“Vote for Pelswick! Boo-ya!!” booms Gram Gram as she cyclones around the junior high school lunchroom on her motor scooter, tossing pieces of gum at students. This mayhem is her way of supporting her grandson’s run for class president. Though, he really doesn’t want to win, because (here, at least) that would mean having to wear a prune outfit to all the classes to promote National Prune Week!
Wacky ideas like these abound in the world of Pelswick, the newest, off-the-wall, and groundbreaking cartoon which premiered October 24 on Nickelodeon. While Pel’s speedy grandma and her, well, innovative campaign strategies explain new and off-the-wall, the animated series breaks ground as the first cartoon centered on a character with a disability.
The hero of the show, Pelswick Eggert, uses a wheelchair. This gutsy, common-sense 13 year-old smiles through the toughest dilemmas with a gifted sense of wit. For example, in the first show, he escapes the agony of becoming class president by gaining 99 percent of the student vote, then persuading them to elect Boyd Scullarzo, the bully who nominated Pel in the first place!
John Callahan, the creator of the cartoon, in a talk with Access Press explains the importance of Pelswick’s witty approach to life. He notes “I want viewers to remember that Pelswick has a knack for seeing things the way they really are. People should remember that he uses his wit to deal with his environment. He’s very witty and very resourceful. I think that the spirit that he has is memorable.”
A passenger in a car accident at the age of 21, the artist also faces quadraplegia. He continues, saying that a sense of humor has helped him in his own life. “I found cartooning very therapeutic to sort out my world–to use humor to deal with the difficulties of my life. It puts things in perspective. More of a realistic perspective, a lighter perspective.”
It’s this light perspective that lifts any Pelswick viewer. Aside from characters like Gram Gram and Boyd, the bully who looks a bit like a bowling pin, Pelswick’s world includes a buddy named Goon who flosses his nose with spaghetti and Mr. Jimmy (voice of Scream’s David Arquette) who serves as Pel’s mentor and uses stories about pimples to relay truths to the toon’s hero. Many of these characters, like Pel’s best friend, Ace, have evolved into zany adaptations of people Callahan knew in his own youth.
The idea that Pelswick is about someone who uses a wheelchair takes second stage to the idea that this is a cartoon about a smart, funny, cool kid. Even from the opening credits–he zooms across the wires of a suspension bridge, his friends perched on the wheels of his chair–it is clear that he is respected, even admired by his peers. He is able to do things that not everybody else can do, but he is not portrayed as a superhero. Instead, he’s realistic. When he moves out of bed and directly into his wheelchair, for example, the scene occurs with a matter-of-fact dignity. Just like any kid, Pelswick has his own set of strengths and challenges, and his own routine before school in the morning!
“Hopefully people will see…he just wants to be treated normally. It’s important that people see him as a regular kid.” Callahan goes further to say, “Pelswick is a show for everyone. Hopefully people will see that it’s just a plain funny and entertaining show.”
Response to the first episode has been encouraging. A local member of the disability community, Melanie Fry mentions that she was “delighted to see an image of an active, wise-cracking, and appropriate teenager who happened to use a wheelchair.”
“Pelswick,” she explains, “is about someone making his way with a strong identity as a kid. He is a kid first, a wheelchair-rider second.”
Fry also added that the show really amused her 13 year-old daughter and her friends. “The humor is classic Callahan. The girls ‘EWW!!’ed at all the right moments. They thought it was really funny.”
The Pelswick series will air on Nickelodeon, Tuesdays at 8pm. Callahan also discussed developing the cartoon into a feature film.
In addition, over 75 newspapers carry comics by the nationally syndicated cartoonist. He has seven collections of cartoons and has written several books such as The King of Things and the Cranberry Clown for children and his autobiography, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot! which made it to the New York Times Best Seller list. Callahan resides in Portland, Oregon and, in 1991, he received the Freedom of Expression Award: the ACLU Foundation of Oregon’s highest honor.