This past Wednesday, as the devastating Oklahoma City bomb blast sent the nation's news media into a tizzy, the Miami Herald's management was frantically conferring about a calamity far closer to home. Hands were wrung, teeth were gnashed. Fingers were pointed. It was an event that Tom Shroder, executive editor of the Herald's Tropic magazine, calls "the greatest nightmare of my entire journalism career."
It was the Callahan affair.
As they do every Wednesday morning, 530,000 copies of the magazine had rolled off the presses to join other sections of the Sunday Herald that are produced in advance. And as usual a stack had made its way from the print shop to Tropic's editorial department. No sooner had the office manager turned to the second page of the issue, however, than it became apparent that something was terribly amiss. Shroder was quickly notified. Staring down at the page, the editor felt his cheeks flush. Before the magazine had gone to press, Shroder had culled a batch of submissions from cartoonist John Callahan. But page two of Tropic didn't contain the Callahan Shroder had selected; it bore a different work by the artist, a cartoon Shroder had specifically rejected because he found it offensive.
"It was like a rattlesnake jumped off the page and bit me in the face," recalls the editor.
Drawn in Callahan's trademark spare style, the panel depicts 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 says, as his mother looks on disapprovingly.
"It was so tasteless and so offensive, the most offensive cartoon he has ever sent us," says Shroder, adding that no one has yet been able to trace the source of the goof.
The anxious editor considered his options. By this time the press run had been completed; copies of the magazine already were being inserted into the travel section. Some had been loaded onto trucks and delivered to distribution sites around Dade, where they awaited the remainder of the Sunday edition.
The only solution Shroder could think of was a drastic one. He contacted Doug Clifton, the Herald's executive editor, and suggested that the entire issue of Tropic be printed over again -- all 530,000 copies. Managing editor Saundra Keyes was brought in on the discussion, and after an emergency summit with publisher David Lawrence, Jr., it was agreed that the magazine would be run off again with a different cartoon. Crews were dispatched countywide to extract each and every copy of the magazine, one at a time, by hand. "[Tropic editor] Bill Rose and I physically ripped the page out of every copy we could find in the office," Shroder says.
The next day Tropic was reprinted with a cartoon by Tom White substituted for Callahan. To solve the insertion problem, the magazine was placed inside the Herald's Sunday classifieds. Total cost, including the price of collecting the banned copies: $45,000.
"'I Have a Dream' is the single most identifiable statement about the yearnings of an entire oppressed people, and here it was tossed off in a very crude masturbation joke," explains Tom Shroder. "It was not making a legitimate observation about anything. And the art itself was verging on pornographic -- the actual portrayal of bodily fluids."
Shroder is the man who introduced Miami to the humor of John Callahan, a cartoonist whose work appears in a handful of newspapers nationwide. In an August 1989 column that welcomed Callahan to Tropic, Shroder compared the artist with Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, and Berke Breathed, of Bloom County fame. "Enter, extreme stage left, John Callahan, guerrilla cartoonist," the editor wrote. Elucidating the cartoonist's perverse appeal, Shroder offered a close reading of one of Callahan's more grotesque efforts: "'The Low Ceiling Fan Cafe' is a cartoon picturing a stream of patrons stumbling out the door of an eatery, headless and spurting blood: Callahan, full strength. Indigestible? That's what they said about Trudeau. Callahan is not funny in spite of his 'darker stuff.' He is funny because of it." Shroder also described Callahan's humor as "liberating."
That same 1989 issue of Tropic included a lengthy profile of John Callahan, chronicling the artist's life and discussing his quadriplegia, the result of a car accident. "I'm happiest when I'm offensive," reads one Callahan quote from the piece. "I have a desire to tear people in half. I want to move people out of the suburbs of their mind. I want them to suffer, to feel something real. I have a lot of anger. I want to hurt people. At least a little." (John Callahan did not return messages seeking his comment about the current controversy.)
Evidently Miami's only daily didn't want its readers pulled quite that far out of the suburbs of their minds.
Ken Conner, the Sunday editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, which also features Callahan's work, says his paper didn't run this particular submission, either. "Honestly, I laughed when I saw that cartoon," Conner admits. "But a lot of that was just laughing at what Callahan gets away with." While Herald editors assert that their primary concern was the cartoon's racial insensitivity, Conner says he was more worried about its explicit nature. "I'm not afraid of making fun of Martin Luther King -- he is as fair a target as anyone," says the Chronicle editor. "And [Shroder] is wrong, it really isn't a masturbation joke, it was a nocturnal-emission joke. That's where we drew the line: We don't like jokes that use bodily functions. In this cartoon, the amount of semen on the bed, well, it was just too graphic for us."
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Herald publisher David Lawrence goes a step further: "This cartoon fits my definition of what is trash. I wouldn't want to work for a newspaper that printed that."
Echoes Doug Clifton, the paper's executive editor: "It was awful. It could not run in a reputable newspaper that had any sensitivity to the people it serves."
Ten years ago Mark Zusman was one of the first editors in the U.S. to feature Callahan, in the Willamette Week, an alternative weekly in the artist's hometown of Portland, Oregon. "Callahan is a pretty black-humor guy. His humor is completely and utterly opaque," says Zusman, who recently ran the controversial cartoon. "That's what is so precious about the guy. Occasionally I run cartoons of his that make me wince. But that's part of the cost of having someone who steps right up to the line: Every now and then he might step over it. We afford him that opportunity. With Callahan, you buy the package and you take the good with the bad."
In the future, Miamians might not have to worry about either extreme. According to Doug Clifton, Callahan's long-term fate is under review. "I've never been a fan of it," Clifton says. "It is an element of Tropic I've never been fond of, and this just heightens that.