Alfred Gerald Caplin, known as Al Capp, was one of the most praised satirists of the 1940s and 1950s. His long-running comic strip 'Li'l Abner' was a phenomenon during its heyday, published in over 900 American newspapers and 28 countries. It inspired radio series, puppet shows, films, animated cartoons, jazz songs and a theater musical; it penetrated American pop culture in degrees unimaginable today. Together with 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.
Capp 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 comics 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.
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. In 1933 he worked as a ghost artist on Ham Fisher's 'Joe Palooka'. However, a year later he quit the comic and started his own series, 'Lil' Abner'. This soured their working relationship.
Early Li'l Abner (1936)
For years Fisher would claim 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' is set in Kentucky, in the fictional city Dogpatch, and centers 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.
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. 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' 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.
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.
Soon 'Li'l Abner' became a cultural phenomenon, enjoyed by millions of readers all over the world. It inspired a radio serial, comedy films, animated cartoons by Columbia Pictures, a Broadway musical and even a theme park between 1968 and 1993! 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", "shmoo" and the tendency to add "-nik" behind certain nouns. The first codebreaking computer used by the National Security Agency was named 'ABNER' and 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.
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. This also allowed the comic strip to reach a demographic who previously ignored comics: intellectuals.
The series was one of the first American comics to be subject of a serious analysis in Arthur Asa Berger's 'Li'l Abner: A Study in American Satire' (1969). It garnered celebrity fans such as Charlie Chaplin, 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 Charlie 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. 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.
Despite these minor complaints, 'Li'l Abner' made Capp both rich and famous. In 1947 he won the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award (nowadays Reuben Award). The same year he also sued United Feature Syndicate and gained the rights over all of his comics. Capp founded his own company, Capp Enterprises, and gathered some assistants to help him with his work: Andy Amato (inking), Harvey Curtis (inking and lettering), Walter Johnson (backgrounds) and Frank Frazetta (drawing). By dividing the work, he received more time for numerous public appearances. The celebrated comic artist appeared in many talk- and game shows, even hosting a few himself: 'The Al Capp Show' (1952) (1968), 'Al Capp's America' (1954), 'Al Capp' (1971-1972) and 'Anyone Can Win' (1953). He had 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. Together with Lee Falk, he ran the Boston Summer Theatre and even seriously considered running for a seat in the Senate of Massachusetts.
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. 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.
Capp was a deeply complex and often controversial figure. He 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. 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 also gave away money to people he pitied, from struggling students to police widows. He supported civil rights for African-Americans and homosexuals and briefly resigned from the National Cartoonists Society in 1949 to protest against their disallowment of female members. Thanks to his activism the organisation changed its rules and allowed women in the club.
Yet - at the same time - Capp was also a staunch conservative during the 1960s. He openly supported Richard Nixon and the Republican Party and criticized hippies, protest singers and anti-Vietnam War activists both in 'Li'l Abner' as well during public appearances. In 1969 he visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their "bed-in" in Amsterdam and called them out for appearing in the nude on the cover of their album 'Two Virgins' (1968), as well as their "naïve and phony" peace activism. Footage of this heated conversation can be seen in the documentary 'Imagine: John Lennon' (1988).
Oddly enough for a supporter of female rights, Capp also had several extramarital affairs and was frequently accused of sexual harassment and even indecent exposure towards women. In 1971, this resulted in a court case, but he was only sentenced over the charge of "attempted adultery" as part of a plea bargain. Nevertheless the controversy damaged his public image severely. He was no longer invited for 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 1977 Capp decided to quit 'Li'l Abner', as he was no longer interested in it and felt that this attitude started to show in the series too. Many of his assistants in the last two decades resigned or were fired because they strongly disagreed with his heavy-handed opinions. As a result, Capp had to rely on less qualified artists. Apart from the artwork the content also went downhill. Too many episodes were just frustrated attacks at whatever irked him about the hippie generation. When the series came to a close, Capp seemed to feel somewhat guilty and issued a written apology for the decline in quality, blaming 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".
Since then, 'Li'l Abner' somewhat faded out of the public consciousness, mostly a result of bad publicity surrounding its creator and being out of touch with the babyboom generation and beyond. In 1989 a revival of the series was considered, with Steve Stiles as the new artist. Capp's widow and brother approved, but due to an objection of his daughter the plan was axed at the last minute. Another element contributing to Li'l Abner's obscurity nowadays is the fact that for a long while there was no complete collection of all 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.
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 directly influenced by him are Ralph Bakshi, Al Hirschfeld, Daniel Clowes, Frank Frazetta, Denis Kitchen, Mell Lazarus, Evert Geradts 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.
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.