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Beautifully Twisted

Illustrator Jim Callahan's latest project, Born Ugly, draws on the sensibilities of a 13-year-old trapped in a man's body.



The artist best known as Barf likes to take his dog, Pizza, for walks around Richmond. He also likes to imagine those same Oregon Hill landmarks that Pizza salivates over covered in flesh-eating zombies and exploding brains.

To wrap your head around illustrator Jim Callahan, you have to zoom in past his industrious work ethic and Southern-gentleman drawl, sit with his sick-o imagination for a while, then refocus on his Lost-Boy face, unfazed when he says the word “anus.”

“I am the oldest 13-year-old you will ever meet,” Callahan says.

That may be, but a preteen would never have the perverse amount of patience it takes to render Barf's slime and gore scenes as pristinely on the page — or the ingenuity to turn them into a bill-paying industry.

Take his latest project, Born Ugly, a skate-art-biting-opinion magazine Callahan started with artist and amigo Mickael Broth. The latest edition opens with a classic Barf comic. After devouring chips and pizza, the Pope's intestines start to quake and he rushes to the Vati-Can. The result? The Table of Incontinence — listing the magazine's offerings — spelled out of an explosion of doo-doo. The comic brims with lewd humor, but also with complicated fabric and skin folds — obsessive high-brow detailing seemingly at odds with his fascination with the lower intestine.

Callahan adds most of his color through Photoshop, but spends hours and hours hand drawing the clean lines of his dirty, dirty illustrations.

Callahan, 30, wraps up a flurry of magazine-related details over his cell phone recently before settling in for an obscenely large cup of brewed adrenaline and a fuller explanation of his latest project. Though he laughs along gamely when queried on how many decapitated heads he's drawn, he seems mostly overextended and drained, apologizing for his tardiness in correspondence. An unidentified red splotch on his T-shirt hints at a morning death-ray battle, or, more likely, paint from a skate-deck job he squeezed in pre-interview.

Born Ugly, which launched in May, is Callahan's first turn as art director of a magazine, though he's had plenty of publishing experience before now, mostly projects he's pushed into the world on his own. He self-published a 48-page collection of full-color miscellany, “Barf Comics #1,” in October, wrote and illustrated two comics, “Booyah the Oblitorator” (2008) and “Rotting in Dirtville” (2006), on his lonesome, and has his own skateboard-deck and design company, Nowhere Skateboards.

Usually my ideas come from wanting to see a concept done, but no one is doing it,” he says. The hand-written letter from the editor in Born Ugly's premiere issue announces its birth in a similar spirit: “We're starting a magazine during a deep recession and at a time when print media is dying. What the fuck are we thinking? Well, we're thinking we live for skateboarding, drinking beer, and drawing fucked up shit and we want to make a magazine about those things. So fuck it.” The idea's ludicrous, but not unexpected, coming from Broth and Callahan. Perversions of expectations are their specialty.

Skaters and graffiti artists are known to flout convention, and the law, and Broth and Callahan are no exception. Cops kicked them off the lot where they built makeshift ramps for the first issue's launch party. The July issue features a photograph of the bolt cutters they used to break into the lot, the culprit's face conveniently covered. In light of this, the magazine's focus on civic redemption comes as a bit of a surprise.

In May's issue, the guys interview a skater who helped build Green Skate Lab, the sustainably designed concrete bowl in Washington. In the current issue they talk with Thomas Taylor of the Foundation in Atlanta, a gang of hoodlums, ahem, collective-building group, that took over a vacant lot a few years back and started building concrete structures for skating. Despite the park's roguish beginning, it received corporate sponsorship from the skate-and-surf company Quicksilver, and when the city bought the lot for a park, the original builders and skaters were invited to help redesign the site.

If the testicles and high-definition skate-trick photographs in Born Ugly lure younger readers into more nutritious stories about cooperating with the authorities, his snot-covered comics conceal a still nerdier Barf endeavor.

Since 2003, Callahan has been illustrating science and math textbooks for the publishing company McGraw-Hill. He mostly draws innocent unit openers — kids with baking soda volcanoes beating out Einstein and Freud at the science fair — but he's gotten to do some weirder things. In a series illustrating Red scare paranoia schemes, robotic soldiers skyrocket over from Russia, and radioactive fighter dogs Taser elegant versions of Barf's own greyhound-pit bull mix, Pizza. It's as gruesome and strange as he's been allowed to get, but he doesn't mind.

“It's been great,” Callahan says. He's not only getting paid for getting kids excited about learning through his favorite thing — comics — but also McGraw-Hill gave him the responsibility of researching the academic topics himself.

That's right.

Your children's textbooks really are written by a guy called Barf. S


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