Li'l Abner, Al Capp 1968

Al Capp was an American comic writer and artist, most famous for his long-running series 'Li'l Abner' (1934-1977). During its heydays the newspaper comic penetrated popular culture in degrees unimaginable today. The adventures of Abner and his hillbilly friends were extraordinarily popular. They ran in over 900 U.S. newspaper and were translated in 28 countries. The series was adapted in various media. 'Li'l Abner' was praised for its dynamic artwork, imaginative storylines, colourful characters and witty, yet sometime biting political-social satire. Real-life celebrities were often given cameos, while current events were frequently referenced. Capp even satirized comics itself! Together with George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat', Walt Kelly's 'Pogo' and Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts' it was one of the first American comics to receive critical praise and popularity among intellectuals. Compared with other comic artists at the time, Capp was also a notable public figure and one of the most recognizable cartoonists in the USA. He was additionally known for the series 'Washable Jones', 'Small Fry' and 'Advice for Chillun'. while writing scripts for 'Abbie an' Slats' (1937-1971, art by Raeburn Van Buren) and 'Long Sam' (1954-1962, art by Bob Lubbers).  However, later in his career, Capp's reputation was considerably damaged due to his increasingly preachy conservative opinions and various sex scandals. Since then, 'Li'l Abner', has somewhat been forgotten, despite its once global popularity and respect. Nevertheless, Al Capp remains a huge influence on numerous satirical comics made after World War II. 

Early life
Alfred Gerald Caplin was born in 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut as a son of Latvian-Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Otto Philip Caplin, was a poor businessman who drew cartoons in his spare time. Capp's brother, Elliot Caplin, would later also become a comic writer, best known as the co-creator of Stan Drake's 'The Heart of Juliet Jones' and Russell Myers' 'Broom-Hilda'. Capp enjoyed reading as a child and devoured both world literature and newspaper comics. His graphic influences were Phil May, Billy DeBeck, Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, Frederick Burr Opper, George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett and Tad Dorgan. At the age of 9, he was hit by a trolley car and fell into a coma. Doctors amputated his left leg while he was unconscious. This traumatic incident, along with his family's poverty, had a strong impact on his life. He never received a high school diploma and despite studying art at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Designers Art School in Boston, he was thrown out each time because he was unable to pay his tuition.

Colonel Gilfeather by Al Capp

Colonel Gilfeather (Mister Gilfeather)
In 1932 he hitchhiked to New York City, where he eventually found a job at Associated Press, taking over Dick Dorgan's comic strip 'Colonel Gilfeather'. Capp changed the title into 'Mister Gilfeather', but after only a few months he left the series to a young Milton Caniff, who would become a lifelong friend.

Joe Palooka
In 1933 he worked as a ghost artist on Ham Fisher's 'Joe Palooka'. However, a year later he quit to start his own series. 'Li'l Abner' on 13 August 1934. This soured their working relationship. For years Fisher claimed that Capp plagiarized his ideas and even fabricated supposed "pornographic imagery" hidden in pages of 'Li'l Abner' to tar and feather his name. When the National Cartoonists Society investigated the accusation, Fisher's hoax was easily exposed and resulted in him being banned from the same organisation he once founded. Their hatred was so mutual that even when Fisher committed suicide in 1955, Capp felt this was "his greatest accomplishment" and a "personal victory".

Li'l Abner
Early 'Li'l Abner' (1936).

Li'l Abner
Meanwhile, on 13 August 1934, Al Capp launched the comic strip that would make him famous: 'Li'l Abner'. All stories are set in Kentucky, in the fictional city Dogpatch, and center around a hillbilly family. Father Pappy is a slow-witted, lazy good-for-nothing, while Mother Mammy is both feisty and super strong. Abner, the hero of the series, inherited his mother's strength, but unfortunately also his father's stupidity. Many storylines have the naïve hayseed get into trouble and being fooled by tricksters. Abner's girlfriend, Daisy Mae, usually has to help him out. A running gag is that Daisy usually chases Abner - who is scared of marriage - instead of the other way around.

Li'l Abner cast

While many episodes were set in Dogpatch, the characters also travelled to others parts of the world, some of them fictional. The most famous of these was Lower Slobbovia, the most backwards nation on Earth. Capp not only expanded his characters' universe, but filled it with countless eccentric and unforgettable characters. Among the bizarre people Abner met were Joe Btfsplk, a man whose head is covered by a thunder cloud and who brings everybody bad luck. Another was Lena Hyena - "the ugliest woman ever" and Silent Yokum, Abner's monosyllabic cousin who only spoke whenever necessary. Capp used the character often to provide cliffhangers at the end of each episode. 

Li'l Abner by Al Capp
'Li'l Abner' (15 September 1946).

The villains were interesting too, such as the crooked salesman Available Jones, the heartless capitalist General Bullmoose, the owner of the evil eye Ol' Man Mose and the Scraggs family, who "were so evil that they once set an orphanage on fire just to have light while reading - despite being analfabetics". The protagonists also encountered strange creatures, such the Bald Iggle - whose gaze caused everybody to tell the truth -, the Turnip Termites, who were a cross between a grasshopper and a piranha, and, of course, the Shmoos, adorable animals who are so beneficial to mankind, both as entertainment as well as food, that they need to be wiped out, because they are threat to business...

Li'l Abner by Al Capp

'Li'l Abner' was launched on 13 August 1934 in The New York Mirror and eight other US newspapers through United Feature Syndicate (nowadays United Media). Right from the start it was an instant success. Capp used common humor comic elements, such as slapstick and running gags, but also added a more sophisticated kind of comedy. Various storylines were satirical metaphors for real-life political and social issues, such as capitalism, racism, the Cold War, Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts, radical movements, etc. A 1947 episode poking fun at the American Senate was even censored for not being "sound citizenship". Capp satirized many celebrities of his day, from Hollywood stars to US presidents. Soon the storylines evolved more around these subplots, references and side characters than the main cast.

Fearless Fosdick by Al Capp
'Fearless Fosdick by Lester Gooch' in the Li'l Abner strip of 19 February 1950.

Fearless Fosdick
Particularly notable was a comic strip-within-the-strip, 'Fearless Fosdick', which parodied Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy'. Capp also lampooned other popular comics, such as Milton Caniff's 'Steve Canyon', Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel's 'Superman', Allen Saunders and Dale Conner's 'Mary Worth', Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts', Nicholas P. Dallis' 'Rex Morgan, M.D.', Harold Gray's 'Little Orphan Annie' and Ed Verdier's 'Little Annie Rooney'. Such levels of satire were unprecedented in any comic strip at the time and happened years before Harvey Kurtzman's Mad Magazine even existed. Fosdick was so popular that he actually achieved what Abner never could: have his own puppet show for children on CBS. The emission was broadcast from 1 June to 2 September 1952.

Li'l Abner
Abner and Daisy Mae's wedding in 1952.

Success and cultural influence
Soon 'Li'l Abner' became a cultural phenomenon. At the height of its popularity the series ran in over 900 U.S. newspapers. It inspired a radio serial, comedy films, animated cartoons by Columbia Pictures, a Broadway musical and between 17 May 1968 and 14 October 1993 even a theme park in Arkansas, Dogpatch USA! Near the end of the 1940s, America was swooped into a media frenzy over the Shmoo character, whose likeness inspired various toys, consumer products and a dance craze. The creature became so infamous that during the 1948 US presidential elections, Republican candidate Thomas Dewey accused President Harry S. Truman of "promising everything, including the Shmoo!"

When Abner and Daisy Mae finally married in 1952 the event made the cover of Life magazine! Various neologisms derived from 'Li'l Abner' have entered the English language, such as "double whammy", "skunk works", "Lower Slobbovia", "druthers", "hogwash", "natcherly", "irregardless" and "shmoo". Capp also popularized the tendency to add "-nik" behind certain nouns, which he derived from the Yiddish-Russian language. The first codebreaking computer used by the National Security Agency was named 'ABNER' and since November 1937 to this day, various American high schools and colleges still organize "Sadie Hawkins Days", where young females are encouraged to ask young men out for a date. Capp even took credit for the invention of the miniskirt, which his character Daisy Mae already wore in 1934, three decades before it became an actual fashion trend.

'Li'l Abner' was also a global success. The series ran in numerous newspapers all over the world and was translated in several languages, including Swedish ('Knallhatten'), Portuguese ('Fernando', in Brazil as 'Família Buscapé') and French (in certain French-language countries it ran under different titles: 'Ti-Bert Le Montagnard', 'Abner Le Petit Américain', 'Le Jeune Samson', 'Le Petit Joson').

Li'l Abner by Al Capp
Sadie Hawkins Day was first introduced in November 1937, and then returned annually.

Li'l Abner rip-offs
Predictably, the franchise also spawned several imitations. Comics like Jess Benton's 'Jasper Jooks' (1948-1949), Frank Frazetta's 'Looie Lazybones', Boody Rogers' 'Babe', Art Gates' 'Gumbo Galahad', Don Dean's 'Pokey Oakey' and Ray Gotto's 'Ozark Ike' (1945-1953) and 'Cotton Woods' (1955-1958) all dealt with hillbilly stereotypes. Even the popular TV sitcom 'The Beverly Hillbillies' (1962-1971) took the mustard from 'Li'l Abner'. Yet none of these rip-offs ever matched, left alone surpassed, Capp's imagination and nose for clever social commentary. 

Li'l Abner parodies
'Li'l Abner' was also famous enough to be spoofed. Will Eisner created a parody of the series, 'Li'l Adam', in a 20 July 1947 episode of his own comics series 'The Spirit'. Capp himself had suggested this crossover and guaranteed him that he would make a parody of 'The Spirit' in 'Li'l Abner'. Yet Eisner waited in vain for Capp to make his part of the deal. It has never been explained why Capp did this, but it soured Eisner's appreciation for his work forever. In 1958 Walt Kelly had his character Barnstable Bear in 'Pogo' create his own comic strip 'Li'l Orphan Abner', which simultaneously spoofed Harold Gray's 'Little Orphan Annie' too. Harvey Kurtzman  and Will Elder spoofed 'Li'l Abner' as 'L'l Ab'r' in the first issue of Kurtzman's satirical magazine Trump (January 1957).  In the Fourth Annual Edition of the Worst from Mad Wallace Wood created 'Li'l Abneh' (1961) in which Capp is depicted as a ruthless moneygrabber named 'Al Capital'. Ed Fisher and Elder published yet another parody in issue #8 (September 1961) of Help!, titled 'Dogpatch Revisited', in which the hillbilly community has been changed beyond recognition. Roger Brunel also made a sex parody in the 1970s-1980s. 

Celebrity fans 
'Li'l Abner' garnered celebrity fans such as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Marshall McLuhan, John Updike, William F. Buckley, Harpo Marx, Russ Meyer, Al Hirschfeld, John Kenneth Galbraith and Queen Elizabeth II. Novelist John Steinbeck named Capp "possibly the best writer in the world today" and recommended him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Both he and Chaplin wrote forewords to a 1953 paperback collection of 'Li'l Abner'. Frank Sinatra enjoyed Capp's caricature of him and always sent him champagne whenever he saw him in a restaurant. Arthur Asa Berger devoted an essay to the series, 'Li'l Abner: A Study in American Satire' (1969), making it one of the first U.S. comics to be subject of serious analysis.

Other people took their satirical depictions in a less favorable light. Pianist Liberace threatened with a lawsuit and folk singer Joan Baez even put this threat into action, but lost her case. When 'Li'l Abner' parodied 'Gone With the Wind', its author Margaret Mitchell was so angry that Capp was forced to publish a printed apology in the papers.  

Li'l Abner comic bookLi'l Abner comic book
The success of the newspaper comic also led to a comic book series published by Toby Press in the 1950s.

Despite these minor complaints, 'Li'l Abner' made Capp both rich and famous. In 1947 he sued United Feature Syndicate and gained the rights over all of his comics. He founded his own company, Capp Enterprises, and gathered some assistants to help him with his work: Stuart Hample (writing), Andy Amato (inking), Harvey Curtis (inking and lettering), Walter Johnson (backgrounds) and Frank Frazetta (drawing). 

Other comics
Apart from 'Li'l Abner' Capp also drew the "topper" strips 'Washable Jones', 'Small Fry' and 'Advice fo' Chillun' in 1935. He wrote scripts for Raeburn Van Buren's 'Abbie an' Slats' (1937-1971), a similar humor adventure strip published in more than 400 newspapers. In 1945 Capp left the writing to his brother, Elliot Caplin.

Long Sam
His final other comics series was 'Long Sam' (1954-1962), about a naïve hillbilly woman sheltered by her overprotective mother. The artwork was provided by Bob Lubbers, until Capp once again left the writing over to his brother Elliot. Stuart Hample also worked as a ghost writer on the series.

Al Capp in Time Magazine

Media fame and humanitarian work
At the height of his fame Capp was one of the most recognizable cartoonists in the world. He wrote his own columns in magazines such as Life, Show, Pageant, The Atlantic, Esquire, Coronet, The Schenectady Gazette (nowadays The Daily Gazette) and The Saturday Evening Post. He and Lee Falk ran the Boston Summer Theatre together. Capp often appeared in talk- and game shows, even hosting a few himself: 'The Al Capp Show' (1952) (1968), 'Anyone Can Win' (1953), 'Al Capp's America' (1954) and 'Al Capp' (1971-1972). At one point he seriously considered running for a seat in the Senate of Massachusetts. He was additionally known for his charitable work. The generous cartoonist often gave away money to people he pitied, from struggling students to police widows. He supported the Sister Kenny Foundation who provided polio research and made several special 'Li'l Abner' stories as free gifts for public service organizations. Capp often visited hospitals to cheer up people who recently underwent an amputation to inform them out of his own personal experience that their lives were still worthwile. In a time when discrimination was more institutionalized than today, Capp supported civil rights for African-Americans and homosexuals and in 1949 briefly resigned from the National Cartoonists Society to protest their disallowment of female members. Thanks to his activism the organisation changed its rules and allowed women in the club.

'Li'l Abner' (26 November 1949).

Yet Capp's behaviour could be very contradictive at the same time. As progressive as some of his viewpoints towards minorities were, he once denied a request from Martin Luther King in rather harsh and unfair terms. In 1964 King asked Capp by letter for funds to protect black people from white violence in the American South. Since Capp's studio had helped out the civil rights movement in the past by producing the comic 'Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story' (1957, by Alfred Hassler, Benton Resnik and Sy Barry) King expected a positive reply. Yet Capp wrote back: "(...) When organizations like yours, and leaders like yourself recognize the fact that violence, discrimination and terror are practiced by black Americans against white Americans and bend at least some of your efforts to cleaning up your own mess - people like Governor Wallace will not get such support, and people like me will not feel disenchanted." 

Oddly enough for a supporter of female rights, Capp also had several extramarital affairs and was frequently accused of sexual harassment, sodomy and even indecent exposure. On 8 May 1971 he was official charged with a warrant. In a reaction printed in the New York Times that day Capp blamed it on left-wing opponents: "The allegations are entirely untrue. I have been warned for some time now that the revolutionary left would try to stop me by any means from speaking out on campuses. My home has been vandalized and I have been physically threatened. This is also part of their campaign to stop me. Those who have faith in me know that I will not be stopped.” On 12 February 1972 the trial ended in a 500 dollar fine, plus costs in morals, albeit only for the charge of "attempted adultery" as part of a plea bargain.

Nevertheless the controversy damaged his public image severely. He was no longer invited to media appearances and several papers dropped 'Li'l Abner' from publication. Recorded conversations from within the White House show that even president Nixon was worried that the allegations against Capp might cause an embarrassment towards his own presidency as well, seeing that the artist was such an outspoken supporter of his policies. In a January 1985 interview, published in Hugh Hefner's Playboy, Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn claimed that Capp had once tried to sexually harrass her, at age 19, during a casting interview. According to her she refused, whereupon he got angry and incorrectly predicted she would never have a career "and would be better off marrying a Jewish dentist." When Hawn became famous later she even wrote him a letter back about the matter, but never received a reply. On 11 May 2017 she revealed more details about this encounter, which got more media attention later that year on the wave of the 'Me#too' revelations about sexual harrassment by media celebrities. 

Capp's conservative viewpoints also alienated his fans and especially younger audiences. He vocally supported the U.S. Republican Party, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. In 1969, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their famous 'Bed-In' peace protests in Amsterdam, Capp visited them. He called them out for their "naïve and phony" peace activism and their nude appearance on the album cover of 'Two Virgins' (1968). Video footage of their heated discussion can be seen in the documentary 'Imagine: John Lennon' (1988). Capp not only ventilated his anger about the hippie generation in interviews: it also showed up in his work. Too many episodes were frustrated attacks at whatever irked him about "the youth of today." Even readers who were conservative themselves grew tired of his preachiness. Capp's assistants were fed up as well. They either quit or got fired, forcing him to rely on less skilled artists instead. 

Li'l Abner by Al Capp
'Li'l Abner' (22 March 1960).

Al Capp won the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award (nowadays Reuben Award) (1947) and an Inkpot Award (1978). He posthumously received the Elzie Segar Award (1979) and in 2004 was inducted in the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. 

Final years and death
During the 1960s and 1970s both the quality and popularity 'Li'l Abner' seriously diminished. The series felt increasingly out-of-touch with modern times. Artwork became sloppier since only amateurs were willing to work for him any longer. His controversial public image and sex scandals overshadowed his work. On 13 November 1977 Capp terminated 'Li'l Abner', since his heart was no longer in it. Feeling somewhat guilty, he wrote a public apology in the newspapers, blaming the decline in quality on his own ill health. His final years were made all the more tragic by the sudden death of one of his daughters and his granddaughter a few weeks later. Capp grew more reclusive and died in 1979 from emphysema. According to biographers Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen, the comics legend had one of his assistants destroy entire contents of a storage unit a few years before his death, because some of it contained "incriminating material".

Li'l Abner
'Li'l Abner' (6 June 1952).

Legacy and influence
During their heydays 'Li'l Abner' and creator Al Capp were instantly recognizable to millions of people. The comic was adapted in various media and merchandising. Critics and intellectuals praised it as sophisticated satire. Its fame, popularity and recognition lasted decades. And yet, despite it all, 'Li'l Abner' is nowadays almost forgotten. Even in overviews of the greatest and most artistic comics of all time it is often overlooked. Considering what a cultural phenomenon it once was, this is almost astonishing. The fall from grace was mostly caused by all the controversy surrounding Capp. Former fans felt embarrassed to admit they once liked his work. Colleagues and newspapers distanced themselves. Since his death, most media barely discussed, referenced or mentioned 'Li'l Abner', since it had all become too tainted. And even if it was subject for a news item, it usually dealt more with Capp's problematic personality. As a result younger generations have been automatically turned off, which unfairly spread to his comics too. 

In 1989 a revival of 'Li'l Abner' was considered, with Steve Stiles as the new artist. Capp's widow and brother approved, but since his daughter didn't the plan was axed at the last minute. Apart from bad publicity and no new episodes 'Li'l Abner' also lacked a complete available collection of classic episodes. Smaller compilations have been printed over the decades, but an attempt by Kitchen Sink Press in 1989 to republish the entire 55 year-running series chronologically stranded in 1999, when the company went bankrupt. In 2010 IDW tried another stab at the mammoth task and is still going strong as of this point.

Al Capp
Photo © 1966 The Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Despite not being as popular and widely known as it used to be, 'Li'l Abner' is far from forgotten. The series paved the way for later satirical comics and cartoons, such as Walt Kelly's 'Pogo', Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts', Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's parodies in Mad Magazine, Garry Trudeau's 'Doonesbury' and Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons'. Among the artists influenced by Capp are Gus ArriolaJules FeifferRalph Bakshi, Al Hirschfeld, Daniel Clowes, Frank Frazetta, Denis Kitchen, Mell Lazarus, Marten ToonderEvert Geradts, Albert UderzoFrank ChoBill PlymptonDan Collins, Roger LawRay BillingsleyRichard Sala and Shel Silverstein. Mell Lazarus published a comic novel in 1963, 'The Boss Is Crazy', about his apprentice years with Capp. Capp was also directly responsible for launching the career of Mad cartoonist Basil Wolverton. In 1942 he organized a readers' contest to send in drawings of his invisible character Lena the Hyena, who reportedly was the ugliest woman on the planet. Wolverton's entry won and motivated him to draw more beautiful drawings of ugly people.

Books about Al Capp
For those interested in the life of this remarkable man the biographies 'Enigma of Al Capp' (1999) by Alexander Theroux and Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen's 'Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary' (2013) are a must-read.

Al Capp and Li'l Abner

Interview with Al Capp's biographers

Series and books by Al Capp in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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