|Born||Alfred Gerald Caplin
September 28, 1909
New Haven, Connecticut
|Died||November 5, 1979 (aged 70)
South Hampton, New Hampshire
|Occupation||Cartoonist, Writer, Radio and TV commentator|
|Spouse(s)||Catherine Wingate Cameron Capp|
|Children||Julie Ann Cairol, Catherine Jan Pierce, Colin Cameron Capp|
Alfred Gerald Caplin (September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979), better known as Al Capp, was an American cartoonist and humorist best known for the satirical comic strip Li'l Abner. He also wrote the comic strips Abbie an' Slats and Long Sam. He won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award in 1947 for Cartoonist of the Year, and their 1979 Elzie Segar Award (posthumously) for his "unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning."
|“||[Capp] was far more an intellectual than he allowed the public to see. Li'l Abner was his joke on the dismal world around him. His humor welled-up from the melancholy pits of a strapping kid made an amputee at age nine...||”|
—Milton Caniff, 1985
Born of Russian Jewish heritage, Capp was the eldest child of Otto Philip and Matilda (Davidson) Caplin. Capp's parents were both natives of Latvia whose families had migrated to New Haven, Connecticut in the 1880s. "My mother and father had been brought to this country from Russia when they were infants," wrote Capp. "Their fathers had found that the great promise of America was true—it was no crime to be a Jew." The Caplins were dirt poor, and Capp later recalled stories of his mother going out in the night to sift through ash barrels for reusable bits of coal.
Capp lost his left leg in a trolley accident at the age of nine. This childhood tragedy likely helped shape Capp’s cynical worldview, which, funny as it was, was certainly darker and more sardonic than that of the average newspaper cartoonist. "I was indignant as hell about that leg," he would reveal in a November 1950 interview in Time Magazine.
"The secret of how to live without resentment or embarrassment in a world in which I was different from everyone else," Capp philosophically wrote (in Life Magazine on May 23, 1960) "was to be indifferent to that difference." It was the prevailing opinion among his friends that Capp's Swiftian satire was, to some degree, a creatively channeled, compensatory response to his disability.
Capp's father, a failed businessman and reportedly an amateur cartoonist, introduced him to drawing as a form of therapy. He became quite proficient, learning mostly on his own. Among his earliest influences were Punch cartoonist–illustrator Phil May, and American comic strip cartoonists Tad Dorgan, Cliff Sterrett, Rube Goldberg, Rudolph Dirks, Fred Opper, Billy DeBeck, George McManus and Milt Gross. At about this same time, Capp became a voracious reader. According to Capp's brother Elliot, Alfred had finished all of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw by the time he turned 13. Among his childhood favorites were Dickens, Smollett, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and later, Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman.
Capp spent five years at Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, without receiving a diploma. The cartoonist liked to joke about how he failed geometry for nine straight terms. His formal training came from a series of art schools in the New England area. Attending three of them in rapid succession, the impoverished Capp was thrown out of each for nonpayment of tuition — the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Designers Art School in Boston — the latter before launching his amazing career. Capp had already decided to become a cartoonist. "I heard that Bud Fisher (creator of Mutt and Jeff) got $3,000 a week and was constantly marrying French countesses," Capp said. "I decided that was for me."
Around 1931, Capp hitchhiked to New York City. He lived in "airless rat holes" in Greenwich Village and turned out advertising strips at $2 each while scouring the city hunting for jobs. He eventually found work (in March 1932) drawing Colonel Gilfeather, a one-panel, AP-owned property, created in 1930 by Dick Dorgan. At 22 years old, he was reportedly the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America at the time. Capp changed the focus and title of the panel cartoon to Mister Gilfeather, but soon grew to hate the feature. He left both Gilfeather and the Associated Press after six months, in September 1932. Before leaving, he met Milton Caniff, and the two became lifelong friends. Capp moved to Boston and married Catherine Wingate Cameron, whom he had met earlier in art class. She died in 2006 at the age of 96.
Leaving his new wife with her parents in Amesbury, Massachusetts, he subsequently returned to New York in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. "I was 23, I carried a mass of drawings, and I had nearly five dollars in my pocket. People were sleeping in alleys then, willing to work at anything." There he met Ham Fisher, who hired him to ghost on Joe Palooka. During one of Fisher's extended vacations, Capp's Joe Palooka story arc introduced a stupid, coarse, oafish mountaineer named "Big Leviticus," a crude prototype. (Leviticus was actually much closer to Capp's later villains Lem and Luke Scragg, than to the much more appealing and innocent Li'l Abner.)
Also during this period, Capp was working at night on samples for the strip that would eventually become Li'l Abner. He based his cast of characters on the authentic mountain-dwellers he met while hitchhiking through rural West Virginia and the Cumberland Valley as a teenager. (This was years before the Tennessee Valley Authority Act brought basic utilities like electricity to the region.) Leaving Joe Palooka, Capp sold Li'l Abner to United Feature Syndicate (now known as United Media). The feature was launched on Monday, August 13, 1934, in eight North American newspapers—including the New York Mirror—and was an immediate success. Alfred G. Caplin eventually became "Al Capp" because the syndicate felt the original would not fit in a cartoon frame. Capp had it changed legally in 1949.
His younger brother Elliot Caplin also became a comic strip creator, best known for co-creating the soap opera strip The Heart of Juliet Jones with artist Stan Drake, and conceiving the comic strip character Broom Hilda with cartoonist Russell Myers. Elliott also authored several off-Broadway plays, including A Nickel for Picasso (1981), which was based on and dedicated to his mother and his famous brother.
|“||Li'l Abner was a comic strip with fire in its belly and a brain in its head.||”|
—John Updike, 1991
|“||One of the 20th century's three greatest comic strips... In Li'l Abner, Capp mixed comedy and suspense in a daily cocktail that no one else has come close to duplicating.||”|
—Dennis Drabelle, Salon.com, 2002
What began as a hillbilly burlesque soon evolved into one of the most imaginative, popular and well-drawn strips of the 20th century. Featuring vividly outlandish characters, bizarre situations, and equal parts suspense, slapstick, irony, satire, black humor and biting social commentary, Li'l Abner is considered a classic of the genre. The comic strip starred Li'l Abner Yokum, the loutish, simple, but good-natured hayseed who lived with his parents - scrawny but superhuman Mammy Yokum, and shiftless, childlike Pappy Yokum.
"Yokum" was a combination of yokel and hokum, although Capp established a deeper meaning for the name during a series of visits around 1965 -1970 with comics historians George E. Turner and Michael H. Price. “It’s phonetic Hebrew – that’s what it is, all right – and that’s what I was getting at with the name Yokum, more so than any attempt to sound hickish," said Capp. "That was a fortunate coincidence, of course, that the name should pack a backwoods connotation. But it’s a godly conceit, really, playing off a godly name – Joachim means 'God’s determination', something like that – that also happens to have a rustic ring to it." 
The Yokums lived in the backwater hamlet of Dogpatch, Kentucky. Described by its creator as "an average stone-age community", Dogpatch mostly consisted of hopelessly ramshackle log cabins, pine trees, "tarnip" fields and "hawg" wallows. Whatever energy Abner had went into evading the marital goals of Daisy Mae Scragg, his sexy, well-endowed (but virtuous) girlfriend - until Capp finally gave in to reader pressure and allowed the couple to marry. This newsworthy event made the cover of Life on March 31, 1952.
Capp peopled his comic strip with an assortment of memorable characters, including Marryin' Sam, Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecat, Evil-Eye Fleegle, General Bullmoose, Lena the Hyena, Senator Jack S. Phogbound (Capp's caricature of the anti-New Deal Dixiecrats), the (shudder!) Scraggs, Washable Jones, Nightmare Alice, Earthquake McGoon, and a host of others. Most notably, certainly from a G.I. point of view, were the beautiful, full-figured women like Daisy Mae, Wolf Gal, Stupefyin' Jones and Moonbeam McSwine (a caricature of his wife Catherine, aside from the dirt) - all of whom found their way onto the painted noses of bomber planes during World War II and the Korean War. Perhaps Capp's most popular creations were the Shmoos, creatures whose incredible usefulness and generous nature made them a threat to civilization as we know it. Another famous character was Joe Btfsplk, who wanted to be a loving friend but was "the world's worst jinx," bringing bad luck to all those nearby. Btfsplk (his name was "pronounced" by simply blowing a "raspberry" or Bronx cheer) always had an iconic dark cloud over his head.
Dogpatch residents regularly combatted the likes of city slickers, business tycoons, government officials, and intellectuals with their homespun stupidity. Situations often took the characters to other destinations, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Hollywood, tropical islands, the Moon, Mars, and some purely fanciful worlds of Capp's invention. The latter included El Passionato, Kigmyland, The Republic of Crumbumbo, Skonk Hollow, The Valley of the Shmoon, Planets Pincus Number 2 and 7, and a miserable frozen wasteland known as Lower Slobbovia, a pointedly political satire of backward nations and foreign diplomacy that remains a contemporary reference.
The strip's popularity grew from an original eight papers, to ultimately more than 900. At its peak, Li'l Abner was read daily by 70 million Americans (the U.S. population at the time was only 180 million), with adult readers far outnumbering children. Many communities, high schools and colleges staged Sadie Hawkins dances, patterned after the similar annual event in the strip.
According to comics historian Coulton Waugh, a 1947 poll of newspaper readers who claimed they ignored the comics page altogether revealed that many confessed to making a single exception: Li'l Abner. "When Li'l Abner made its debut in 1934, the vast majority of comic strips were designed chiefly to amuse or thrill their readers. Capp turned that world upside-down by routinely injecting politics and social commentary into Li'l Abner. The strip was the first to regularly introduce characters and story lines having nothing to do with the nominal stars of the strip. The technique - as invigorating as it was unorthodox - was later adopted by cartoonists like Walt Kelly [Pogo] and Garry Trudeau [Doonesbury]," wrote comic strip historian Rick Marschall.
According to Marschall, Li'l Abner gradually evolved into a broad satire of human nature. In his book America's Great Comic Strip Artists (1989), Marschall's analysis revealed a decidedly misanthropic subtext: "Capp was calling society absurd, not just silly; human nature not simply misguided, but irredeemably and irreducibly corrupt. Unlike any other strip, and indeed unlike many other pieces of literature, Li'l Abner was more than a satire of the human condition. It was a commentary on human nature itself." Li'l Abner was also the subject of the first book-length, scholarly assessment of an American comic strip ever published. Li'l Abner: A Study in American Satire by Arthur Asa Berger (Twayne, 1969) contained serious analyses of Capp's narrative technique, his use of dialogue, self-caricature and grotesquerie, the place of "Li'l Abner" in American satire, and the significance of social criticism and the graphic image. It was reprinted by the University Press of Mississippi in 1994.
Over the years, Li'l Abner has been adapted to radio, animated cartoons, stage production, motion pictures and television. Capp has been compared, at various times, to Mark Twain, Dostoevski, Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne and Rabelais.  Fans of the strip ranged from novelist John Steinbeck, who called Capp "the best writer in the world" in 1953, and even earnestly recommended him for the Nobel Prize in literature - to media critic and theorist Marshall McLuhan, who considered Capp "the only robust satirical force in American life." Charlie Chaplin, John Updike, William F. Buckley, Al Hirschfeld, Harpo Marx, Russ Meyer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ralph Bakshi, Hugh Downs, Gene Shalit, Frank Cho, and (reportedly) even Queen Elizabeth have confessed to being fans of Li'l Abner.
|“||Capp was master of every technique postmodernists celebrate: juxtaposition, parody, satire, irony, intertextual referencing, bricolage, chaos, the surreal, the carnivalesque, the tragicomic slapstick of differences. In Li'l Abner, systems of logic and morality clashed... and from the resulting dreamscape of discourses came satirical comedy. Like all satire, the real and the fictive combined to produce grotesque offspring."||”|
—Rodger Brown, The Road To Hokum, 1994
Sadie Hawkins Day and double whammy are two terms attributed to Al Capp that have entered the English language. Other, less ubiquitous Cappisms include skunk works and Lower Slobbovia. The term shmoo has also entered the lexicon, defining highly technical concepts in no less than four separate fields of science, including the variations shmooing (a microbiological term for the "budding" process in yeast reproduction), and shmoo plot (a technical term in the field of electrical engineering). In economics, a "shmoo" refers to any generic kind of good that reproduces itself, (as opposed to "widgets" which require resources and active production.) Capp also had a knack for popularizing certain uncommon terms, such as druthers, schmooze and nogoodnik, neatnik, etc. (In his book The American Language, H.L. Mencken credits the postwar mania for adding "-nik" to the ends of adjectives to create nouns as beginning - not with beatnik or Sputnik - but earlier, in the pages of Li'l Abner.)
Li'l Abner has one odd design quirk that has puzzled readers for decades: the part in his hair always faces the viewer, no matter which direction Abner is facing. In response to the question “Which side does Abner part his hair on?", Capp would answer, “Both.”
Li'l Abner also featured a comic strip-within-the-strip: Fearless Fosdick was a parody of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. It first appeared in 1942, and proved so popular that it ran intermittently over the next 35 years. Gould was also personally parodied in the series as cartoonist Lester Gooch - the diminutive, much-harassed and occasionally deranged "creator" of Fosdick. The style of the Fosdick sequences closely mimicked Tracy, including the urban setting, the outrageous villains, the galloping mortality rate, the crosshatched shadows, and even the lettering style. That same year, Fosdick was also the star of his own short-lived puppet show on NBC, featuring the Mary Chase marionettes.
Besides Dick Tracy, Capp parodied many other comic strips in Li'l Abner - including Steve Canyon, Superman, (at least twice; first as "Jack Jawbreaker", 1947, and again in 1966 as "Chickensouperman") Mary Worth, Peanuts, Little Annie Rooney and Little Orphan Annie (in which Punjab became "Punjbag", an oleaginous slob). Fearless Fosdick - and Capp's other spoofs like "Little Fanny Gooney" (1952) and "Jack Jawbreaker" - were almost certainly an early inspiration for Harvey Kurtzman's Mad Magazine, which began in 1952 as a comic book that specifically parodied other comics in the same distinctive style and subversive manner.
Capp also lampooned popular recording idols of the day, such as Elvis Presley ("Hawg McCall", 1957), Liberace ("Loverboynik", 1956), the Beatles ("the Beasties", 1964) - and in 1944, Frank Sinatra. "Sinatra was the first great public figure I ever wrote about," Capp once said. "I called him 'Hal Fascinatra'. I remember my news syndicate was so worried about what his reaction might be, and we were all surprised when he telephoned and told me how thrilled he was with it. He always made it a point to send me champagne whenever he happened to see me in a restaurant..." (from Frank Sinatra, My Father by Nancy Sinatra, 1985). On the other hand Liberace was "cut to the quick" over Loverboynik, according to Capp, and even threatened legal action - as would Joan Baez later, over "Joanie Phoanie" in 1967. 
Capp was just as likely to parody himself; his self-caricature made frequent, tongue-in-cheek appearances in Li'l Abner. The gag was often at his own expense, as in the above 1951 sequence showing Capp's interaction with "fans" (see excerpt), or in his 1955 Disneyland parody, "Hal Yappland". Just about anything could be a target for Capp's satire - in one storyline Li'l Abner is revealed to be the missing link between ape and man. In another, the search is on in Dogpatch for a pair of missing socks knitted by the first President of the United States.
In addition to creating Li'l Abner, Capp also co-created two other newspaper strips: Abbie an' Slats with magazine illustrator Raeburn van Buren in 1937, and Long Sam with cartoonist Bob Lubbers in 1954, as well as the Sunday "topper" strips Washable Jones, Small Fry (aka Small Change) and Advice fo' Chillun.
During World War II and for many years afterward, Capp worked tirelessly going to hospitals to entertain patients, especially to cheer recent amputees and explain to them that the loss of a limb did not mean an end to a happy and productive life. Making no secret of his own disability, Capp openly joked about his prosthetic leg his whole life. In 1946 Capp created a special full-color comic book, Al Capp by Li'l Abner, to be distributed by the Red Cross to encourage the thousands of amputee veterans returning from the war. Capp was also involved with the Sister Kenny Foundation, which pioneered new treatments for polio in the 1940s. Serving in his capacity as honorary chairman, Capp made public appearances on its behalf for years, contributed free artwork for its annual fund-raising appeals, and entertained crippled and paraplegic children in children's hospitals with inspirational pep talks, humorous stories and sketches.
In 1940, an RKO movie adaptation starred Granville Owen (later known as Jeff York) as Li'l Abner, with Buster Keaton taking the role of Lonesome Polecat, and featuring a title song with lyrics by Milton Berle. A successful musical comedy adaptation of the strip opened on Broadway at the St. James Theater on November 15, 1956 and had a long run of 693 performances, followed by a nationwide tour. The stage musical, with music and lyrics by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, was adapted into a Technicolor motion picture at Paramount in 1959 by producer Norman Panama and director Melvin Frank, with a score by Nelson Riddle. Several performers repeated their Broadway roles in the film, most memorably Julie Newmar as Stupefyin' Jones and Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam. 
Other highlights of that decade included the 1942 debut of Fearless Fosdick as Abner's "ideel" (hero); the 1946 Lena the Hyena Contest in which a hideous Lower Slobbovian gal was ultimately revealed in the harrowing winning entry (as judged by Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff and Salvador Dali) drawn by noted cartoonist Basil Wolverton; and an ill-fated Sunday parody of Gone With The Wind that aroused anger and legal threats from author Margaret Mitchell and led to a printed apology within the strip. In October 1947, Li'l Abner met Rockwell P. Squeezeblood, head of the abusive and corrupt Squeezeblood Comic Strip Syndicate. The resulting sequence, "Jack Jawbreaker Fights Crime!", was a devastating satire of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's notorious exploitation by DC Comics over Superman. It was later reprinted in The World of Li'l Abner (1953). (Siegel and Shuster had earlier poked fun at Capp in a Superman story in Action Comics number 55 (December 1942), in which a cartoonist named Al Hatt invents a comic strip featuring the hillbilly Tiny Rufe.)
In 1947, Capp earned a Newsweek cover story. That same year the New Yorker's profile on him was so long that it ran in consecutive issues. In 1948, Capp reached a creative peak with the introduction of the Shmoos, lovable and innocent fantasy creatures who reproduced at amazing speed and brought so many benefits that, ironically, the world economy was endangered. The much-copied storyline was a parable that was metaphorically interpreted in many different ways at the outset of the Cold War.
Following his close friend Milton Caniff's lead (with Steve Canyon), Capp had recently fought a successful battle with the syndicate to gain complete ownership of his feature when the Shmoos debuted. As a result, he reaped enormous financial rewards from the unexpected (and almost unprecedented) merchandising phenomenon that followed. As in the strip, Shmoos suddenly appeared to be everywhere in 1949 and 1950 - including a Time cover story, and a paperback collection of the original sequence, The Life and Times of the Shmoo, became a bestseller for Simon & Schuster. Shmoo dolls, clocks, watches, jewelry, earmuffs, wallpaper, fishing lures, air fresheners, soap, ice cream, balloons, ashtrays, comic books, records, sheet music, toys, games, Halloween masks, salt and pepper shakers, decals, pinbacks, tumblers, coin banks, greeting cards, planters, neckties, suspenders, belts, curtains, fountain pens, and other shmoo paraphernalia were produced. A garment factory in Baltimore turned out a whole line of shmoo apparel, including "Shmooveralls." The original sequence and its 1959 sequel, The Return of the Shmoo, have been collected in print many times since, most recently in 2002, always to high sales figures. The Shmoos would later have their own animated TV series.
Capp followed this success with other allegorical fantasy critters, including the aboriginal and masochistic "Kigmies", who craved abuse (a story that began as a veiled comment on racial and religious oppression), the dreaded "Nogoodniks" (or bad shmoos), and the irresistible "Bald Iggle", a guileless creature whose sad-eyed countenance compelled involuntary truthfulness - with predictably disastrous results.
Li'l Abner was censored for the first, but not the last time in September 1947, and was pulled from papers by Scripps-Howard. The controversy, as reported in Time, centered around Capp's portrayal of the US Senate. Said Edward Leech of Scripps, "We don't think it is good editing or sound citizenship to picture the Senate as an assemblage of freaks and crooks... boobs and undesirables." 
At about this same time, Capp was an outspoken pioneer in favor of diversifying the National Cartoonists Society by admitting women cartoonists. The NCS disallowed female members prior to 1949. According to Tom Roberts, author of Alex Raymond: His Life And Art (2007), Al Capp delivered a stirring speech that was instrumental in changing that rule. The Society finally accepted female members the following year.
Highlights of the 1950s included the much-heralded marriage of Abner and Daisy Mae in 1952, the birth of their son "Honest Abe" Yokum in 1953, and in 1954, the introduction of Abner's enormous, long lost kid brother Tiny Yokum, who filled Abner's place as a bachelor in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race. In 1952 Capp and his characters graced the covers of both Life and TV Guide. 1956 saw the debut of the Bald Iggle, considered by some Abner enthusiasts to be the creative high point of the strip, as well as Mammy's revelatory encounter with the "Square Eyes" Family - Capp’s thinly veiled appeal for racial tolerance. (This fable-like story was collected into an educational comic book called Mammy Yokum and the Great Dogpatch Mystery!, and distributed by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith later that year.)
Capp had often parodied corporate greed - pork tycoon J. Roaringham Fatback had figured prominently in wiping out the Shmoos. But in 1952, when General Motors president Charles E. Wilson, nominated for a cabinet post, told Congress "...what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa", he inspired one of Capp's greatest satires - the introduction of General Bullmoose, the robust, ruthless, and ageless business tycoon. The blustering Bullmoose, who seemed to own and control nearly everything, justified his far-reaching and mercenary excesses by saying "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!" Bullmoose's corrupt interests were often pitted against those of the pathetic Lower Slobbovians in a classic mismatch of haves versus have-nots. This character, along with the Shmoos, helped cement Capp's favor with the Left, and would increase their outrage a decade later when Capp, a former Franklin D. Roosevelt liberal, switched targets. Nonetheless, General Bullmoose continued to appear, undaunted and unredeemed, during the strip's final right-wing phase and into the 1970s.
After Capp quit his ghosting job on Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka in 1934 to launch his own strip, Fisher badmouthed him to colleagues and editors, claiming that Capp had "stolen" his idea. For years, Fisher would bring the characters back to his strip, billing them as "The ORIGINAL Hillbilly Characters" and advising readers not to be "fooled by imitations." (In fact, Fisher's brutish hillbilly character - Big Leviticus, created by Capp in Fisher's absence - bore little resemblance to Li'l Abner.) According to a November 1950 Time article, "Capp parted from Fisher with a definite impression, (to put it mildly) that he had been underpaid and unappreciated. Fisher, a man of Roman self esteem, considered Capp an ingrate and a whippersnapper, and watched his rise to fame with unfeigned horror." 
"Fisher repeatedly brought Leviticus and his clan back, claiming their primacy as comics' first hillbilly family — but he was missing the point. It wasn't the setting that made Capp's strip such a huge success. It was Capp's finely tuned sense of the absurd, his ability to milk an outrageous situation for every laugh in it and then, impossibly, to squeeze even more laughs from it, that found such favor with the public," (from Don Markstein's Toonopedia.)
The Capp-Fisher feud was well-known in cartooning circles, and it grew more personal as Capp's strip eclipsed Joe Palooka in popularity. Fisher hired away Capp's top assistant, Moe Leff. After Fisher underwent plastic surgery, Capp included a racehorse in Li'l Abner named "Ham's Nose-Bob". In 1950, Capp introduced a cartoonist character named "Happy Vermin" - a caricature of Fisher - who hired Abner to draw his comic strip in a dimly lit closet, (after sacking his previous "temporary" assistant of 20 years, who had been cut off from all his friends in the process.) Instead of using Vermin's tired characters, Abner inventively peopled the strip with hillbillies. A bighearted Vermin told his slaving assistant: "I'm proud of having created these characters!! They'll make millions for me!! And if they do — I'll get you a new light bulb!!"
Traveling in the same social circles, the two men engaged in a 20-year mutual vendetta, as described by the Daily News in 1998: "They crossed paths often, in the midtown watering holes and at National Cartoonists Society banquets, and the city's gossip columns were full of their snarling public donnybrooks." In 1950, Capp wrote a nasty article for The Atlantic entitled "I Remember Monster". The article recounted Capp's days working for an unnamed "benefactor" with a miserly, swinish personality, whom Capp claimed was a never-ending source of inspiration when it came time to create a new unregenerate villain for his comic strip. The thinly veiled boss was understood to be Ham Fisher.
Fisher retaliated clumsily, doctoring photostats of Li'l Abner and falsely accusing Capp of sneaking obscenities into his comic strip. Fisher submitted examples of Li'l Abner to Capp's syndicate and to the New York courts, in which Fisher had identified pornographic images that were hidden in the background art. However, the X-rated material had actually been drawn there by Fisher himself. Capp was able to refute the accusation by simply showing the original artwork.
In 1954, when Capp was applying for a Boston television license, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received an anonymous packet of pornographic Li'l Abner drawings. The National Cartoonists Society (NCS) convened an ethics hearing, and Fisher was expelled for the forgery from the same organization that he had helped found; Fisher's scheme had backfired in spectacular fashion. Around the same time, his mansion in Wisconsin was destroyed by a nor'easter.
On December 27, 1955, Fisher committed suicide in his studio. The feud and Fisher's suicide were used as the basis for a lurid, highly fictional murder mystery, Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins.
Another "feud" seemed to be looming when, in one run of Sunday strips in 1957, Capp lampooned the comic strip Mary Worth as "Mary Worm." The title character was depicted as a nosy, interfering busybody. Allen Saunders, the creator of the Mary Worth strip, returned Capp's fire with the introduction of the character "Hal Rapp," a foul-tempered, ill-mannered, and (ironically) inebriated cartoonist (Capp was a teetotaler). Later, it was revealed to be a collaborative hoax that Capp and his longtime pal Saunders had cooked up together. The Capp-Saunders "feud" fooled both editors and readers, generated plenty of free publicity for both strips, and Capp and Saunders had a good laugh when all was revealed.
|“||He doesn't put his best foot forward always, but what foot he does put forward is one of his own.||”|
—Walt Kelly, 1971
Volatile, contentious, cynical, sarcastic, contradictory, iconoclastic, misanthropic, curmudgeonly, controversial, and sardonically funny. According to Capp’s longtime friend Milton Caniff, Capp was “charming” when he chose to be, but added that “he could be very difficult if he didn’t like you.” Frank Frazetta described Capp as "exasperating, infuriating, domineering, obnoxious, loud, lots of fun, acidic and lovable." Frazetta's freewheeling description typifies the many conflicting firsthand accounts of Capp's complex personality. "He could be a real s.o.b. sometimes. Other times he was a lot of fun to be around. He was a brilliant guy - but a little screwed up," Frazetta has said (from The Comic Art Of Frank Frazetta, 2008). Capp's persona has long since eclipsed his work, complicating critical analysis and objective assessment of Li'l Abner to this day.
Capp is often associated with two other giants of the medium: Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon) and Walt Kelly (Pogo). The three cartoonists were close personal friends and professional associates throughout their adult lives, and occasionally referenced each other in their strips. According to one anecdote, (from Al Capp Remembered, 1994) Capp and his brother Elliot ducked out of a dull party at Capp's home - leaving Walt Kelly alone to fend for himself entertaining a group of Argentine envoys who didn't speak English. Kelly retaliated by giving away Capp's baby grand piano. According to Capp, who loved to relate the story, Kelly's two perfectly logical reasons for doing so were: a. to cement diplomatic relations between Argentina and the United States, and b. "Because you can't play the piano, anyway."
Milton Caniff related another anecdote (from Phi Beta Pogo, 1989) involving Capp and Walt Kelly, "two boys from Bridgeport, Connecticut, nose to nose," onstage at a meeting of the Newspaper Comics Council in the sixties. "Walt would say to Al, 'Of course, Al, this is really how you should draw Daisy Mae, I'm only showing you this for your own good.' Then Walt would do a sketch. Capp, of course, got ticked off by this, as you can imagine! So he retaliated by doing his version of Pogo. Unfortunately, the drawings are long gone; no recording was made. What a shame! Nobody anticipated there'd be this dueling back and forth between the two of them...."
Like many cartoonists, Capp made extensive use of assistants (notably Andy Amato, Harvey Curtis, Walter Johnson and Frank Frazetta). During the extended peak of the strip, the workload grew to include advertising, merchandising, promotional work, public service comics and other specialty work - in addition to the regular six dailies and one Sunday strip per week. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, there were scores of Sunday strip-style magazine ads for Cream of Wheat using the Abner characters, and in the 1950s, Fearless Fosdick became a spokesman for Wildroot Cream-Oil hair tonic in a series of daily strip-style print ads. The characters also sold chainsaws, underwear, ties, detergent, candy, soft drinks - including a licensed version of Capp's moonshine creation, Kickapoo Joy Juice - and General Electric and Proctor and Gamble products, all requiring special artwork.
No matter how much help he had, Capp insisted on drawing and inking the characters' faces and hands - especially of Abner and Daisy Mae - himself, and his distinctive touch is often discernible. "He had the touch," Frazetta said of Capp in 2008. "He knew how to take an otherwise ordinary drawing and really make it pop. I'll never knock his talent."
As is usual with collaborative efforts in comic strips, his name was the only one credited— although, sensitive to his own experience working on Joe Palooka, Capp frequently drew attention to his assistants in interviews and publicity pieces. A 1950 cover story in Time even included photos of two of his employees, whose roles in the production were detailed by Capp. Ironically, this highly irregular policy (along with the subsequent fame of Frank Frazetta) has led to the misconception that his strip was ghosted by other hands. The production of Li'l Abner has been well documented, however. In point of fact, Capp maintained creative control over every stage of production for virtually the entire run of the strip. Capp himself originated the stories, wrote the dialogue, designed the major characters, rough penciled the preliminary staging and action of each panel, oversaw the finished pencils, and drew and inked the hands and faces of the characters. Frazetta authority David Winiewicz described the everyday working mode of operation in Li'l Abner Dailies: 1954 Volume 20 (Kitchen Sink, 1994):
By the time Frazetta began working on the strip, the work of producing Li'l Abner was too much for one person. Capp had a group of assistants who he taught to reproduce his distinctive individual style, working under his direct supervision. Actual production of the strip began with a rough layout in pencil done by Al Capp, from Capp's script or a co-authored script, and the page would pass to Andy Amato and Walter Johnson. Amato would ink the figures, then Johnson added backgrounds and any mechanical objects. Harvey Curtis was responsible for the lettering and also shared inking duties with Amato... In order to make sure that the work stayed true to his style, the final touches would be added by Capp himself. He enjoyed adding a distinctive glint to an eye or an idiosyncratic contortion to a character's face. The finished strip was truly an ensemble effort, a skillful blending of talents.
There was also a separate line of comic book titles- mostly adapted strip reprints- by the Caplin family-owned Toby Press, which published Shmoo Comics, featuring Washable Jones. (Mell Lazarus, creator of Miss Peach and Momma, wrote a comic novel in 1963 titled The Boss Is Crazy, Too which was partly inspired by his apprenticeship days working with Capp at Toby. In a seminar at the Charles Schulz Museum on November 8, 2008, Lazarus called his experience at Toby "the five funniest years of my life". Lazarus went on to cite Capp as one of the "four essentials" in the field of newspaper cartoonists, along with Walt Kelly, Charles Schulz and Milton Caniff.)
Capp detailed his approach to writing and drawing the stories in an instructional course book for the Famous Artists School, beginning in 1956. In 1959, Capp recorded and released an album for Folkways Records (now owned by the Smithsonian) on which he identified and described "The Mechanics of the Comic Strip".
Frazetta, later famous as a fantasy artist, assisted on the strip from 1954 to December, 1961. Fascinated by Frazetta's abilities, Capp initially gave him a free hand in an extended daily sequence (about a biker named "Frankie", a caricature of Frazetta) to experiment with the basic look of the strip by adding a bit more realism and detail (particularly to the inking). After editors complained about the stylistic changes, the strip's previous look was restored. During most of his tenure with Capp, Frazetta's primary responsibility—along with various specialty art, such as a series of Li'l Abner greeting cards—was tight-penciling the Sunday pages from studio roughs. This work was collected by Dark Horse Comics in a four-volume hardcover series entitled Al Capp's Li'l Abner: The Frazetta Years. In 1961, Capp, complaining of declining revenue, wanted to have Frazetta continue with a 50% pay cut. "[Capp] said he would cut the salary in half. Goodbye. That was that. I said goodbye." (Frazetta: Painting with Fire). However, Frazetta returned briefly a few years later to draw a public service comic book called Li'l Abner and the Creatures from Drop-Outer Space, distributed by the Job Corps in 1965.
In the golden age of the American comic strip, successful cartoonists received a great deal of attention; their professional and private lives were reported in the press, and their celebrity was often nearly sufficient to rival their creations. As Li'l Abner reached its peak years, and following the success of the Shmoos and other high moments in his work, Al Capp achieved a public profile that is still unparalleled in his profession, and arguably exceeded the fame of his strip. "Capp was the best known, most influential and most controversial cartoonist of his era," writes publisher (and leading Shmoo collector) Denis Kitchen. "His personal celebrity transcended comics, reaching the public and influencing the culture in a variety of media. For many years he simultaneously produced the daily strip, a weekly syndicated newspaper column, and a 500-station radio program...." He even briefly considered running for a Massachusetts Senate seat in 1968, versus incumbent Ted Kennedy.
Besides his use of the comic strip to voice his opinions and display his humor, Capp was a popular speaker at universities and on television. He remains the only cartoonist to be embraced by TV; no other comic artist to date has come close to Capp's televised exposure. Capp appeared as a regular on The Author Meets the Critics (1948-'54). He was also a periodic panelist on ABC and NBC's Who Said That? (1948-'55) and co-hosted DuMont's What's The Story? (1953). Between 1952 and 1972, he hosted at least five television shows - three different talk shows called The Al Capp Show (1952 and 1968) and Al Capp (1971 to '72), Al Capp's America (a live "chalk talk", with Capp providing a barbed commentary while sketching cartoons, 1954), and a CBS game show called Anyone Can Win (1953). He also hosted similar vehicles on the radio - and was a familiar celebrity guest on various other broadcast programs, including the long-running NBC radio series, Monitor.
His frequent appearances on NBC's The Tonight Show spanned three emcees (Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson) from the 1950s to the 1970s. One memorable story, as recounted to Johnny Carson, was about his meeting with then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As he was ushered into the Oval Office, his prosthetic leg suddenly collapsed into a pile of disengaged parts and hinges on the floor. The President immediately turned to an aide and said, "Call Walter Reed (Hospital), or maybe Bethesda," to which Capp replied, "Hell no, just call a good local mechanic!" (Capp also spoofed Carson in his strip, in a 1967 episode called "The Tommy Wholesome Show".)
Capp portrayed himself in a cameo role in the Bob Hope film That Certain Feeling (for which he also provided promotional art). He appeared as himself on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, The Red Skelton Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and guested on Ralph Edwards' This Is Your Life on February 12, 1961 with honoree Peter Palmer. Capp also freelanced very successfully as a magazine writer and newspaper columnist, in a wide variety of publications including Life, Show, Pageant, The Atlantic, Esquire, Coronet, and The Saturday Evening Post. Capp was impersonated by comedians Rich Little and David Frye. Although Capp's endorsement activities never rivaled Li'l Abner's or Fearless Fosdick's, he was a celebrity spokesman in print ads for Sheaffer Snorkel fountain pens (along with colleagues and close friends Milton Caniff and Walt Kelly), and- with an irony that would become apparent later- a brand of cigarettes, (Chesterfield).
Capp would resume visiting war amputees in veterans hospitals during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. He served as chairman of the Cartoonist's Committee in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's People-to-People program in 1954 (although Capp had actually supported Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952 and 1956),  which was organized to promote Savings Bonds for the U.S. Treasury. Capp had earlier provided the Shmoo for a special Children's Savings Bond in 1949, accompanying President Harry S. Truman at the bond's unveiling ceremony. During the Soviet Union's blockade of West Berlin in 1948, the commanders of the Berlin airlift had cabled Capp, requesting inflatable shmoos as part of "Operation: Little Vittles". Candy-filled shmoos were air-dropped to hungry West Berliners by America's 17th Military Airport Squadron during the humanitarian effort. "When the candy-chocked shmoos were dropped, a near-riot resulted," (reported in Newsweek - October 11, 1948).
In addition to his public service work for charitable organizations for the handicapped, Capp also served on the National Reading Council, which was organized to combat illiteracy. He published a column ("Wrong Turn Onto Sesame Street") challenging federally funded Public Television endowments in favor of educational comics - which, according to Capp, "didn't cost a dime in taxes and never had. I pointed out that a kid could enjoy Sesame Street without learning how to read, but he couldn't enjoy comic strips unless he could read; and that a smaller investment in getting kids to read by supplying them with educational matter in such reading form might make better sense."
"Comics,” wrote Capp in 1970, “can be a combination of the highest quality of art and text, and many of them are.” Capp would produce many giveaway educational comic books and public services pamphlets, spanning several decades, for the Red Cross, the Department of Civil Defense, the Department of the Navy, the U.S. Army, the Anti-Defamation League, the Department of Labor, Community Chest (a forerunner of United Way), and the Job Corps. Capp's studio provided special artwork for various civic groups and non-profit organizations as well. Dogpatch characters were used in national campaigns for the Cancer Foundation, the March of Dimes, the National Heart Fund, the Boy Scouts of America, the National Amputation Foundation, and Disabled American Veterans, among others.
In August 1967 Capp was the narrator and host of a network special called Do Blonds Have More Fun? In 1970, he was the subject of a provocative NBC documentary called This is Al Capp. Capp was the Playboy interview subject in the December 1965 issue of that magazine.
Capp, who by all accounts was contrary and contentious by nature, was a maverick politically. He characteristically went against the grain. He was a liberal during the conservative 1950s, only to switch to conservative during the liberal, hippie-era 1960s.
Capp and his family lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts near Harvard during the entire Vietnam protest era. The turmoil that Americans were watching on their TV sets was happening live - right in his own neighborhood. Campus radicals and “hippies” inevitably became one of Capp’s favorite targets in the sixties. Alongside his long-established caricatures of right-wing, big business types such as General Bullmoose and J. Roaringham Fatback, Capp began spoofing counterculture icons such as Joan Baez (in the character of Joanie Phoanie, a wealthy folksinger who offers an impoverished orphanage ten thousand dollars' worth of "protest songs"). The sequence implicitly labeled Baez a limousine liberal, a charge she took to heart, as detailed years later in her 1987 autobiography, And A Voice To Sing With. Another target was Senator Ted Kennedy, parodied as "Senator O. Noble McGesture", resident of "Hyideelsport." The town name is a play on Hyannisport, Massachusetts, where a number of the Kennedy clan have lived.
He also satirized student political groups. The Youth International Party (YIP) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emerged in Li'l Abner as "Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything!" (SWINE).
Capp became a popular public speaker on college campuses, where he reportedly relished hecklers. He attacked militant antiwar demonstrators, both in his personal appearances and in his strip. In an April 1969 letter to Time, Capp insisted, "The students I blast are not the dissenters, but the destroyers—the less than 4% who lock up deans in washrooms, who burn manuscripts of unpublished books, who make combination pigpens and playpens of their universities. The remaining 96% detest them as heartily as I do".
Capp's increasingly controversial remarks at his campus speeches and during TV appearances cost him his semi-regular spot on the Tonight Show. His contentious public persona during this period was captured on a late sixties comedy LP called Al Capp On Campus. The album features his interaction with students at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) on such topics as "sensitivity training", "humanitarianism", "abstract art" (Capp hated it), and of course "student protest". The cover features a cartoon drawing by Capp of wildly dressed, angry hippies carrying protest signs with slogans like "End Capp Brutality", "Abner and Daisy Mae Smoke Pot", "Capp Is Over [30, 40, 50- all crossed out] the Hill!!", and "If You Like Crap, You'll Like Capp!"
The cartoonist visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their Bed-In for Peace, and their testy exchange later appeared in the documentary film Imagine. Introducing himself with the words "I'm a dreadful Neanderthal fascist. How do you do?", Capp sardonically congratulated Lennon and Ono on their Two Virgins nude album cover: "I think that everybody owes it to the world to prove they have pubic hair. You've done it, and I tell you that I applaud you for it." Lennon sang an impromptu version of his The Ballad of John and Yoko song with a slightly revised, but nonetheless prophetic lyric: "Christ, you know it ain't easy / You know how hard it can be / The way things are going / They're gonna crucify Capp! "
According to an apocryphal tale from this era, in a televised face-off, either Capp (on the Dick Cavett Show) or (more commonly) conservative talk show host Joe Pyne (on his own show) is supposed to have taunted iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa about his long hair, asking Zappa if he thought he was a girl. Zappa is said to have replied, "You have a wooden leg; does that make you a table?" (Both Capp and Pyne had wooden legs). The story is considered an urban legend.
In 1968, a theme park called Dogpatch USA opened at Marble Falls, Arkansas, based on Capp's work and with his support. The park was a popular attraction during the 1970s, but was abandoned in 1993 due to financial difficulties. As of late 2005, the area once devoted to a live-action facsimile of Dogpatch (including a lifesize statue in the town square of Dogpatch "founder", General Jubilation T. Cornpone) has been heavily stripped by vandals and souvenir hunters, and is today slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding Arkansas wilderness.
Vice President Spiro Agnew urged Capp to run in the Democratic Party Massachusetts primary in 1970 against Ted Kennedy for Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, but Capp ultimately declined to run. He did, however, donate his services as a speaker at a $100-a-plate fundraiser for Republican Congressman Jack Kemp.
In 1971, syndicated columnists Jack Anderson and Brit Hume published an article alleging instances of sexual harassment by Al Capp of students on his lecture tour. Capp soon became involved in a scandal after allegedly propositioning a married student from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in Capp’s Eau Claire hotel room. After being charged in the incident, Capp pleaded nolo contendere to "attempted adultery” (Adultery was, and as of 2008 still is considered a felony in Wisconsin) and was fined $500.  The resulting publicity led to hundreds of papers dropping his comic strip, and Capp, already in failing health, withdrew from public speaking.
Years later, on Inside the Actor's Studio, Goldie Hawn claimed that Capp had sexually propositioned her during her auditions for the 1964 New York World's Fair; other actresses who have made similar allegations include Grace Kelly (unsubstantiated) and Edie Adams.
"From beginning to end, Capp was acid-tongued toward the targets of his wit, intolerant of hypocrisy, and always wickedly funny. After about 40 years, however, Capp's interest in Abner waned, and this showed in the the strip itself," according to Don Markstein's Toonopedia. On November 13, 1977, Capp retired with an apology to his fans for the recently declining quality of the strip, which he said had been the best he could manage due to declining health. "If you have any sense of humor about your strip - and I had a sense of humor about mine - you knew that for three or four years Abner was wrong. Oh hell, it's like a fighter retiring. I stayed on longer than I should have," he admitted,  adding "I can't breathe anymore." "When he retired Li'l Abner, newspapers ran expansive articles and television commentators talked about the passing of an era. People magazine ran a substantial feature, and even the comics-free New York Times devoted nearly a full page to the event," wrote publisher Denis Kitchen.
Capp's final years were marked by advancing illness and by family tragedy, with the unexpected deaths of one of his two daughters and a beloved granddaughter. A lifelong chain smoker, Capp died in 1979 from emphysema at his home in South Hampton, New Hampshire. Capp is buried in Mount Prospect Cemetery in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Engraved on his headstone is a stanza from Thomas Gray: The plowman homeward plods his weary way / And leaves the world to darkness and to me (from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," 1751).
Neither the strip's shifting political leanings nor the slide of its final few years had any bearing on its status as a classic, and in 1995, Li'l Abner was recognized as such by the United States Postal Service. Li'l Abner was one of 20 classic American comic strips honored with a USPS commemorative postage stamp. Al Capp, an inductee into the National Cartoon Museum, (formerly the International Museum of Cartoon Art) is one of only 31 artists selected to their Hall Of Fame. Capp was also inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2004.
Since his death in 1979, Al Capp and his work have been the subject of close to 40 books, including three biographies. Underground cartoonist and Li'l Abner expert Denis Kitchen has published, co-published, edited, or otherwise served as consultant on nearly all of them.
At the San Diego Comic Con in July 2009, IDW announced the upcoming publication of Al Capp's Li'l Abner: The Complete Dailies and Color Sundays Vol. 1 (1934-1936) ISBN 978-1600106118. The comprehensive series is slated to begin on March 29, 2010.