Here's a preview from Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen's excellent new biography, Al Capp, A Life to the Contrary.
More than thirty years have passed since Al Capp's death, and he may no longer be a household name. But at the height of his career, his groundbreaking comic strip, Li'l Abner, reached ninety million readers. The strip ran for forty-three years, spawned two movies and a Broadway musical, and originated such expressions as "hogwash" and "double-whammy." Capp himself was a familiar personality on TV and radio; as a satirist, he was frequently compared to Mark Twain.
Though Li'l Abner brought millions joy, the man behind the strip was a complicated and often unpleasant person. A childhood accident cost him a leg -- leading him to art as a means of distinguishing himself. His apprenticeship with Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka, started a twenty-year feud that ended in Fisher's suicide. Capp enjoyed outsized publicity for a cartoonist, but his status abetted sexual misconduct and protected him from the severest repercussions. Late in life, his politics became extremely conservative; he counted Richard Nixon as a friend, and his gift for satire was redirected at targets like John Lennon, Joan Baez, and anti-war protesters on campuses across the country.
With unprecedented access to Capp's archives and a wealth of new material, Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have written a probing biography. Capp's story is one of incredible highs and lows, of popularity and villainy, of success and failure-told here with authority and heart.
Al Capp, A Life to the Contrary
by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
Once upon a time, long before Garry Trudeau entertained newspaper comic strip readers with his astute political commentary in "Doonesbury," before readers visited the Okefenokee Swamp and followed the social satire in Walt Kelly's "Pogo," before comic strips were aimed at the hearts and minds of adult readers, Al Capp introduced his followers to a hilarious mythical Kentucky hillbilly hamlet known as Dogpatch. The strip, "Li'l Abner," created and drawn by Capp from the very beginning, ran for forty-three years and, at the height of its popularity, reached a worldwide readership of more than ninety million.
Although it had its charm, Dogpatch was populated by folks just a few steps behind modern big- city ways. Turnips provided the town with its only known source of income, pigs were raised as both pets and a primary food source, single women literally chased eligible bachelors in the annual Sadie Hawkins race (with the captured men forced into wedlock), and creatures with such unlikely names as shmoo, kigmy, and bald iggle dropped by as figures in Capp's humorous observations on the human race. Politicians and businessmen did their best to bilk Dogpatchers out of the puny bit they did possess. The typical story ran for weeks on end, until even Capp himself seemed occasionally befuddled over where his winding plots would end up.
Abner Yokum, the strip's title character, lived with his parents, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and by all appearances had everything a perennial nineteen-year-old could possibly want. He was tall, handsome, muscular, and constantly being pursued all over the hills by Daisy Mae Scragg, the most beautiful single girl in Dogpatch, who, for reasons escaping any other male in the vicinity, wanted only a man totally uninterested in her. Abner was naive on his best day, dumb as a fencepost on his worst, and always caught up in an adventure more complicated than his native intelligence could handle. Al Capp delighted in working him in and out of trouble, using his predicaments as stagings for satire, parody, and a brand of comedy that won the praise of Charlie Chaplin, John Steinbeck, Hugh Hefner, John Updike, and a host of others.
Capp's rise to prominence was swift and unprecedented. As far back as the turn of the twentieth century, comic strips had bolstered newspaper circulations and earned their creators fame and fortune. "Hogan's Alley," an early comic dynamo featuring a kid wearing what appeared to be a yellow nightshirt, touched off newspaper wars, while a beautiful surrealistic strip called "Little Nemo in Slumberland" guided its readers through previously unexplored regions of the subconscious. Other strips and one- anel cartoons aspired to do little more than deliver daily punch lines. Action and adventure strips, boasting of long-running plots that held readers' attention for weeks and even months, were capturing the country's fancy right about the time "Li'l Abner" made its debut.
Capp had no idea where his strip would take him; he only knew that he wanted to succeed as a cartoonist. He knew, from an early age, that he could draw, and he'd kicked around art schools and worked on a few shortlived jobs before landing a breakthrough job as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the creator of the enormously popular boxing strip "Joe Palooka." It was only a matter of time before Capp struck out on his own.
The world was ready for "Li'l Abner," which started out as an adventure strip but quickly developed into a humorous feature with long-running stories usually associated with such comics-page favorites as "Flash Gordon," "Dick Tracy," or "Little Orphan Annie." Readers, still bruised from the Depression and fearing the events in Europe leading to World War II, connected with Capp's adult humor, outrageous adventures, buxom female characters, and snide but spot-on commentary. "Li'l Abner" shot to the top in very little time and would become one of the most widely read strips in comics history. Capp was a wealthy man before he celebrated his thirtieth birthday.
But this was only the beginning. Restless and hypercreative by nature, Capp trained his sights on how to broaden his artistic and financial horizons. His marketing genius led the way. Besides developing ideas for new comic strip titles, he pushed to find ways to nudge his "Li'l Abner" characters off the comic strip pages and into previously unexplored or barely explored territories. There were product endorsements and, more lucrative yet, merchandising blitzes tied into the strip. In one year alone, the shmoo, a cuddly little critter capable of providing humanity with everything it ever needed, grossed $25 million in merchandising -- and this was mid-twentieth century dollars.
Capp created a new template for the successful comic strip artist as he went along. "Li'l Abner" blazed the trail for such future marketing phenoms as "Peanuts" and "Garfield." Then, when Dogpatch USA opened its gates in 1968, Capp became the only cartoon creator other than Walt Disney to have his own theme park. By that point, Capp's face had appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, he was a regular contributor to Life, his mug had been seen on countless newspaper and magazine ads, and he was a regular guest on television, most notably The Tonight Show. Comics artists had almost always been solitary figures spending hours alone at the drawing table, collecting good salaries but remaining relatively unknown to the public. Al
Capp changed all that, through the force of sheer ambition, talent, marketing know-how, and a winning personality.
Capp created his own success, but he might have been destroyed by it as well. A contrary individual by nature, he was more apt to argue than agree with you. If someone or something was popular, chances were Capp would find a way to skewer it in "Li'l Abner." The high and mighty would be cut down to size, sometimes playfully, as in Capp's parodies of Frank Sinatra and John Steinbeck, sometimes savagely, as in the case of his commentaries on Joan Baez and the antiwar activists of the 1960s. Anyone or any idea could be a target. Even when he was at his silliest, as in "Fearless Fosdick," his long-running send-up of Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy," something dark seemed to be bubbling just beneath the surface.
This contrary attitude, once so amusing to his readers, lost its charm when his political views took a sharp turn to conservatism and he crisscrossed the United States in a lucrative but dizzying series of appearances on college campuses, where he aggressively confronted his student audiences. When he was implicated in a couple of sex scandals while touring the universities, even his close friends Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew couldn't save him. His career's downward spiral rivaled its ascent in sudden and dramatic fashion.
Capp's fall from grace, the retirement of "Li'l Abner" from the daily papers, and Capp's death in 1979 did little to lessen the comic strip's legacy. "Li'l Abner" has been available in reprint editions (nearly forty volumes, in total) for all but a few years since Capp's death, and it has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies and theses. Li'l Abner, the play, at one time a smash hit on Broadway, continues to be performed by professional, student, and local theater groups. Sadie Hawkins Day, an annual feature in the "Li'l Abner" strips, is still celebrated in dances and events across the country. Expressions originating in the strip -- "double whammy," "hogwash," and "going bananas," to name a few -- are still part of the everyday vernacular. For Capp, it all began with a traumatizing yet defining moment early in his life, a fateful meeting with a trolley car.
Reprinted from Al Capp by Denis Kitchen and Michael Schumacher. Copyright (c) 2013 by Denis Kitchen and Michael Schumacher. Used by permission of Bloomsbury USAAl Capp, A Life to the Contrary
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.