April 10, 2013 9:47:04 AM
You know when an idea is hogwash, but if you label it that, you are probably calling upon the etymological wisdom of the characters in the town of Dogpatch, Kentucky, the imaginary locale of Al Capp's long running comic strip "Li'l Abner." They also gave us "going bananas" and the "double-whammy," but Capp's contribution to American society was far more than some catchwords. For over forty years, "L'il Abner" was a staple of the funny papers, with branches into television, Broadway, the movies, merchandizing, and more. Capp was terrific as a draughtsman, was generous and sympathetic to those like him who were amputees, and had a bountiful supply of funny ideas wrapping up a sometimes pointed satire. He was also a vengeful liar, an adulterous husband, and a sexual predator. A complicated, frustrating man who died in 1979, he has not had a full biography until now: Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary (Bloomsbury) by Michael Schumacher, who has written plenty of biographies of celebrities, and Denis Kitchen, who has drawn cartoons and published other comic artists. In a way, this fine biography has come too late; those of us who enjoyed "L'il Abner" in its heyday know that that heyday is long past, and the effectiveness of a daily comic strip is essentially restricted to its own time. As a reminder of how influential and popular a simple comic strip could become, however, and as a warts-and-all portrait of a bustling and energetic artist, this is an enormously entertaining review.
Capp was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in 1909 to a family scraping to get by. When he was nine, there was a streetcar accident and he lost his left leg. He was in physical and psychological pain for the rest of his life, but it was also a source of motivation. He said, "With two legs I had been a nobody. With one leg I was somebody." It is hard to measure how much the accident actually affected him at the time or afterwards. Capp had no compulsion to tell the truth; he was a fabulist, and part of the problem the biographers have had was digging through the different versions of what he said and what actually happened. Nonetheless, his painful hobbling on an artificial limb gave him the most likeable trait to be found within these pages. Throughout his life, foundations would inform him about some young person who had lost a limb, and Capp would send the kid a letter with words like, "Of all the major misfortunes that can happen to the human body, the loss of a leg is perhaps the least. I don't expect you to know that now, but you will know it." When World War II came, Capp visited hundreds of veterans' hospitals, sketching for the amputees and telling his own story. He extended hope, but not false hope, and the vets would have loved it.
When he was fourteen, he and a pal sneaked away from New Haven and hitchhiked though Appalachia. It was his introduction to life in the sticks. He returned, but didn't finish high school. He had short term registrations in a series of art schools by claiming that a fictitious uncle would be paying his tuition soon, and when the deadline came, he'd write the school a letter saying the windfall from the uncle had not come in and he was sorry to have to withdraw. Then it was on to the next school. In 1933 Capp started working for Ham Fisher, the cartoonist who drew the popular "Joe Palooka" strip. Capp was responsible for introducing hillbilly characters into the comic. He struck out for himself with "L'il Abner" in 1934, bringing those characters into his own strip. Fisher accused Capp of stealing the characters from him, and though the charge was groundless, it lead to a feud between the two artists that only ended when Fisher killed himself two decades later. Capp gloated when he heard the news.
"L'il Abner" didn't take off immediately, but its strange and likeable characters made it eventually the most popular strip in the funnies, on Sunday always featured on the front page of the funny pages. Celebrities like Elvis and Frank Sinatra would find themselves in caricature. There were also parodies of other comic strips. Milton Caniff, with whom Capp had a lifelong friendship, drew Steve Canyon, but by Capp the comic became "Steve Cantor" drawn by "Milton Goniff," which is Yiddish for "thief." His most famous such parody was Fearless Fosdick, an obvious dig at the comic that competed with "L'il Abner" for top placement, "Dick Tracy." Chester Gould who drew "Dick Tracy" said he got a kick out of the attention, and Capp praised Gould's strip often enough to make it plain he was kidding something he actually admired. Fosdick, as L'il Abner's "ideel," would pursue such Gouldian villains as Anyface while bearing dozens of cylindrical bullet holes.
Fosdick also hawked Wildroot Cream Oil hair tonic, one of the many times that the characters from Dogpatch came off the comics page for the increase in popularity and income of the resourceful Capp. Abner boosted Cream of Wheat. Capp became a brand name that was connected with his own line of goods, like dolls of the lovable shmoo which first appeared in "L'il Abner" in 1948. The shmoo looked like a floppy bowling pin, and it existed for the sole purpose of making humans happy. Look at a shmoo with a hungry glance and it would die of love, ready to be served up as a delicious meal. But shmoos were dangerous - they took away all need for human striving. They were Capp's most successful fantasy, but the authors remind us that he also invented the bald iggle, a creature which would cause anyone looking into its eyes to speak nothing but truth. A threat to politics and business, iggles had to be exterminated, just like shmoos.
Capp had been a liberal Democrat until the 1960s, and pilloried Congress, McCarthy, and grasping capitalists. The revolutions of the 1960s were to change everything. Capp, for all his lampooning of American society, considered himself a patriot, and as such, supported the Vietnam War just as he had WWII. He caricatured hippies as unhygienic, and he hated folksingers. He had a sour parody of Joan Baez, Joanie Phoanie, who made buckets of cash singing "Let's Conga with the Viet Cong." He was more angry than funny. He became a pal of Richard Nixon, and he enjoyed going to college campuses to spout opinions he knew would make students angry. This was to lead to his downfall. Capp had been married for four decades, had a couple of long-running affairs and other side sexual enthusiasms. In 1971 he tried to force himself on a twenty-year-old student, and when the story eventually got out, other students revealed that Capp had attempted the same predation. It turns out that Goldie Hawn, Grace Kelly, and Edie Adams had been his casting-couch targets as well when "L'il Abner" was turned into a musical. Capp absurdly proclaimed that the "New Left" was trying to smear him with such stories, but he was charged with sodomy and indecent exposure. Nixon's special counsel, Charles Colson, tried to pressure the district attorney to drop the charges, but it didn't happen. Capp pled guilty to a lesser charge.
Capp retired his long-running strip in 1977, went into a depression fueled by drugs, and died in 1979. He had been a ground-breaker. His innovative satire and recurring characters were part of the American scene for decades. A case can be made that strips like "Doonesbury" were only possible because of what Capp had done before. At his best, Capp produced a genial humor that promoted that likeable virtue of Americans, the enjoyment of laughs at their own selves. That sort of jollity in Capp's art seems to have been lacking in his life, a paradox nicely drawn out in this objective and detailed biography.