn at that moment when I could let go of the stubborness and let go of the disease and get a life."

Raised by Catholic nuns, Callahan did not enjoy the experience. It may have put him off religion, but it did not turn him into an athiest.

"I do believe in God," he says.

How would he describe his relationship with Him?

"I have sort of a nuts and bolts kind of God, my own blood, sweat and tears and broken fingernails and collected string and rubber bands all rolled up into my own God. I was raised in the Church, but I really have my own God that I came up with and it works for me. I don't find myself religious, though, but spiritual. I don't feel I need a religion, per se, to be spiritual."

And what are the dreams of a paraplegic man like?

"You know, it's funny. Most of my disabled life I've dreamt that I was in a wheelchair, but in the last couple of years, strangely, instead of getting more used to the disability I now notice that I sometimes am walking in my dreams. It kind of trips me out, like, symbolically, what's this all about?"

Callahan likes frankness, as his cartoons and books prove beyond any question. Hence, he does not mind being asked deeply personal questions—the kind of questions a curious, able-bodied person has always wanted to ask a quadriplegic man, but was too afraid because of political correctness to ask.

So: sex.


Does he?

"I do. I write about sex very graphically in my book. I've always been a very sexual person, and I have a girlfriend (Joy). The sensation problem is the main thing, but there is function with quadriplegics, and so you go from there.

"Christopher Reeve is striving for this cure for disability. I'm so tired of it. I was telling him that I'm threatened by the prospect of a cure. I really don't want to regain sensation back in my genital area because I'm afraid of 30 years of retroactive blue balls!"

Does his member function at will? "Well, it will. It takes manual stimulation essentially. Usually I leave that to my girlfriend." Does he feel anything when he gives issue? "It's not easy to reach that climax. It's possible, but it's more trouble than it's worth. But, no, I would not feel it in the normal way. It's more of a muted response."

He gets some physical sensation through kissing and caressing, but his partner receives most of the pleasure. He's cool with it. "Oh yeah, that's the main thing. She's always saying to me, 'But John, what can I do for you?' and I'm always saying 'Well, I don't know. Take the dog for a walk. Cook me dinner. Paint the back room.'

"I was telling her that I'd like to go to a dominatrix and have my ass beaten," Callahan quips. "The trouble is I'd have to take her to small claims court and get the money back 'cause I couldn't feel it!"

Now that would be an episode of Judge Judy worth seeing.

November 08, 2001
Tha Age (Australia)