Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen, Bloomsbury, 336 pages, $30.
Everything about the life and art of Al Capp, creator of the mid-century comic strip masterpiece Li'l Abner, was brash and over the top. Even the way he lost his left leg at the age of nine was right out of a Warner Brothers cartoon: He got run over by a street car. As one might expect, that traumatic event affected the rest of Capp's life for good and for ill. It inspired him to become good at something not requiring the use of two legs, yet it also compounded his innate and profound self-loathing. The lifelong pain and embarrassment it caused him (he always walked with an awkward, comical gait) only contributed to his negative, curmudgeonly psyche.
Even before the accident, Capp had a tough row to hoe, as Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen reveal in their fine new biography, Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary. Born Alfred Caplin in New Haven in 1909 to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Capp quickly exhibited the traits that defined him throughout his life: ambition, creativity, and a wicked sense of humor along with an explosive, hair-trigger temper. His lovable yet ne'er-do-well father dragged his family from city to city, starting one failed business after another, while his stoic, no-nonsense mother occasionally had to rummage through the neighbors' trash at night looking for something to feed her children the next morning. As a young man in the 1930s, Capp had to drop out of school just to feed himself, while cunningly sneaking into one art school after another and disappearing before his tuition payment was due. As with many Depression survivors, these hardscrabble beginnings eventually turned him into a money-obsessed miser who by the '60s grew to despise the younger generation for having it so easy in comparison.
Debuting in 1934, Li'l Abner was a unique mix of bawdy, burlesque humor presented in an adventure/continuity format. It also quickly transcended its "hillbilly" setting as it took on a strong satirical tone. Capp used his strip to spoof not just other comic strips (most famously with Fearless Fosdick, his send-up of Dick Tracy) but also theater, movies, and politicians. He basically was doing what Mad magazine became famous for a full decade before Mad even existed. His strip was also intricately well-crafted: simultaneously and in equal measures loud, gaudy, sexy, and detailed. It was a masterful blend of high and low humor, "pretty" and "ugly" art.
The strip also clearly was not for children, not only because of the sophisticated references but also due to the blatant sexual innuendos and the impossibly curvy, scantily clad women who populated the Yokums' hometown of Dogpatch. In terms of both art and humor, Li'l Abner was unlike any newspaper strip before or since, and during its late-'40s/early-'50s heyday it was the undisputed king of the funny pages, both artistically and commercially.
Contrary to what you might assume, Li'l Abner was never meant to be an insult directed at Southern and/or rural folk. As a teen, Capp hitchhiked through the South, and he was struck by how friendly and big-hearted the natives were, particularly to a Jewish Yankee like himself. In his strip, the sincere country folk always win out in the end.
Capp already had a family of his own by the time Li'l Abner got started. Prior to that he eked out a meager living mainly by assisting other daily strip cartoonists, most notably Ham Fisher, creator of the then-popular boxing strip Joe Palooka. Little did Capp know it at the time, but in Fisher he was looking at his own future self: a man of great success and wealth with an insatiable appetite for fame, praise, and beautiful women. While encouraging to the younger artist to his face, Fisher pathologically tried to undermine Capp's career at every turn. Capp sussed this out immediately, and understandably exploited every opportunity to trick, insult, or humiliate Fisher, usually in print. This lead to a vicious cycle that culminated years later in Ham Fisher's suicide. Capp was only a small part of the wretched Fisher's problems by that point, though the vengeful Capp still relished taking full credit for the tragedy, much to other people's horror. Capp also indulged in prearranged feuds with other, usually willing cartoonists—ostensibly for publicity purposes, though the sadistic, misanthropic glee Capp took in these supposedly good-natured antics was always apparent.
By the early 1950s Li'l Abner was a full-blown cultural phenomenon, while its energetic and opportunistic creator had his finger in a countless number of pies. There were merchandising and movie deals, product tie-ins, a successful Broadway musical, and even an odd, short-lived Fearless Fosdick TV puppet show, plus essays for the most well-read magazines of the day. None of this would have been possible without the help of assistants, and by this time Capp had a whole slew talented artists working for him, including famed sci-fi illustrator Frank Frazetta. That also allowed Capp time to wallow in his celebrity status, hob-nobbing with other celebs in Hollywood and New York and using his fame to seduce naive young starlets.
Capp went through an ideological transformation during the 1960s that left many people astounded. Prior to then he'd always been a rather typical New Deal Democrat, albeit a particularly fearless and sharp-tongued one, which made him a highly valued ally to his fellow liberals. The counterculture changed all that: The beatniks, the folkies, and the hippies all disgusted him. Soon his strip was targeting the likes of Joan Baez rather than Joe McCarthy. Imagine Michael Moore suddenly turning overnight into Bill O'Reilly. It was that dramatic.
Capp, to be fair, was a first-rate hippie-baiter—an easy target, yes, but he could make you laugh even when you completely disagreed with him. This led to a new side career for Capp, as he became the highest-paid speaker of the campus lecture circuit. His shtick was to bait and insult his audience as much as possible, while they responded in kind. It was pure sado-masochistic theater—just a big, dumb shouting match—and he relished every second of it.
This was the beginning of the end for Capp, both creatively and personally. For one thing, his newfound political worldview was purely reactionary, hardly the type of "conservatism" that a Reason fan might relate to or admire. As late as 1964 he was still making fun of Goldwater, yet four years later Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were his political heroes (and soon to be close friends and confidants). His ideology boiled down to resenting young people, supporting the Vietnam War, and being chummy with the people in power.
Worse still were Capp's relations with women. Being an equal-opportunity hater of everyone and everything, a certain amount of misogyny always permeated his strips. Yet by the early '50s his wealth and fame, coupled his life-long womanizing compulsion, had devolved to the casting-couch school of "seduction." One of the co-authors of this book, Denis Kitchen, is a long time publisher of Li'l Abner reprint collections, which made me wonder if he'd be inclined to pull his punches regarding this part of Capp's life. To his credit, this book makes no effort at shying away from the by-now infamous tales of his attempts at seducing and even sexually assaulting aspiring actresses, including a young Goldie Hawn and a distraught and disheveled Grace Kelly.
But Capp reached a new low during his campus lecture tours, which he hoped would serve as his chance to get it on with the young co-eds he resented so much. His batting average must have been close to zero, and he became what sounds like a serial rapist. Make that a serial failed rapist, since the few women who reported their encounters with him to the authorities always got away, as Capp routinely removed his prosthetic leg along with his pants. One would-be victim described tipping him over like a floor lamp, as he crashed into the hotel furniture. It almost seemed as if it was humiliation, not sex, that he was truly striving for.
In 1971, Capp succeeded in physically forcing a 20-year-old Wisconsin college student to perform oral sex on him. To her credit, and against overwhelming pressure, the student pressed charges. Capp was eventually charged—not with rape, but with three lesser counts: indecent exposure, sodomy, and weirdest of all, "attempted adultery." He was only found guilty of the latter. Clearly he got off easy, but his career and reputation were irreparably damaged. He was now a pariah as well as a physical and emotional wreck.
After that, his strip limped along for a while, his health collapsed, and one personal tragedy followed another. He even considered suicide—much to the delight of Ham Fisher's ghost, I'm sure.
It was during this time, in the early to mid '70s, that I was finally old enough to appreciate Li'l Abner. I thought it was brilliant. Little did I know that long-term fans of the strip now found it a wretched shadow of its former glory, or that its creator was even more wretched. It still stood out from the rest of the funny-paper dreck, and when I got a chance to read the work Capp did in his heyday, it was a revelation. The only thing that worries me about this book is that its subject's flaws may make people disinclined to read the classic Li'l Abner strips, which remain some of the finest comics ever created.