The Risible Fall of Al Capp


Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary

By Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen. (Bloomsbury, 2013)

I’m not complaining, but it’s a funny time to come out with a biography of the cartoonist Al Capp. It’s not a significant anniversary of his birth or death or anything, and despite being one of the most famous Americans of the mid-20th century, Capp’s not well remembered these days. On the contrary (to borrow a word from this book’s subtitle), he’s roundly despised.

This biography makes sure that Capp, now dead for 34 years, lives up to his horrible reputation as a braggart, a liar, an oaf, a grudge-holder and a womanizer —no, worse: a rapist. During his lifetime he was also accused of being a plagiarist, stealing the idea for his most popular creation, L’il Abner, from his former employer Ham Fisher, who did the Joe Palooka comic strip. But Fisher turns out to possibly be and even viler human being than Capp was. Thanks to that, this book can attempt a modicum of balance in capturing a guy who was more sinning than he was sinned against.

Al Capp was the Dennis Miller of his time. His work carried a sardonic smirk which put him in good stead with liberals for a while, until he saw benefits in brandishing a conservative outlook and became one of those funnymen you hate to be amused by.

Capp was the guy who visited John Lennon & Yoko Ono during their Bed-In (hours before they recorded “Give Peace a Chance”), seemingly just to sneer at them and insult them. He mocked Joan Baez as Joanie Phoanie, admitting he had little knowledge of her career and charitable works or even what she looked like. L’il Abner began as genuine social satire, about class differences following the Great Depression. (Those early strips are being reprinted on the comic strip site.) Later, he mined a deep vein of sociopolitical comedy by creating fantasy creatures like the Shmoos, who served humanity’s every need happily, whether it meant acting as servants or being eaten, and the Kigmies, who enjoyed being booted up their backsides and provided relief for a generation of angry Americans.

Li’l Abner’s fame, as one of the first comics to successfully exploit a new hillbilly breed of country bumpkin which contrasted comically with emerging urban white-collar America at the time, led to movies and TV specials and a theme park. Capp also created another long-running strip, Abbie ‘n’ Slats, an underrated comedic serial adventure that’s a touch less corny than L’il Abner and  which gets short shrift in this book. Capp was a deft parodist, and would let Li’l Abner digress for weeks at a time into the absurd and bloodthirsty adventures of the Dick Tracy lampoon Fearless Fosdick.
Killer stuff. For decades. But as Capp’s reactionary ways took over—not just in the Li’l Abner strip but in newspaper columns and essays and lecture tours—his humor became too caustic, his artwork less detailed (following a decade in which the famed science fiction painter Frank Frazetta assisted on L’il Abner) and his outbursts less entertaining. But the time he ended Li’l Abner (refusing to pass it on to a successor, though such a gesture is still the custom with long-running comics), it was a meaningless exercise.

When I was a kid in Massachusetts in the 1970s, everyone knew where Al Capp’s house was near Harvard Square. When I was in eighth grade, I played Romeo Scragg in my junior high school’s production of the stage musical version of L’il Abner. High schools throughout the country were still holding Sadie Hawkins Day dances, that now-quaint tradition invented by Capp for the rambunctious town of Dogpatch, wherein women got to chase men over hill and dale, and got to marry ‘em if’n they caught ‘em. When Li’l Abner ended its run in newspapers, it was a major national news story, regardless of the clear dip in quality and decrease in cultural relevance during its final decade.

I remember, not long after his death, seeing a a gallery exhibit in Cambridge of large paintings Capp had done of his Li’l Abner characters. They were pretty awful, as he was merely trying to ape the pop art of Lichtenstein and Warhol (who had famously appropriated comic art in revolutionary ways) rather than create art on his own terms. An awful lot of Al Capp’s life seemed to fueled by spite and vindictiveness. For such a wealthy and popular figure who had few real competitors in his narrow field of comic strip social satire with human characters, this is unsettling. Some of this umbrage, his biographers demonstrate, had to do with Capp’s lifelong shame over having a wooden leg, after having the leg amputated due to an ice wagon mishap when he was a small boy in New Haven. But his sour feelings toward humanity in general were revolting. His undoing as a public figure came after a string of accusations that he attacked and molested female college students when on his campus speaking tours. The scandal was big enough that it was broken by one of the biggest syndicated news reporters in the business, Jack Anderson (and researched by an Anderson assistant named Brit Hume, now a Fox News anchor). It has resonated elsewhere in literature in recent years; Goldie Hawn devoted a chapter of her autobiography to Al Capp’s attempted casting-couch assault on her.

This warts-and-more-warts biography is well researched and gives a good sense of the times in which Capp lived and ruled. It’s co-written by the great comics historian and publisher Denis Kitchen, a cutting-edge satirist himself, and Michael Schumaker (who’s done biographies of another comics icon, Will Eisner, as well as books on Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg and Eric Clapton. The authors don’t appear to share many of Capp’s political views, but given the turmoil of his private and professional lives, empathy with his world philosophy isn’t required. What is needed is a light touch so that all Capp’s despicable doings don’t have you puking on the book’s nice white cover. There are plentiful illustrations, but considering how long Li’l Abner ran in newspapers, this bio could have been better served if it were on the scale of R.C. Harvey’s tremendous book on Capp’s friend and fellow cartoon Milton Caniff (titled Meanwhile…). Luckily, along with those early-years reruns at gocomics, IDW Publishers half a dozen volumes into a mammoth hardcover L’il Abner reprint series, and Kitchen himself was responsible for similar anthology collections in the past.

So Al Capp lives if you know where to find him, even more strikingly out of time and place than he appeared to be in the ’70s, but still good for a laugh if you don’t think too deeply about the sourpuss source of that satire. This biography should be read alongside a healthy dose of Al Capp’s best work from the 1950s. Let his art be an antidote to his life story.