Al Capp: A Life to The Contrary: Book Review
A new biography of the “Li’l Abner” creator looks at the groundbreaking cartoon and the man behind it.
Al Capp is a nearly forgotten footnote in American history today but a new book is a reminder that the curmudgeonly story-teller behind the once wildly popular comic Li’l Abner was not only a major force in entertainment and media in his time, but also a pathfinder who set the tone for a lot of today’s popular culture.
The newspaper strip was about a group of hillbilly’s who lived in the mythical village in Kentucky called Dogpatch. While they were characters from the fringe of modern society, Capp used them to skewer and satirize an endless series of targets from rival cartoonists to political activists to politicians and pop culture figures like Elvis and Frank Sinatra.
Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen detail Capp's rise to the heights of American society and his fall from grace in Al Capp: A Life To The Contrary, the well researched and fast-paced biography of the cartoonist who lived from 1909 to 1979.
It is a tale of triumph by a lower middle-class kid from New Haven--he was born Alfred Caplin, the grandson of a rabbi--who tragically lost his leg when he was only nine years old; but was shaped by that in ways that made him see the world in very different terms than most other people.
The authors capture how he overcame his physical handicap, shrugged off religious prejudice, toughed out the early years and found love and life along the way.
They show that he was able to express his views first as a cartoonist—turning a minor profession into a high profile career—and later as an author and pundit, even as he lived a double life: A very vocal citizen above suspicion and a man beneath contempt for how he treated his family and abused young women.
The strip ran for 43 years, but arguably its high water was 1959 when Capp celebrated his 50th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the comic strip. At that moment, Li’l Abner was appearing in more than 700 daily and Sunday newspapers with a circulation of over 40 million (at its height it reached more than 90 million readers). That year it was the basis of a hit Broadway play, a popular Southern theme park and a Christmas season blockbuster movie musical from Paramount Pictures.
Capp and his characters introduced words and phrases that became part of the lexicon – hogwash, double whammy, going bananas, oh happy day, as any fool can plainly see and Sadie Hawkins Day (a dance one day a year where women got to issue the invitations instead of the men).
For the silver anniversary of his creation, Capp was feted in Washington, D.C. at a by-invitation lunch that included then Vice President Richard Nixon (who for a while was his close personal friend), Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senator John F. Kennedy, other leading cartoonists from Rube Goldberg to Mort Walker and a bevy of newspaper, publishing and television executives.
He had books that year on the bestseller list, was a regular contributor to the biggest general circulation magazine of the time and was a frequent guest on late night talk shows.
There had been comic strips in newspapers from late in the 19th century on, but most were just an excuse to make a joke, or at best to spin out a tale of action or adventure. Capp brought a new energy to the form with adult humor, sexy female characters, outrageous storylines and often snarky commentary.
He established a legacy of satire that later would be elevated to an art form by cartoonists like Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury.
Before Capp, few of those comics were more than a light amusement. He ramped up the concept of product endorsements for his characters and even tied the sale of merchandize to his stories. He laid the groundwork for the mass merchandizing of comic strips like Peanuts.
Perhaps the ultimate example was the Shmoo, which Capp introduced in a comic strip in August 1948. It came from a dream, made strange noises and was a creature shaped like a bowling pin with legs. It was a little animal that Capp later said rose from his favorite questions, “What if….?”
What if, he mused, humans could get all the food they needed, shelter, clothing and more without doing any work. In Capp’s vision, the Shmoo was dying to be someone’s meal. If broiled they tasted like steak. If fried they were tasty as chicken. Their hides could be made into cloth or leather and they could even be turned into lumber. They didn’t eat and reproduced faster than they could be used.
Thousands of fans flooded the offices of United Features with fan mail. The Shmoo became an overnight media sensation. It also became a merchandising and publishing phenomena. Simon & Schuster anted up a huge amount for the right to republish the Shmoo stories in book form.
Life magazine dubbed the Shmoo phenomenon “The Capp-italist Revolution.”
For many years, Capp was a liberal champion of the underdog, who loved to poke the pompous and self-important. Curiously as he got older and more successful (he was a millionaire by the time he was in his 30s), he became a kind of parody of those he had satirized for so many years. By the 1960s, he was a reactionary conservative who opposed student activism, the anti-war protests, and the changes in fashion, music and politics.
While he built his public profile into a lucrative sideline of writing, lecturing and endorsements, Capp did his best to keep his private life private. He had a wife and children but he also had a series of mistresses and affairs. That wasn’t the worst of it however.
Late in his career he took to trying to trap young women he met while on college tours, committing serious sexual improprieties. Many were covered up but then muckraking columnist Jack Anderson exposed him in 1971 and documented Capp’s inappropriate behavior, and his empire collapsed almost overnight.
Capp’s pals like President Richard Nixon immediately distanced themselves from him, speaking engagements dried up, newspapers dropped his strip in droves and at the same time he experienced tragedies in his family, including the death of his daughter and a granddaughter.
Finally in November 1977, Capp ended Li’l Abner with little fanfare. He knew his work was no longer up to the standards to which he once held himself, and his health had begun to decline, causing him to use a lot of medications that also impacted his mood and outlook.
Diagnosed with throat cancer, he died Nov. 5, 1979.
Today we think it is normal to have comic characters come to life in live action and animation. We have stores full of licensed merchandise based on those characters.
We watch commercials that feature those characters as pitchmen and women. None of that existed before Capp. He didn’t do it all himself but he set the precedent for much of that kind of popularizing of characters for commercial purposes.
A Life to the Contrary is a richly detailed and highly entertaining narrative of the rise and fall of Al Capp.
The authors make a strong case for his importance in the history of American popular culture and they capture why, despite his deeds, his destiny was to be nearly forgotten As great as his accomplishments were, his failings as a man and human being were even greater.