When Satire Sours

Al Cappby Michael Schumacher & Denis Kitchen

Bloomsbury. 320p $30

Life magazine’s cover story on March 31, 1952, featured the marriage of Daisy May Scraggs—after 17 years of wildly frustrated pursuit—to Abner Yokum. Not bad publicity for two cartoon characters. It was hardly a celebratory event, as a lengthy essay for the issue made clear. “It’s Hideously True: Creator of Li’l Abner Tells Why His Hero Is (Sob!) Wed.” As the coverage made clear, Li’l Abner was a national celebrity. Sadie Hawkins Day, when Dogpatch women chased fleeing males, was imitated on hundreds of college campuses. Tie-ins from the strip proliferated—most successfully the Shmoo doll based on a ham-hock shaped figure, that died with joy if you regarded it as a possible meal. Before Disney World, the only cartoon theme park was Dogpatch U.S.A. in Marble Falls, Ark.

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Al Capp was as much a celebrity as his creations. He was a regular on the “Tonight Show,” subject of a two-part profile in The New Yorker and a popular lecturer on college campuses.

Al Capp was born Alfred G. Caplin in New Haven, Conn., to Otto and Matilda Caplin, whose marriage had been arranged in a Lithuanian shtetl. At the age of 9 Alfred was given 50 cents to get a haircut. He had a better idea. He could get a haircut for 15 cents by hitching a ride on an ice wagon to Prof. Amaroso’s Barber Academy. At some point, either in dismounting or falling off the wagon, he ended up under an oncoming trolley. Rushed to the hospital, his left leg had to be amputated well above the knee. He would eventually pen a memoir My Well Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg. Hardly! The subtitle of the present book, A Life to the Contrary, would be more accurate.

It might seem prudent, after the disastrous outcome of his attempt to scam 50 cents, that Alfred Caplin would abandon flim-flam. Not so. Eager to sharpen his artistic talent, he convinced three different art schools to admit him on the promise that an Uncle Bob (fictional) would send along the tuition. Uncle Bob seemed to suffer repeated business disasters, so Alfred managed only one semester at each school.

Alfred cadged an apartment in Greenwich Village on the promise to his landlady that he would settle the rent when he received the first paycheck for his (nonexistent) job. He took hack work cranking out ads while attempting to peddle his cartoons to various newspaper syndicates.

His break came about through an accidental meeting (the details are disputed) with Ham Fisher, the highly successful creator of the boxer hero Joe Palooka. Fisher wanted an assistant and Caplin signed on. He stayed with Fisher until a disagreement over money—a long-running theme in the biography—ruptured the relation and initiated a life-long acrimonious feud between the two cartoonists. Out of a job, Caplin picked up (or stole) a hill-billy theme from the Joe Palooka strip, added in his experience hitchhiking through Kentucky as a teen and produced Li’l Abner. He sold the strip to United Features in an act of artistic integrity (or financial desperation). Success led to Al G. Cap, Al G. Capp and finally Al Capp.

Li’l Abner started as an adventure strip, evolved into comedy and flourished as satire. The ferociously competitive Capp stove to be number one in circulation, and cheerfully satirized the competition. His most successful venture was “Fearless Fosdick,” a parody of Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy.” “To boost interest he produced “Mary Worm,” setting up a fake feud with Allen Saunder’s “Mary Worth.” “Citizen Kane” was skewered. Elvis Presley became Hawg McCall. Margaret Mitchell threatened a lawsuit over his attempt to satirize Gone With the Wind. John Steinbeck, on the other hand, was delighted with the Dogpatch version of Grapes of Wrath. Down and out because of the failure of the turnip crop, the Yokums migrate to Boston to pick oranges. Steinbeck compared Capp to Rabelais and suggested he should receive a Nobel Prize.

Satire turned sour with the outbreak of the Vietnam War. Joan Baez became Joanie Phonie; he labeled her “the greatest wartime singer since Tokyo Rose.” S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society) became S.W.I.N.E (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything). Not content to carry on his protest against protesters by way of cartoons, Capp was everywhere on college campuses collecting high fees for describing those who booed him as lepers. He made a special trip to Montreal from Boston to bait John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a “Bed In” peace gathering. As he left, Capp said to Ono, “I’m delighted to have met you, Madame Nhu.” Lennon replied, “It was great meeting you, Barrabas.”

Life and fortune turned on Al Capp at this time. Former liberal friends were appalled at his rush to the right. In an article in Penthouse in 1973, Capp wrote, “Spiro Agnew...is a crusader with more courage and usefulness than Ralph Nader.” The fatal blow to his career was, however, personal. Alfred Caplin had married Catherine Cameron in 1932 when he was still making $3.60 a day cranking out ads. They had three children and remained together until his death in 1979. He was anything but a faithful husband. A notorious womanizer, he was finally exposed in Jack Anderson’s newspaper column for sexual advances to four coeds during a college speaking engagement. In the same year he was charged with indecent exposure and sodomy for an incident at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. He pleaded “attempted adultery” and was fined $500 and court costs. Public scandal, sour right-wing rhetoric and ill health took their toll on Capp’s wit. The cartoon sagged, circulation dropped and in November 1977 he ended the strip.

Capp always said that losing his leg was the most important fact in his life. True enough for good and ill. Good: It certainly drove him to persist through multiple challenges to his genuine talents. He reassured soldiers who suffered debilitating wounds in the war that they too could overcome the trauma. He prepared a special comic book for the Army about his own misfortune and recovery, and he visited hospital wards. Late in life he wrote a warm personal letter to Ted Kennedy’s 12-year-old son, who had lost a leg to cancer. On the other side of the ledger, one can wonder whether his sexual aggression was compensation for grievous physical loss. Does making it on a fake limb make you confident about faking life and career? Toward the end Capp sketched an autobiography and asked his brother Elliott to critique it. “Nowhere in the 70 odd pages did I find the man I knew.” Don Schreiner, a comics historian surmised, “Al Capp may have been his own greatest creation.”

Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary gets as close as one is likely to get to the real Caplin/Capp. A highly readable account, it is bolstered by extensive references and interviews with family members and colleagues. They even contacted the victim in the Eau Claire debacle.

When Li’l Abner married Daisy Mae, Charles Schulz, whose “Peanuts” strip was beginning to rise in popularity, opined that it was “probably the biggest mistake ever made in comic strip history.” Schulz once commented that too often comics avoided “the real essential aspects of life such as love, friendship and day-to-day difficulties of simply living and getting along with other people.” Love, friendship and getting along with other people were not Al Capp’s strong suits; Li’l Abner was (Sob!) wed. Charles Schulz died in 2000. Thirteen years later Peanuts’ quiet tales of “getting along with other people” seem destined for perpetual re-publication. I am afraid that Al Capp’s witty satires have lost the splashy histories on which they fed.

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