Children of the Cornpone

A panel from Ham Fisher’s comic Joe Palooka, 1933, ghosted by his assistant Al Capp.
A panel from Ham Fisher’s comic Joe Palooka, 1933, ghosted by his assistant Al Capp.

In late 1948, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip introduced, innocently enough, its merchandising gold mine, the shmoo. The strip’s hero, teenager Abner Yokum, brings the lovable creature back to his hillbilly village of Dogpatch, and nearly ends the United States as we know it. Shmoos, which look like marshmallow quail, are miracle creatures. They lay edible eggs, give milk, taste like chicken when fried and pork when roasted. They provide for every need. Industrialist J. Roaringham Fatback, “the pork king,” sees the national economy plummet, as no one needs any longer to buy or sell anything. Fatback sends an exterminator to wipe out the shmoos, to the delight of businessmen, from CEOs to Dogpatch’s greedy grocer. The shmoo typified Capp—slapstick funny, philosophically challenging our high-consumption way of life, and so adorably cute that the most dire threat to the American empire yet seen on a comics page became a marketing sensation as big as any Disney princess.

Capp’s Li’l Abner was published from 1934 to 1977, and over the course of that run its creator invented a new cartoon genre. Taking the long-form comics storytelling introduced in dramas such as Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, Capp merged it with the joke-per-day gag humor of Blondie or Krazy Kat. Pogo, Doonesbury, Bloom County, South Park, The Simpsons all came after—and all follow the Li’l Abner model. Their characters live in a town that stands in for America; they feature a central little family (literally or extended) that stands in for everyone’s family; and when they’re done right, they have offered decades’ worth of popular and topical humor.

Capp’s star was a big hunk of hillbilly, not too bright, living at home with Mammy and Pappy Yokum, irresistible to women, yet too childlike to return the interest. Abner’s constant pursuit by his just-a-friend Daisy Mae Scragg is where the tradition of Sadie Hawkins Day dances comes from, introduced in a November 1937 Abner story. In his day, Capp helped shape the national idiom. Dogpatch talk—which had Capp’s characters tossing the adverb “naturally” or “natch” into conversation, or using phrases like “as any fool kin plainly see,” “writ by hand,” “Lower Slobbovia,” and “double whammy”—became incorporated into standard American slang.

Capp rarely touched partisan politics—at least not explicitly. He made his liberal political leanings clear in characters such as industrialist General Bashington T. Bullmoose (based on former GM executive Charles E. Wilson, President Eisenhower’s secretary of defense) or isolationist senator Jack S. Phogbound. Later, when he shocked his public by turning conservative, he lampooned the pop folk movement with Joanie Phoanie—a clear dig at the antiwar folk chanteuse Joan Baez.

“I think of myself as a novelist,” Capp said of himself, and indeed, prominent fiction authors agreed. John Steinbeck considered him “possibly . . . the best writer in the world.” Statements like that about cartoonists are often dust-jacket blurbage or a highbrow’s calculated “regular Joe” moment, but Steinbeck said it for the record more than once. John Updike saw Li’l Abner as “Capp’s hillbilly Candide,” a work in which “the richness of social and philosophical commentary approached the Voltairean.” Updike got to know Capp in later years, and wrote a memorial poem to him, “The Shuttle.” In one love triangle involving authors William and Carol Saroyan (the woman upon whom Truman Capote based his Breakfast at Tiffany’s protagonist, Holly Golightly), Carol quite literally fell for Capp—jumping out of his Boston studio window in her nightgown to elude detection. Avowed Abner fans included John Kenneth Galbraith, Sinatra, William F. Buckley Jr., Alain Resnais, Chaplin, Gilbert Seldes, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Capp was the intellectual and comedy darling of his day.

Capp is currently the subject of Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen’s new biography, Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary (Bloomsbury, $30), and IDW’s Library of American Comics is reissuing the entire run of Li’l Abner, a project now in its fifth volume and focusing on the start of the strip’s peak decade with the years 1943–44. Capp was, at first glance, an unlikely bard of the populist American South: He was born Alfred Gerald Caplin on September 28, 1909, to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants in New Haven, Connecticut. He described the critical turning point of his life as the day, at age nine, when he lost his left leg in a streetcar accident that severed it six inches from the hip. Books and drawing, eventually combined into cartooning, became an early passion. At twenty-three he was an assistant to top cartoonists of the day, and by 1934 he began publishing Li’l Abner.

A Life to the Contrary is a slight, eviscerating look at Capp’s life. Al Capp, to be blunt, was a bad man. If he is not lying to someone on every page of this book, it feels like it’s only because there is a photo taking up too much space. He engaged in a vicious feud with rival cartoonist (and his onetime employer) Ham Fisher. After Fisher killed Capp’s bid to buy a Boston TV station (by anonymously sending the FCC a collection of the ample visual and verbal pornographic double entendres in Li’l Abner), Capp proved Fisher the culprit and ousted him from Fisher’s beloved National Cartoonists Society. Months later, bitter, lonely, and humiliated, Fisher killed himself. You can’t blame Capp for another man’s suicide, but it’s hard not to cringe as Capp publicly toasts Fisher’s death at Sardi’s.

Capp cheated on his wife regularly, sexually harassed actresses trying for roles in the 1950s Li’l Abner musical (including Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn), and in 1971, during his campus-speaking days, was outed by newspaper columnist Jack Anderson and a young Brit Hume for exposing himself and physically assaulting female students. Capp’s clout in syndication circles and national popularity got the column censored in many places. Then Capp forced himself on a student in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an abuse survivor who refused to back down. Even a Nixon White House intervention with the local DA failed. Capp plea-bargained, newspapers dropped Li’l Abner, and he became a bitter recluse until his death in 1979. In a rare moment when any family member is heard from in these pages (one gets the feeling they gave little cooperation to the authors), a 1974 diary entry of Mrs. Capp’s plainly states that Al Capp was the “worst creature I ever could have spent my life with.”

No full, honest accounting of Capp’s life could leave any of this out. But this is not a full accounting. A Life to the Contrary skims the intellectual, satirical brilliance of Capp’s work, his social world, and his family life. That Steinbeck “had known Capp socially for years” is only mentioned when Steinbeck writes an introduction to a Capp collection, and then dropped. The book’s account of the Saroyan affair ignores who Carol Saroyan was (the alleged out-of-wedlock daughter of actor Leslie Howard, and the future Mrs. Walter Matthau), her own thoughts on her liaison with Capp in her autobiography, Among the Porcupines, and her status as one of the most ardently pursued women of the literary-entertainment world. Why did Capp fascinate such people? Schumacher and Kitchen don’t say—because it never occurs to them to ask.

By the 1960s, Capp was known as a television pundit, speaker, and talk-show guest whose fame nearly matched Abner’s. Sometime after he campaigned for LBJ in 1964, Capp took a markedly conservative cultural turn in his politics—with a decided emphasis on cultural, as Schumacher and Kitchen make clear that Capp still held many of his Depression-era liberal political and policy views. Publicly he played bête noire to college-age baby-boomer “radicals,” berating them for their privilege, sense of entitlement, and arrogance. It’s hard, in retrospect, to find much fault with Capp’s complaints about the countercultural Left, but at the time they shocked his fans. While appearing on The Tonight Show, he told Carson that he loved Easy Rider for its happy ending. He was turning into what we now know as an Ann Coulter provocateur, trolling for outrage.

“When [Abner] Yokum speaks, he speaks for millions of morons,” Capp told the New Yorker’s E. J. Kahn Jr. in his 1947 heyday. That was the difference between Capp and Abner: Abner embraced America’s excesses as his own, to truly funny ends; Capp attacked them bitterly.

Still, if A Life to the Contrary provides anything, it’s an insight into the ways that Abner also functioned as Capp’s cartoon projection of himself. As related here, Capp first encountered hillbilly culture as a teen when he ran away from home with a friend. Broke and hungry somewhere in the Cumberland Mountains, they were fed and given shelter by some rural folk. Capp could not get over their openness and honesty. He found this generous spirit amusing.

Honesty and innocence, so antithetical to Capp himself, are the divining forces in Abner. Except for a shock of wavy black hair and a resemblance in the face, Abner was everything Capp could never be—physically perfect, intellectually ridiculous, a renewable fount of innocence and permanent ignorance.

That Abner is available to us in The Complete Li’l Abner, Volume 5 (IDW, $50), with helpful historical notes by Bruce Canwell, who understandably avoids anything personal about Capp. In the new volume, Capp gives full voice to Abner’s “ideal,” the comic-strip-within-a-comic-strip detective Fearless Fosdick, the creation of psychotic cartoonist Lester Gooch (a still-hilarious parody of Dick Tracy and Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, respectively). It’s Capp’s satire of the comics, gun-culture entertainment, fanboys, and the casual, hyperviolent police brutality that Fosdick mistakes for his civic duty—i.e., Capp at his best. The cultural and psychological forces embodied in the Fosdick story line are deeply ingrained in our daily entertainment to this day. And until a biographer comes along to convince us otherwise, collections like this one will be the only reason to be interested in Al Capp.

Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and the comics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.