February 2, 2001
Welcome to Maimed Manor
Nothing is sacred for partially paralysed cartoonist John Callahan
By STEVE TILLEY
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."