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03/29/96 - 12:45 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

A cartoonist on the offensive

One Sunday last April, John Callahan's comic, Callahan, was deemed so offensive that Miami Herald editors yanked it from the Sunday paper halfway through distribution, costing almost $50,000.

The cartoon in question showed a woman standing at the door of her son's bedroom, frowning. A young man is standing by his bed, which has a puddle on it. Over the top of the scene, it says: Martin Luther King, age 13. Above the young man's head it says, "I had a dream.''

Readers were outraged.

Callahan was called a racist.

Editors pulled the drawing.

"They're p - - - - - -,'' says the 44-year-old cartoonist who has been called Lenny Bruce in a wheelchair.

He has been a quadriplegic since he and a friend drove into a telephone pole in a drunken stupor in 1972.

Since then, Callahan has become a believer in Alcoholics Anonymous, has written his life story and now lives in a "big old house'' in Portland, Ore.

His "weiner dog'' is barking in the background as Callahan says the Miami yanking didn't bother him. "I throw it up and it lands where it lands. In this politically correct world there are all kinds of people we have to jump through hoops for. I'm not going to jump through.''

Whether the political correctness movement is winning or budget cutbacks have meant smaller comics pages, Callahan has been dropped from a lot of newsprint lately. He used to appear in 150 papers. Now, he's running in 85 to 90.

He gets bored with his cartoons anyway, he says. Piles of them are scattered around his house. So he's turning to other things. Such as:

TV. He's developing characters for a show that would be something like The Simpsons, only "edgier,'' he says.

Movies. Robin Williams has optioned Callahan's life story, based on his popular 1989 autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (Vintage, $9.99).

Magazines. He appears weekly in Sports Illustrated.

Music. He did the album cover for a recent John Prine release.

The Internet. His own Web site is up and running at index.html.

Books. His newest, Freaks of Nature (William Morrow & Co., $8.95), features the controversial King cartoon.

Also in the book are several O.J. cartoons. Until recent cutbacks, Callahan appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and Judge Lance Ito became a fan. At one point during the trial, Ito said to the courtroom, "I feel like I'm in a Callahan cartoon.''

Callahan's phone rang off the hook, he says. He didn't watch the trial that much, he says: "It made me ill.''

Ito invited Callahan to visit, but Callahan didn't go.

"I don't travel much.''

But Callahan, who has enough use of his arms to draw his cartoons by holding a pen in his right hand and steadying it with his left, likes to drive around in a wheelchair-accessible cab and drink hot chocolate. "My life is easy - except for being paralyzed,'' he says, his self-proclaimed "sick'' sense of humor emerging.

He also likes to go antiquing in downtown Portland.

"I got a really cool thing for above the mantel,'' he says. A wart hog. Obviously not an animal rights activist? He laughs.

"I get a big kick out of these movies that say 'no animals were hurt.' They don't say that at McDonald's.''

Friends gave him the dog that won't stop barking.

"I don't care about the dog that much,'' he says. "My beautiful doberman ran out in the street and was killed. This weiner dog is very annoying and irritating. It knows I'm crippled and I can't get after it easily, so it barks excessively.''

An attendant comes in the morning and another at night to help Callahan around the house. He's had a girlfriend in Seattle for the past five years, but he says, "We've slipped into a more friends type of thing.''

No, he hasn't spoken to Christopher Reeve about his paralysis, he says, although he saw the Reeve interview with Barbara Walters and says he was "astounded'' by the actor's recovery and positive attitude.

It took Callahan awhile to develop his. "It's very complicated,'' he says. Basically, he doesn't see himself as a victim. "A lot of people think of themselves as victims and have a lot of self-pity. . . . They don't realize the power they have.''

He says he's a "junkie for pop culture'' and is a "news hound'' with a fondness for talk radio.

Politics is the topic for most of his cartoons now that the Simpson trial is over.

He doesn't draw every day, although he's constantly thinking about material. It takes only "five to 20 minutes at the most'' to pen the cartoon.

"I did a really cool one,'' he offers. "It's one that's caused so much controversy. There's a guy at an abortion clinic, and he's burying fetuses all in a row. It says 'Planted parenthood.' ''

The weiner dog is barking again. Is someone at the door?

"No,'' Callahan says. "The weiner dog barks at the very passage of time.''

Then Callahan mutters: "I'm going to get a .22 today and take care of that.''

But he's just kidding.

By Ann Oldenburg, USA TODAY


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