Thursday, June 21, 2018

Books: Callahan's "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot"

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
By John Callahan
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

John Callahan was a nationally-syndicated cartoonist known for his frank portrayals of challenging subjects, in particular disability.

“When people laugh like hell and then say, ‘That’s not funny,’ you can be pretty sure they’re talking about John Callahan,” said P.J. O’Rourke.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot recounts Callahan’s life story, from the harrowing to the hilarious. Featuring more than 60 of Callahan’s cartoons, it’s a compelling look at art, addiction, disability, and fame.

The book has been turned into a major motion picture set to be released on July 13. Directed by Gus Van Sant, it stars Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Callahan; Jonah Hill, and Rooney Mara.

In 1972, at the age of 21, Callahan was involved in a car crash that severed his spine and made him a quadriplegic. A heavy drinker since the age of 12 (alcohol had played a role in his crash), the accident could have been the beginning of a downward spiral. Instead, it sparked a personal transformation. After extensive physical therapy, he was eventually able to grasp a pen in his right hand and make rudimentary drawings. By 1978, Callahan had sworn off drinking for good, and begun to draw cartoons.

Over the next three decades, until his death in 2010, Callahan would become one of the nation’s most beloved—and at times polarizing—cartoonists. His work, which shows off a wacky and sometimes warped sense of humor, pokes fun at social conventions and pushes boundaries.

One cartoon features Christ at the cross with a thought bubble reading “T.G.I.F.” In another, three sheriffs on horseback approach an empty wheelchair in the desert. “Don’t worry,” one sheriff says to another, “He won’t get far on foot.”

Callahan writes of his creativity, "I draw cartoons naturally. Rather than being learned, it just seemed to unfold, like a fifth limb. I am driven to it, and I feel it comes through from somewhere else. During the act I feel almost like an animal who is performing some primitive natural function. Someday a pathologist will be squinting through a microscope at hunks of my cadaver, and he'll exclaim, 'By God, Jenkins!' These are not human cells at all! These are the cells of a cartoonist!'

"The first hint of all this came at age six, when I timidly showed my mother a drawing I made of Daffy Duck, one of my lifelong role models. Nobody in the family had shown the slightest artistic talent. She was so surprised she dropped her rolling pin. After that, I got total encouragement at home. My family was thrilled about this unexpected phenomenon in its midst.

"I clearly remember Sister Mary Margaret standing at the blackboard, showing the third grade how to draw a human figure: the little arches that were shoes seen straight on, the square shoulders....I laughed. I could draw circles around that. A year later I would be drawing custom cartoons for Sister Mary of Joseph and illicit caricatures of Sister Mary of Joseph.

"In fifth grade I 'turned the corner' and gravitated toward the Incorrigibles. No more model student, I joined the gang that bullied Tim Resnik, the smartest kid in school, into letting us copy his homework, not because I needed to, but to be one of the boys. At the same time, having tasted the delights of cruelty in fourth grade, I turned my hand increasingly to caricature. I made friends with another extremely funny and extroverted junior artist, Dale McCall. Together we practiced having fun at someone else's expense; naturally, we drew dirty pictures.

"By high school, when not drinking, smoking or cutting classes, I worked up caricatures hard-hitting enough to strain relationships, but the payback in notoriety was worth it. There was a kid named Dotton who was from the wrong side of town. I worked up a strip, 'Dotty,' that lampooned his career as a 'greaser.' Later I pushed my friendships within the gang  to the limit by such stunts as putting a tiny red penis on the tall, ectomorphic, albino Aronsen. I drew a history of the entire life of my best friend Frank Foley. His birth, the times he had to stay home from school with asthma, the moment he discovered he was lousy at sports, and so on.

"An even more challenging subject was a strip describing Ralph Meyers's stroll with a rat. Stoned on acid, Ralph was walking along the street when a big rat came out of the sewer and  - no doubt noticing that this human was in a state of deep oceanic schizophrenia - decided to walk along with him. Rat and loony kid mimicked each other's subtlest expressions. We all found this hilarious."

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is an underappreciated classic, and quite an enjoyable read you should pick up before seeing it on the big screen.

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