Al Capp is one of cartooning’s most protean talents: he created his hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner in 1934 and then populated it with a cast of thousands, mostly Dickensian eccentrics like Senator Jack S. Phogbound; the voluptuous Moonbeam McSwine, who liked pigs better than people; Joe Btfsplk, a jinx whose influence was symbolized by a small dark rain cloud that hovered always over his head; Evil-eye Fleegle, whose glance could fell an ox; Lena the Hyena, a woman so ugly that Capp wouldn’t draw her; and Appassionata van Climax, a sex symbol whose body, if not her name, says it all. Perhaps the most famous of his secondary characters was the one that threatened at times to take over the strip—Fearless Fosdick, a cleaver-jawed parody of another comic strip character, Dick Tracy.
Capp was born Alfred Gerald Caplin September 28, 1909, in New Haven, Connecticut, son of Otto Caplin, an unsuccessful salesman, and Matilda Davidson. Moving to Bridgeport and then Boston, the family lived near poverty much of the time. Young Alfred began drawing at an early age, a recreation he turned to increasingly (also reading voraciously) after the age of nine, when he lost his left leg under the wheels of a streetcar. After high school, he attended a series of art schools, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and the Designers Art School, where he met Catherine Wingate Cameron, whom he married in 1932. Upon completing his art courses, Capp (the pen name he adopted as his legal name in 1949) went to New York City to seek his fortune.
He eked out a living for months by selling advertising cartoons until he was hired by the Associated Press early in 1932 to produce a panel cartoon called Colonel Gilfeather. Discouraged by his inexperience and incompatible material, Capp quit after about six months and returned to Boston for more art classes and marriage. Back in New York in the spring of 1933, he was hired by Ham Fisher to assist in producing his comic strip, Joe Palooka. Shortly after working on a sequence involving hillbillies (which may have been inspired by Capp’s recollections of a trip he had made as a teenager through the Cumberland Mountains or by a vaudeville show he and his wife attended—or both), Capp began developing a comic strip of his own. Li’l Abner, featuring the outlandishly harrowing adventures of a family of mountain folk, started August 13, 1934; within six months, Capp had achieved both fame and wealth.
Li’l Abner Yokum, a red-blooded nineteen-year-old with the mature physique of a body-builder and the mind of an infant, lives contentedly with his diminutive Mammy, the pipe-smoking matriarch of the family, and his simpleton Pappy in poverty-stricken Dogpatch, a backwoods community perched precariously on the side of Onnecessary Mountain. The only cloud in the youth’s idyllic everyday blue sky is Daisy Mae Scragg, a skimpily clad blonde mountain houri who is forever pursuing him with (“gulp”) matrimony in mind; Li’l Abner, too stupid to realize even that he loves her, shuns the nuptial bond as well as her embrace, imagining them as somehow unmanly. Daisy Mae drags him before Marryin’ Sam at least once a year, but the ceremony is invariably nullified by some clanking plot contrivance; Capp finally permitted her to snare her beau ideal (or “idle,” to be more precise) for good on March 29, 1952.
Capp’s Candide, Li’l Abner is fated to wander often into a threatening outside world, where he encounters civilization—politicians and plutocrats, scientists and swindlers, mountebanks, bunglers, and love-starved maidens. By this device, Capp contrasts Li’l Abner’s country simplicity against society’s sophistication—or, more precisely, his innocence against its decadence, his purity against its corruption. Throughout, the comedy is circumstantial, arising from the preposterousness of Abner’s predicaments and his simplicity in dealing with them, not from carefully structured jokes. Capp’s effort was not so much to end his daily strips with punchlines as it was to finish with extravagant cliffhangers.
As a satirist, Capp ridiculed the pretensions and foibles of humanity—greed, bigotry, egotism, selfishness, vaulting ambition. All of man’s baser instincts, which the cartoonist saw manifest in many otherwise socially acceptable guises, were his targets. And he undertook to strip away the pretensions that masked those follies, revealing society (all civilization perhaps) as mostly artificial, often shallow and self-serving, usually avaricious, and ultimately, inhumane. Li’l Abner is the perfect foil in this enterprise: naive and unpretentious (and, not to gloss the matter, just plain stupid), Li’l Abner believes in all the idealistic preachments of his fellowman—and is therefore the ideal victim for their practices (which invariably fall far short of their noble utterances). He is both champion and fall guy.
Capp’s vehicle was burlesque, a mode of satirical comment that allows no fine gray shadings. Painted in stark blacks and whites, the world he revealed was divided simply into the Good (the Yokums) and the Bad (almost everybody else). Because he attacked the conventions of modern civilized society and because the most conspicuous upholders of those values were the wealthy and powerful members of the establishment and because America’s establishment was mostly political conservatives, most of the icons Capp smashed so exultantly were those of the political Right. Consequently, Capp was extremely popular with liberals.
Among Capp’s contributions to popular culture is Sadie Hawkins Day, an annual November footrace (the precise date of which, despite the calendar in our illustration, varies from source to source—and, doubtless, from year to year in Capp’s own mind) in which the unmarried women of Dogpatch pursue unmarried men across the countryside like so many hounds after the hare, marrying those whom they catch. Capp also invented Shmoos, cuddly, pliant pear-shaped creatures who cheerfully die to supply everyone’s needs. And he created Lower Slobbovia, a perpetually snow-bound Third World country of abject poverty and starvation. All provided grist for his satiric mill.
In the spring of 1948, Capp was named “cartoonist of the year 1947” by the National Cartoonists Society, the second recipient of the award. (The first was Capp’s lifelong friend, Milton Caniff.) And the following fall, perhaps in a fit of jealousy, Ham Fisher made a thinly veiled accusation in his strip that Capp had appropriated the idea for a comic strip about hillbillies from Fisher. Fisher’s allegation precipitated the profession’s most publicly conducted feud. Capp struck back by ridiculing Fisher; and Fisher reciprocated by circulating copies of Li’l Abner that had been cropped to draw attention to the nearly subliminal sexual images Capp inserted, from time to time, into the strip. By 1954, when the cartooning industry was threatened with censorship because of the excesses of crime comic books, syndicated cartoonists were fearful of the consequences of Fisher’s shenanigans, and when he would not admit he’d misbehaved, NCS suspended him from membership in early 1955. It was a blow from which Fisher did not recover: Two days after Christmas that year, Fisher took an overdose of pills and died. His tragedy was largely self-inflicted; Capp bore no particular responsibility for it, but his name would be forever linked with Fisher’s in the annals of the Society.
Not content with the outlet Li’l Abner afforded him, Capp branched out into other venues all through his career. In 1937, he launched another comic strip, a somewhat more serious narrative about a crusty old spinster and her manly nephew called Abbie and Slats, which he wrote and Raeburn Van Buren drew; after nine years, Capp’s brother Elliot took over the scripting, continuing until the strip ceased in 1971. And in 1954, Capp started writing yet another strip, Long Sam, starring a female version of Li’l Abner; drawn by Bob Lubbers, it ran until 1962.
An expert at creating publicity about himself and his strip, Capp enjoyed a second albeit simultaneous career as an after-dinner speaker and newspaper columnist, leaving most of the drawing on the strip to his assistants while he concentrated on writing the scripts. Capp was also a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows, regaling his audiences with his analyses of contemporary events, outrageous commentaries which he punctuated with jubilant hoots of self-appreciative laughter.
In the 1960s, his target was often student protest against the Vietnam War: in the strip, college youths were all members of S.W.I.N.E., “Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything.” Touring college campuses as a speaker, Capp seemingly delighted at the outrage he provoked among the students in his audience. But he was roundly criticized by his traditional constituency of liberals for the unyielding rigor of his attacks on the New Left. It was assumed that Capp had defected and gone over to the Right. But Capp’s objective as a satirist remained constant: the fanaticism of the New Left was no less a human folly in his eyes than the rigidity of the Right in seeking to preserve the conventions of its social order. Capp took folly where he found it and unceremoniously ripped the veils of self-righteousness away, roaring with Rabelaisian laughter all the while.
“The strip was about the way the powerful use power—and abuse the powerless,” Capp once said. And in the 1960s, the power changed hands, passing from the establishment to the anti-establishment. So Capp changed targets.
“I’ve always been for those who are being shamed, disgraced, and ignored by other people,” Capp said. “Now it’s the poor bastard who works who is being denounced by the liberals. For chrissakes, these working stiffs are keeping the country afloat. They were denounced, and it got me damn mad. And one of the things I found was that when I was all for liberal attitudes—and I believed in them—the conservatives showed me only icy contempt. I never got a letter from them. They just hated me. When I began attacking the liberals, the conservatives maintained their icy silence, but the liberals began denouncing me by the thousands of letters every week.”
Then in 1971, the merry-go-round stopped. On the campus of a Wisconsin university, a co-ed blew the whistle on Capp, accusing him of making indecent advances in a motel room to which she had, apparently, lured him. Formal charges of indecent exposure and attempted sodomy were subsequently dropped when Capp agreed to plead guilty to attempted adultery.
By this time, Capp’s womanizing was no longer secret. Goldie Hawn, for one, had told in Playboy (January 1985) of his propositioning her. His longtime friend Milton Caniff believed that Capp’s mistake had been approaching “amateurs.”
“Al was down in New York every week and sometimes for weeks at a time, having his fun,” he told me. “He had some good lookin’ broads, believe me. They all flocked to him, thinking that he could do them some good in their careers. He seldom got caught because he didn’t have anything to do with amateurs: the women he squired around town here were obviously gals on the make—showgirl types, gals who wanted to be seen with celebrities. The old badger game he fell into in Wisconsin could have happened only in a place like Wisconsin—not around here.”
As soon as he heard of the co-ed’s charges, Caniff fired off a telegram to his old friend. Just four words: “Who do we slug?”
“It was just what he needed,” Caniff remembered. “He wrote me a long letter about that little telegram.”
But the incident rocked Capp. And newspapers began canceling Li’l Abner, and Capp was no longer invited to speak at campuses or to appear on tv talk shows. Capp was also ill, suffering from emphysema, which was getting worse as he continued his daily cigarette consumption. By the fall of 1977, he knew he was no longer up to the task for doing a daily comic strip, and, rather than bequeath his burlesque bumpkin to “some kid” to ghost, he discontinued Li’l Abner on November 13, 1977. Almost exactly two years later, on November 5, Capp died after a long illness complicated by emphysema. It was sad, Caniff said; but he and his wife Bunny had also felt a sense of relief, he told me: the ordeal for Capp’s wife Catherine was now over.
Bibliography. The chief events of Al Capp’s life and career are rehearsed in the standard histories and reference works about the medium: The Comics (1947) by Coulton Waugh, Comic Art in America (1959) by Stephen Becker, and The Encyclopedia of American Comics (1990) by Ron Goulart. Additional details can be found in “Die Monstersinger,” the cover story for Time, November 6, 1950; “Recap on Al Capp” by William Furlong in The Saturday Evening Post, Winter 1971; “The Truth About Al Capp” by Richard Marschall in Cartoonist PROfiles No. 37 (March 1978); The New York Times obituary, November 6, 1979; “We Called Him Alfred” by Elliot Caplin in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 48 (December 1980); and “The Storyteller” by Dave Schreiner, the introduction to the first of a multi-volume reprinting of Li’l Abner by Kitchen Sink Press (1988). Several books reprinting various sequences of Li’l Abner have been published: The Life and Times of the Shmoo (1948), The World of Li’l Abner (1952, with prefatory matter by John Steinbeck and Charles Chaplin), From Dogpatch to Slobbovia: The (Gasp!) World of Li’l Abner (1964), and The Best of Li’l Abner (1978). A collection of Capp’s newspaper writing, illustrated by Capp, was published as The Hardhat’s Bedtime Story Book (1971). And a posthumous anthology of autobiographical essays (including Capp’s notorious attack on Ham Fisher) appeared as My Well Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg: Memoirs in 1991.
For Even Further Reading. If you find the biographies of newspaper cartoonists fascinating (as I do), you will probably enjoy my book, The Art of the Funnies, a history of the newspaper comic strip that concentrates on the cartoonists whose work shaped the medium the most. For a preview, click here.