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Wonkette Book Club: This Al Capp Bio Is A First-Rate Book About A Real Jerk
When Kid Zoom was a wee lad of about 4, his favorite bedtime story for a while was Yr Doktor Zoom's extemporaneous retelling of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight. No idea how we stumbled on that narrative as a bedtime story; maybe there was a hope that the part about Lindbergh barely being able to stay awake as he flew low over the waves might influence a hyper little boy (nahh). And then, of course, several years later, we had to revisit Lucky Lindy and talk about his less than heroic later years as a racist, anti-Semite, isolationist, and pal of the Nazis. Lesson learned: People can do impressive things and still be awful human beings.
Which brings us to the impressive career of "Li'l Abner" creator and human trainwreck Al Capp, as covered by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen in their biography Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary. This is the first full-scale biography of Capp, who died in 1979, and the decades since "Li'l Abner" was a daily newspaper feature give Schumacher and Kitchen a healthy distance to assess both Capp's career as a creator of comics (yep, kind of a genius and definitely an innovator) and his character as a human being ("seriously flawed" might be too generous).
Schumacher and Kitchen's task was complicated by Capp's talent as a creator of appealing fictions -- Capp, born Alfred Caplin, told multiple versions of nearly every major event in his life, embroidering and fabricating as he felt the tale needed. The authors tackle this by making Capp's flexible relationship to facts part of their narrative in the first chapter, which looks at the pivotal moment in Capp's childhood, the loss of his left leg in 1919, shortly before his tenth birthday. Sifting through various accounts he later gave, they admit that they can only be certain of the outcome: he fell under the wheels of a trolley car in New Haven, Connecticut, but whether it happened because he slipped when hopping off an ice wagon (Capp's version) or carelessly walked in front of the trolley (his father's suspicion) can never be known. In a 1946 Red Cross pamphlet for veterans who'd lost limbs, Capp even drew himself as several years older than he'd been at the time.
Schumacher and Kitchen can also agree that the accident left Capp with lifelong pain -- which later in life would contribute to his consumption of a stew of pharmaceuticals -- and that it accelerated his career as a cartoonist. In the social pecking order of adolescence, Capp found a degree of safety and income by sketching fantasies his classmates commissioned: "One kid asked him to portray him as a cowboy shooting his older brother" and, for a quarter, he'd draw their art teacher, Miss Mandelbaum, wearing little or nothing. Capp reported that he had so many commissions that he ended up taking work home with him.
Capp's talent for invention also got him into art school, one semester at a time. He'd impress an admissions director with his portfolio and a story about his rich uncle whose annual cash Christmas gift would cover Capp's tuition...if you don't mind deferring payment until the end of the term, please. The scam actually worked several times, and then, come December, it would turn out that the uncle's business had suffered reverses, so no Christmas bonus this year, sorry and goodbye. In 1932 he managed to get work in comics, first as a replacement for a cartoonist whose single-panel feature Capp never really liked, and eventually as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the creator of the boxing serial "Joe Palooka." (And once again, Capp's and Fisher's accounts of their meeting differed on almost every detail.)
Capp ended up taking over much of the drawing and even creation of story arcs on "Joe Palooka," and the two eventually had a falling-out that led to decades of feuding and backstabbing, with Fisher claiming that Capp had stolen the idea for a comic about hillbillies from a subplot that the two had collaborated on, and Capp insisting that "Li'l Abner" shared nothing but the rural setting of that story, and that Fisher fired him after a prolonged absence while Capp and another ghost artist carried the strip. Schumacher and Kitchen pretty much throw up their hands at the conflicting accounts, agreeing that Capp's version of the episode includes generous helpings of impossible bullshit, but also noting that Fisher "had no corner on the hillbilly market" and did everything he could to sabotage Capp as "Li'l Abner" eclipsed "Joe Palooka."
During the moral panic over comics in the 1950s, Fisher even sent anonymous letters to members of a congressional committee investigating the supposed link between comics and juvenile delinquency, with notes in the margins of Capp's comics alleging that the "Schmoo" character was suspiciously phallic. And of course, sure, it was, but the notion that the nation's morals were endangered by a vaguely dick-shaped comics character seems hard to get a grasp on today. As it were. Capp retaliated by claiming that Fisher had altered the strips to exaggerate the sexual innuendo and lobbying the National Cartoonists Society to expel Fisher; with few friends left who weren't tired of his tirades against Capp, Fisher was expelled in 1955, and committed suicide later that year. Capp, ever the charmer, boasted that he'd driven Fischer to do it.
But what about the comics themselves, you ask -- are they still worth talking about? Pretty much, yes. Capp really did bring something new to daily newspaper comics; an adult sensibility provided by the skewed view of America afforded by his hillbilly outsiders, with opportunities for broad satire afforded by the businessmen and politicians who tried to bilk the citizens of Dogpatch (when they weren't trying to defraud each other). Capp also made pop culture parodies a central part of "Li'l Abner," including a long story arc spoofing The Grapes of Wrath -- the Dogpatchers migrate to Boston to make their fortunes picking oranges. In the winter. John Steinbeck was an admirer, and wrote an appreciative introduction to a hardback collection of "Abner" strips in which he praised Capp as "possibly...the best writer in the world today." And Capp's "Fearless Fosdick," a recurring parody of Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy," actually holds up pretty well even today, with Fosdick blithely shooting everything in sight -- especially bystanders -- in his relentless pursuit of the bad guys he never quite manages to hit.
In the 1940s, Capp also took the art of merchandising spinoffs from his comics to levels which, to that point, had only been achieved by Walt Disney's film properties. Capp had gotten the ball rolling in the late '30s, when his "Sadie Hawkins Day" plot line spawned a fad on college campuses, and the Shmoo, introduced into the strip in 1948, led to a plethora (really, that's the only word for it) of licensed merchandise that would only be surpassed by "Peanuts" spinoffs in the 1960s. Capp soon formed a subsidiary company, Al Capp Enterprises, which brought in as much income as the comic strip itself (and provided him with grist for more feuds, this time with his brother Bence, who he believed mismanaged the company).
Capp didn't invent licensed merchandising, but he helped make product tie-ins an integral part of entertainment marketing, so we can at least thank him, in part, for paving the way to Hello Kitty vibrators. He also gave a young comics artist named Frank Frazetta a job as an assistant; Frazetta penciled the Sunday strips for the better part of the 1950s (Capp wrote the strips and roughed out the panels; his assistants did most of the actual drawing, but Capp drew all the faces). In fact, this image of Daisy Mae, used on the book's back jacket, is by Frazetta, who went on to a certain bit of renown himself.
By the 1960s, Capp was rich and a media presence, a regular guest on TV talk shows, and by the time protests against the Vietnam War became widespread, he was also becoming one of the most rabid critics of the youth movement. A New Deal Democrat since the '30s, Capp now praised Richard Nixon as "a towering intellect," and "Li'l Abner's" satire became increasingly bitter, featuring a hypocritical folk singer named "Joanie Phoanie" who rode in a limo to an orphanage -- not to give the orphans material help, but to sing protest songs like "Let's Conga With the Viet Cong" and "On a Hammer and Sickle Built for Two." Other strips had a campus protest group, Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything (S.W.I.N.E., get it?), which "finds itself in charge when a chemical gas accident paralyzes anyone who has recently bathed," and the dirty hippies are of course incapable of defending against a foreign invasion, har-har.
Capp also took his anti-hippie schtick to the air in radio commentaries and guest appearances on TV -- Johnny Carson eventually stopped inviting him to be on the Tonight Show after Capp said that he'd loved Easy Rider "because it has a happy ending." Capp barged in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1969 "Bed-In for Peace" in Montreal to "applaud" the couple for the Two Virgins album cover, which "prove[d] to the world that they have pubic hair." Capp also collected record-setting speaking fees at the time, for appearances on college campuses where he would get into shouting matches with students.
These college tours gave Capp's pre-existing dickishness the chance to blossom into full-blown criminality: in 1971, columnist Jack Anderson, using research by Britt Hume, revealed that three years earlier, during a 1968 trip to the University of Alabama, Capp had groped and/or exposed himself to four female students who he'd invited to meet him in his hotel room under the pretext of helping him prepare for his speaking engagement. One of the women was so traumatized by the attempted rape that she later required psychiatric treatment; all four women reported the attacks to campus authorities, but instead of arresting Capp, campus security quietly escorted him out of Tuscaloosa and the university president told him to never return. The university took no further action, out of the desire to avoid "publicity and notoriety." Capp dismissed the allegations as a smear campaign by "radical leftists" even as he continued to harass and attempt to rape other female students. An incident in Wisconsin -- which actually occurred shortly before the publication of the Anderson exposé -- finally led to criminal charges, although due to the state's criminal code at the time, he was not charged with attempted rape because the victim had not fought back vigorously enough (and just describing that has led to a forehead-shaped dent in our desk). Capp eventually plea-bargained to a charge of "attempted adultery" and paid a $500 fine, but it was enough to largely finish his career. Papers began dropping "Li'l Abner," and the strip began a slow decline until Capp ended it in 1977. He died in 1979.
Schumacher and Kitchen don't spare any details in their treatment of Capp's behavior; they don't excuse him as merely a "womanizer." Instead, they leave no doubt that, though never charged, Capp would today be considered a rapist. Throughout A Life to the Contrary, they pursue a similar strategy, providing enough information to let Capp hang himself.
Al Capp was a self-made American in the Don Draper style of self-made -- up to and including his own origin story -- who embodied the mean drift of America from the New Deal '30s when we were all in it together to the angry '60s, when yelling at hippies and clouds became de rigueur for those who felt left behind by time. He was both huckster and hater, and would have been very at home cutting people's mics on Fox News.
Al Capp was a real American.
Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen. Bloomsbury Press, 305 pages.
Next Month's Wonkette Book Club Selection: Ready for some political science? Let's all read Rachel Maddow's Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, which just came out in paperback! ($11.95)
Or there's the Kindle e-book for $11.99. Purchase it with those linkies, there, so Yr Wonket gets a cut!