The immediate thing most first-time viewers probably notice about “Pelswick,” the bright, 13-year-old protagonist of the Nickelodeon cartoon series that premiered last fall, is that he uses a wheelchair. It doesn’t take long, however, to discover that what really stands out in the plucky character are his fearlessness, wry sense of humor and talent for getting into—and out of—sticky situations. His means of mobility becomes almost irrelevant, and that is the point series creator John Callahan is trying to get across.
“First and foremost, Pelswick is a unique and funny property for kids. John Callahan has provided us with access to the world of the disability community with heroism and humor,” according to Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon’s Executive Vice President and General Manager. “The characters in the series are truly inventive, and the message that it’s tough to be a kid no matter what your issues are comes through with comedy and sincerity.”
Callahan is a nationally syndicated newspaper cartoonist and author who has been profiled on 60 Minutes, and has also appeared on the Today Show and ABC World News Tonight. He has created seven collections of cartoons and written two books, his autobiography Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot! and the children’s book The King of Things and the Cranberry Clown.
While Pelswick is a well-adjusted boy from a supportive—if somewhat quirky—family, Callahan’s youth was far from pleasant. Alienated from his adoptive parents, he was a full-fledged alcoholic before he completed high school. At the age of 21 he moved to Los Angeles, and shortly thereafter was a passenger in a drunk driving accident that left him a C5-6 quadriplegic. His alcohol consumption continued until he was 27 when what Callahan described as “an epiphany with a capital E” inspired him to quit drinking, join Alcoholics Anonymous and earn a BA in English at Portland State University. He also took up cartooning—something he’d enjoyed as a child—and began earning an income by selling his work, first to local publications in Oregon and later to such national magazines as National Lampoon, Omni and Harper’s. In order to draw the cartoons, Callahan wedges a pencil between the stiff fingers of his right hand then guides it with his left. Control actually comes from his shoulders.
Pelswick may be an inspirational show with universal appeal, but Callahan’s single-panel cartoons have often been described as “irreverent” and “offensive,” and he welcomes such characterizations. He is not afraid to lampoon any ethnic, social or religious group, and has a special knack for finding humor in situations involving those with disabilities. One friend of his told ABILITY, “Because of the background John comes from, he’s able to say things no one else is able to say. He has license to explore all sorts of taboos.” Among his many fans is TV newswoman Linda Ellerbee, who once observed in a column: “Hooray for the John Callahan’s of this world, who remind us that when you’re standing on the gallows (and all of us are), gallows humor makes good sense.”
The wickedly funny cartoonist is no stranger to the pages of ABILITY. His work has appeared in the magazine and he was the subject of a feature article nearly a decade ago. Editor-in-Chief Chet Cooper caught up with Callahan recently to reminisce and to learn more about his current activities.
Chet Cooper: It’s been a long time since we talked. Do you remember the cartoon you did that featured a cowboy with no arms standing in front of a saloon? He’s the good guy and he’s facing a bad guy like in a “High Noon” scene. Remember the caption?
John Callahan: Yeah, “Don’t be a fool, Billy.”
CC: That was some time ago. We did an article in the same issue about a young man named John Foppe who was born without arms who worked for Zig Ziglar. He was one of the most dynamic young speakers that Ziglar ever had. John got the magazine and made a copy of that particular cartoon, and blew it up and put it on his wall. He just thought it was hilarious.https://abilitymagazine.com/
JC: I’m glad to hear that he liked it. I remember the guy that played the guitar for the Pope just using his feet.
CC: Right…Tony Melendez. And another guitar player Mark Goffeney, He drives, he eats, he does everything with his feet.
JC: Yeah…I saw a documentary on him.
CC: You might have. Having had the opportunity to meet him and get to know him a little, I think that if he were the guy in the cartoon he might have won the gun fight. He would have drawn the gun with his foot.
JC: That’s true, that’s true. (laughs)
CC: How did it come about that you started working with Nickelodeon?
CC: Did you approach them?
JC: They approached me.
CC: How are the ratings so far?
JC: It’s doing very well.
CC: How about your other projects—cartoon syndication, books?
JC: Seventy-five to a hundred newspapers in syndication, seven collections of cartoons, one children’s book and my autobiography.
CC: Gary Larson of “The Far Side” made the statement that he thought of you as “the darker side” of himself. What did you think of that statement?
JC: I thought it was kind of flattering. I enjoyed getting the attention from Gary Larson. I think he’s the great master.https://abilitymagazine.com/
CC: I spoke to Robin Williams a couple of years ago, and he mentioned that he was going to be in a movie about your life. Is that still in the works?
JC: What he did was buy the option of the movie of my book Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot! So it’s still in the works, and hopefully it will happen soon.
CC: Do you still live in Portland, Oregon?
JC: Yes. I was born and raised here. I was living in Buena Park, California, at the time of my accident. I found it very difficult after my injury to drive. (In) the California life style I would spend my entire life in traffic.
CC: How long has it been since the accident that caused your injury?
JC: 27 years.
CC: And what did you do prior to the accident?
JC: Ummm… drink?
JC: (laughs) No. I was a ship repairman in California… a ship builders assistant.
CC: What brought you to that transition where you decided to take that humorous side you have and try to make it into a career?
JC: It was in college, I was about 28 and I was drawing cartoons for the class. I was an English major. A lot of the kids, and my professor, really responded to my work.
CC: And was the style you use today always that way?
JC: Pretty much, yeah.
CC: Was this pre-accident or post?
CC: So the style came about because of the accident?
JC: Well, I think my injury has influenced my drawing style quite a bit.
CC: With your accident being pre-ADA, how would you say the Americans with Disabilities Act has changed your life?
JC: The attitude toward people with disabilities has changed drastically since the ADA. I think the law helped because it changed the social aspect of the way people are relating to each other. I don’t think that Pelswick would even exist without it.
CC: I think the TV show itself will continue to create more of an awareness, which I guess is part of your intent, right?
JC: The show is not necessarily about disability issues. We just wanted to create a kid dealing with normal issues who just happens to be in a wheelchair. This kid just wants to be treated normally.
CC: Which again brings out the awareness issue that it should be that way.
JC: Yeah. We obviously felt it was an important issue.
CC: Do you think that the kids get the humor? Or, is it slanted towards adults?
JC: I think the humor is mainly for kids but it’s also intellectual.
CC: Do they have any ancillary toy products coming out?
JC: Not quite yet. But a Pelswick action figure would be great because, you know, I am one myself, (laughs)