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Al Capp

[kap]

Al Capp (September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979) was an American cartoonist and humorist, best known for the satiric comic strip Li'l Abner. He also wrote the comic strips Abbie an' Slats and Long Sam. He won the National Cartoonist 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."

Early life

Born Alfred Gerald Caplin of Russian Jewish heritage, Capp was the eldest child of Otto and Tillie (Davidson) Caplin - both natives of Latvia who had migrated to New Haven, Connecticut at the turn of the century. The Caplin family was dirt poor, and Capp later recalled stories of his mother going out in the night to sift through ash barrels for unused 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. 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 Cliff Sterrett, Rube Goldberg, Rudolph Dirks, Fred Opper 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, including the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Designers Art School in Boston - the last before launching his amazing career.

In 1930, A.G. Caplin went to New York and found work drawing Colonel Gilfeather, a one-panel, AP-owned property. Only 21 at the time, he was the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America. He grew to hate the feature, however. Before leaving abruptly, he met Milton Caniff, and the two became lifelong friends. He 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. 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 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 Features Syndicate (now known as United Media). The feature was launched on Monday, August 13, 1934 and was an immediate success.

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.

Li'l Abner

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 biting social commentary, Li'l Abner is considered a classic of the genre.

The comic strip starred one Abner Yokum, the loutish, simple, but good-natured hayseed who lived with his scrawny but superhuman Mammy and shiftless, childlike Pappy 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, "tarnip" fields and hog 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 in 1952. This newsworthy event made the cover of Life magazine.

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. 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 Bronx cheer) always had a small dark cloud over his head.

Dogpatch residents regularly combated 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", "Shmoon Valley", "Planets Pincus Number 2 and 7", and a miserable frozen wasteland known as Lower Slobbovia, a pointedly political satire of backward nations 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 Richard Marschall, Li'l Abner gradually evolved into a broad satire of human nature. In his book America's Great Comic Strip Artists (1997), Marschall's analysis of Li'l Abner 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."

Over the years, Li'l Abner has been adapted to radio, animated cartoons, stage production, motion pictures and television. 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 - 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, and (reportedly) even Queen Elizabeth confessed to being fans of Li'l Abner.

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 scrawny, much-harassed and occasionally deranged creator of Fosdick. The style of the Fosdick sequences closely mimicked Tracy, including the outrageous villains, the thick square panels, and even the lettering style. Fearless Fosdick was almost certainly the inspiration for Harvey Kurtzman's Mad magazine, which began as a comic book that specifically parodied other comics in 1952. 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 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, and Little Orphan Annie (in which Punjab became "Punjbag", an oleaginous slob). Capp was just as often 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".

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.” In addition to creating Li'l Abner, Capp would also co-create two other newspaper strips: Abbie an' Slats with magazine illustrator Raeburn van Buren in 1937 - and later, Long Sam with cartoonist Bob Lubbers in 1954. Sadie Hawkins Day is one of several terms attributed to Al Capp that have entered the English language. Others include Lower Slobbovia, Skunk Works, shmooing (a biological term for the "budding" process in yeast reproduction), and shmoo plot (a technical term in the field of electrical engineering). Capp has also been credited with popularizing many terms, such as double whammy, 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.)

The 1940s and 1950s

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, a motion picture adaptation starred Granville Owen (later known as Jeff York) as Li'l Abner, with Buster Keaton taking the role of Lonesome Polecat. 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. The stage musical, with music and lyrics by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, was adapted into a motion picture in 1959 by producer Norman Panama and director Melvin Frank, with several performers repeating their Broadway roles, most memorably Julie Newmar as Stupefyin' Jones, and Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam.

Other highlights of the forties included the 1942 debut of Fearless Fosdick as Abner's "ideel" (hero); the Lena the Hyena contest - in which a hideous Lower Slobbovian gal was ultimately revealed in the 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 of 1947, Li'l Abner met Rockwell P. Squeezeblood, head of the abusive and corrupt Squeezeblood comic strip syndicate. The sequence, "Jack Jawbreaker!", was a devastating satire of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's notorious exploitation by DC Comics. It was later reprinted in The World Of Li'l Abner (1953).

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 story became a very big seller. Dolls, clocks, watches, jewelry, earmuffs, wallpaper, fishing lures, air fresheners, soap, ice cream, balloons, ashtrays, comic books, records, sheet music, toys, games, apparel, and other shmoo paraphernalia were produced. The original sequence and a 1959 return of the shmoos have been collected in print many times since, always to high sales figures. The shmoos would later have their own animated series.

Capp followed this success with other allegorical fantasy critters, including the bulbous-nosed "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 "Bald Iggle", a sad-eyed being whose countenance compelled involuntary truthfulness, with predictably disastrous results.

Li'l Abner was censored for the first, but not the last time in September of 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 Cartoonist Society by admitting women cartoonists. The NCS disallowed female members before 1949. According to Tom Roberts, author of Alex Raymond: His Life And Art (2007), Al Capp authored a stirring monologue that was instrumental in changing the rules, finally allowing 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, and the introduction of Abner's enormous long lost 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 introduction of "Loverboynik" (a devastating spoof of Liberace); 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 that "...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 the USA!" Bullmoose's corrupt interests were often pitted against those of the pathetic Lower Slobbovians in a classic mismatch of haves and 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.

Feud with Ham Fisher

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."

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, a cartoonist character named "Happy Vermin" - a caricature of Fisher - hired Li'l Abner to draw his comic strip in a dimly-lit closet. (Instead of using Vermin's tired characters, Abner had 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 strips.

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 September 7, 1955, Fisher committed suicide in his studio. Such was his professional isolation that his body was not discovered until December 27 of that year. The feud and Fisher's suicide were luridly (and inaccurately) fictionalized in the 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, and Capp and Saunders had a good laugh when all was revealed.

Personality

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 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..."

Production methods

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, and other specialty work, in addition to six dailies and one Sunday strip per week. From the early forties to the late fifties, there were scores of Sunday strip-style magazine ads for Cream of Wheat using the Abner characters, and in the fifties 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 products, all requiring special artwork. There was also a separate line of comic book titles- mostly adapted strip reprints- by the Capp-owned Toby Press. 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 dialog, designed the major characters, rough penciled the preliminary staging and action of each panel, oversaw the finished pencils, and drew and inked the facial expressions of the characters.

Capp also detailed his approach to writing and drawing the stories in an instructional course book for the Famous Artists School.

Frazetta, later famous as a fantasy artist, assisted on the strip from 1954 to January, 1962. 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 1962, 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.

Public figure

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.

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. Between 1952 and 1972, he hosted at least five television shows - three talk shows called The Al Capp Show (twice), Al Capp, and Al Capp's America, and a game show called Anyone Can Win. He hosted similar vehicles on the radio. He was also a frequent celebrity guest or panelist on various television and radio shows.

His frequent appearances on NBC's The Tonight Show spanned three hosts (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 Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and was even featured on This Is Your Life in 1961. Capp also maintained a busy schedule of public speaking, and 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).

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 an NBC documentary called This Is Al Capp. Capp was the Playboy interview subject in the December 1965 issue of that magazine.

The 1960s and 1970s

Capp, who by all accounts was contrary and contentious by nature, was a maverick politically. He was a liberal during the conservative 1950s - only to switch to conservative in 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. 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 (Y.I.P.) and Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) emerged in Li'l Abner as S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything!) 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", Jubilation T. Cornpone) has been heavily stripped by vandals and souvenir hunters, and is today slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding Arkansas wilderness.

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 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.

Li'l Abner lasted until November 13, 1977, when 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. "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.

Capp's final years were marked by 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.

Since his death, 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, collaborated on the publication of, or otherwise served as consultant on nearly all of them. Li'l Abner was one of 20 classic American comic strips honored with a United States Postal Service commemorative postage stamp in 1995. Al Capp, an inductee into the National Cartoon Museum, (formerly the International Museum of Cartoon Art) was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall Of Fame in 2004.

For further reading

  • Capp, Al, LI’L ABNER IN NEW YORK (1936)
  • Capp, Al, LI’L ABNER AMONG THE MILLIONAIRES (1939)
  • Capp, Al, LI’L ABNER AND SADIE HAWKINS DAY (1940)
  • Capp, Al, LI’L ABNER AND THE RATFIELDS (1940)
  • Sheridan, Martin, COMICS AND THEIR CREATORS (1942)
  • Waugh, Coulton, THE COMICS (1947)
  • Capp, Al, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE SHMOO (1948)
  • Capp, Al, THE WORLD OF LI'L ABNER (1953)
  • Mikes, George, EIGHT HUMORISTS (1954)
  • Capp, Al, AL CAPP'S FEARLESS FOSDICK: His Life And Deaths (1956)
  • Capp, Al, AL CAPP'S BALD IGGLE: The Life It Ruins May Be Your Own (1956)
  • Brodbeck, Arthur J, et al "HOW TO READ LI'L ABNER INTELLIGENTLY" from MASS CULTURE: The Popular Arts In America (1957)
  • Capp, Al, THE RETURN OF THE SHMOO (1959)
  • White, David Manning, ed. FROM DOGPATCH TO SLOBBOVIA (1964)
  • Berger, Arthur Asa, LI'L ABNER: A Study In American Satire (1970)
  • Capp, Al, THE HARDHAT'S BEDTIME STORY BOOK (1971)
  • Robinson, Jerry, THE COMICS: An Illustrated History Of Comic Strip Art (1974)
  • Horn, Maurice, THE WORLD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMICS (1976)
  • Marschall, Richard, CARTOONIST PROfiles #37 (March 1978)
  • Capp, Al, THE BEST OF LI'L ABNER (1978)
  • Van Buren, Raeburn, ABBIE AN' SLATS - 2 Volumes (1983)
  • Blackbeard, Bill, THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS (1984)
  • Capp, Al, LI'L ABNER: Reuben Award Winner Series Book 1 (1985)
  • Marschall, Richard, NEMO Magazine #18 (April 1986)
  • Capp, Al, LI'L ABNER DAILIES - 27 Volumes (1988 - 1997)
  • Capp, Al, FEARLESS FOSDICK (1990)
  • Capp, Al, MY WELL-BALANCED LIFE ON A WOODEN LEG (1991)
  • Capp, Al, FEARLESS FOSDICK: The Hole Story (1992)
  • Caplin, Elliot, AL CAPP REMEMBERED (1994)
  • Marschall, Richard, AMERICA'S GREAT COMIC STRIP ARTISTS (1997)
  • Theroux, Alexander, THE ENIGMA OF AL CAPP (1999)
  • Capp, Al, THE SHORT LIFE AND HAPPY TIMES OF THE SHMOO (2002)
  • Capp, Al, AL CAPP'S LI'L ABNER: The Frazetta Years - 4 Volumes (2003)
  • Kitchen, Denis, ed. AL CAPP'S SHMOO: The Complete Comic Books (2008)

Footnotes

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