By Michael E. Miller
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"You're a genius!" the voice boomed over John Callahan's telephone as soon as the Portland, Oregon, cartoonist answered it. "And you've just been hired by the Miami Herald!" That was six years ago, when then-Tropic editor Gene Weingarten was calling with the news that Callahan would begin running each week in the Herald's Sunday magazine. This past Thursday, Tom Shroder, the magazine's current executive editor, called with less edifying news. And, says John Callahan, the voice that greeted him when he picked up the phone was neither booming nor excited. "He said that he had to let me go," the cartoonist recalls, "and that the decision was beyond his control."
Once compared by Shroder to Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Berke Breathed (Bloom County), Callahan vanishes from the pages of Tropic in the wake of a costly screwup, in which a comic Shroder had nixed because he found it too crude and offensive for Herald readers had turned up in the magazine. The cartoon portrays a thirteen-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., standing next to his bed, in the middle of which is a large puddle. "I had a dream," the boy ventures, as his mother glares at him.
By the time editors got wind of the mistake, the Herald already had run off 530,000 copies of Tropic -- which, as usual, was printed in advance on Wednesday, April 19, to be inserted in the paper's Sunday edition. After a series of high-level meetings, Herald executives decided to destroy all of the copies and print the magazine again the next day, with a replacement cartoon by local artist Tom White. The cost for collecting the old issue and reprinting it: $45,000.
"I feel bad about it," Shroder says of the decision to boot Callahan. "I've always liked his work. I still like his work. And not for one moment do I think Callahan is racist."
When Callahan was hired, Shroder credited the cartoonist -- a quadriplegic with an opaque sense of humor -- with portraying a world-view that was "liberating." But Shroder says the "I Had a Dream" panel went too far. "Even though it didn't run," he explains, "it made a lot of people inside and outside of the building angry and it hurt them. We felt we had to do something about it."
The editor himself felt some of the outrage on Tuesday, April 25, when he appeared as an impromptu guest on WMBM-AM (1490), a black-owned radio station in Miami Beach. The station had begun receiving phone calls about the cartoon from Herald employees who had seen the magazine before it could be destroyed. A copy of the banned Tropic was smuggled to the station by a Herald staffer, and the cartoon was described on the air. When he heard the station was being deluged with phone calls, Shroder agreed to a telephone interview. He apologized on the air for the cartoon that never ran. "The level of anger by the people on the show was amazing," Shroder says.
On the heels of the WMBM brouhaha came "A Nocturnal Omission," a story in last week's New Times that was accompanied by the censored cartoon. On Friday the Washington Post followed up with a piece about the controversy.
The furor over the printing mishap -- and the realization that similar boners might occur in the future -- prompted Herald executives to rethink the wisdom of publishing Callahan. "There have always been some people here who thought the cartoon was out of place," says Shroder, explaining that opposition has ranged from criticism that the work was offensive to objections to the fact that it isn't locally based. "Then this thing happened," Shroder says. "It was all just too much."
None of which sits well with John Callahan. "It's like a witch-burning," he complains. "It's mystifying to me what has happened. I was hired to be controversial, but the minute I get controversial in the wrong area, I'm out the window. Apparently they wanted me to be a rebel, but a selective rebel. All they're doing now is covering their asses." His greatest concern, the cartoonist says, is that he is being branded a racist. "Martin Luther King is a personal hero of mine," he asserts. "All this was was a gag. That's what I do, I chase gags. Everyone knows the line, 'I have a dream,' and I thought, 'Why not turn it into a joke?' I just followed the gag sense of it. I think everything is goofy and weird in this world."
Syndicated in 95 newspapers around the U.S., including the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times and the Chicago Tribune, Callahan is also the author of seven books, including a recently released children's book of cartoons, as well as an autobiography, He Won't Get Far on Foot. He drew the cover art for singer John Prine's latest album. Comedian Robin Williams holds the movie rights to Callahan's life story.
When Callahan first appeared in Tropic in 1989, Tom Shroder asked the artist to draw a special cartoon symbolizing his arrival in Miami. Callahan depicted himself in his wheelchair, bogged down in the sand and being robbed of his wheelchair by a fellow quadriplegic. While being dropped from Miami certainly will not be a major blow to him financially, he says it hurts him emotionally. "There is a sense of mourning that I'm going through," he sighs. "I love Miami.