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Local paraplegic cartoonist provided irreverent inspiration; a new movie is coming about his life, 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot'

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: KYLE GREEN - Late cartoonist John Callahan (pictured here in 2002) took delight in finding the 'funny' in the struggles confronting people such as himself. His life was chronicled in the autobiography 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot,' the title of a new Gus Van Sant movie about him.Renowned Portland animator Bill Plympton remembers watching a young man roll a wheelchair into a cartoon class Plympton was teaching at Portland State University in the late 1970s.

"He showed me his portfolio, and every cartoon was genius, a very wacky, crazy humor," Plympton told the Los Angeles Times for its obituary of John Callahan in 2010.

It marked yet another pivotal point in the life of a man who himself would gain international acclaim — and condemnation — for his single-panel pen-on-paper social commentaries.

Callahan, who grew up in The Dalles, ended up in a wheelchair after a night of bar-hopping ended in a car crash in 1972.

Six years later the paraplegic, who started drinking at 12, gave up booze and took up cartooning, a practice he reportedly started while attending Catholic school as a boy, much to the dismay of the nuns. Willamette Week bought its first Callahan cartoon in 1984, and the panels later were syndicated and appeared in more than 200 publications.

Callahan brought a wry, dark sense of humor to both the mundane and macabre facets of life. He took particular delight in finding the "funny" in the struggles confronting those who, like him, faced daily challenges because of their race, gender, medical ailments and, of course, mobility.

One of his most famous cartoons depicted a group of lawmen on horseback, surrounding an empty wheelchair in the desert. The caption, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," was used for the title of his 1990 autobiography as well as the soon-to-be released film by Gus Van Sant.

The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black, will be released to theaters in mid-July.

But Amazon Studios and Cinema 21 have teamed up to host a special screening on Tuesday, June 12, in Northwest Portland to benefit the John Callahan Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center.

The garden, which opened last fall, winds through a narrow strip just off of Northwest Lovejoy Street, is a tribute to the cartoonist who was both a patient and a volunteer at Legacy's Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, working with others who used wheelchairs.

"He provided tough love and humor to those who were getting accustomed to not being able to walk again," says Rena Whittaker, executive director of the Good Samaritan Foundation.

The garden provides both humor and inspiration through four dozen panels of Callahan cartoons, Whittaker says, and serves as a tribute to what she sees as one of his greatest attributes.

"John didn't find his authentic self and his greatest way to communicate his ideas until after the darkest time of his life," she said. "That's courage. And John showed that courage is found in many shapes and forums, including bold humor that is sometimes offensive."

Callahan on film

What: Special screening of "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot"

When: 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 12

Where: Cinema 21, 616 N.W. 21st Ave., Portland

Tickets: $25 through www.cinema21.com

Note: An after-party presented by Willamette Week and Amazon Studios is sold out.

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