Review: Al Capp’s tough road to cartoon stardom

Milwaukee Journal SentinelMarch 9, 2013 

"Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary" by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen.

  • Nonfiction Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen

    Bloomsbury USA, 320 pages

Al Capp didn’t often play well with others, and his public career ended in disgrace. But many people owe the “Li’l Abner” cartoonist some thanks, starting with every high school boy asked to a Sadie Hawkins dance by a nervous girl.

In their new biography, “Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary,” Kenosha, Wis., writer Michael Schumacher and underground comics giant Denis Kitchen capture the tumultuous life of a talented, complicated, difficult man, whose satirical strip paved the way for the commentary that Garry Trudeau, among others, delivers in the comics.

Capp also demonstrated how shrewd marketing could make comic-strip artists a bundle in product and ancillary income.

Capp (1909-1979) grew up poor in New Haven, Conn. He lost his left leg in a trolley accident at age 9. While the loss and his wooden leg caused him plenty of agony as a youth, it didn’t blunt his drive to succeed in comics, nor did it curtail his womanizing as an adult.

“It was the strength of his intellect and formidable wit that would carry him through,” Schumacher and Kitchen write.

Throughout Capp’s life, he visited and wrote to other amputees, especially military ones, bringing them a mixture of encourage-by-example and tough love.

“The main trick is not to keep remembering what you’ve lost, but all the rest you have left,” he wrote to one boy.

After some knockabout college-art school years that involved much lying to registrars about finances, Capp caught on as cartoonist Ham Fisher’s assistant on “Joe Palooka,” then a popular strip. Their relationship later ended acrimoniously and led to a bitter feud.

Capp said he dreamed up the title character of “Li’l Abner” during a youthful road trip through the South. As Schumacher and Kitchen note, the cartoonist was a wonderful storyteller but often not factually reliable. Nonetheless, the adventures of his strapping hero and the other inhabitants of Dogpatch became destination reading for Americans.

The biographers point out that the well-read Capp claimed Charles Dickens as a role model for building his characters. Capp certainly had a Dickensian flair for outrageous names, including Moonbeam McSwine, Available Jones and Joe Btfsplk (the guy who always had a black rain cloud hanging over him).

With a touch of genius, Capp invented Sadie Hawkins Day in 1937. It became an annual custom in his strip, named after the town’s ugliest woman and requiring “any bachelor caught by any lady before sundown must marry her.” This comic reversal in social mores delighted the nation, leading to Sadie Hawkins dances and parties everywhere.

A decade later, Capp created the shmoo, a lovable critter “shaped like a bowling pin, with feet (but no hands), whiskers, big eyes, and an endearing smile.” The shmoo made Capp millions through sales of related products.

Capp, feeling his power as creator of one of America’s most popular comic strips, sued his syndicate for holding down his income, and took control of the strip away from it.

His satire and general combativeness also extended to his fellow cartoonists, sometimes playfully, sometimes (as in the case of Ham Fisher) not. “Fearless Fosdick,” his recurring strip-within-a-strip in “Li’l Abner,” parodied “Dick Tracy” brilliantly, down to the crosshatching and creator’s signature.

Considered a liberal in the 1950s, Capp took a hard right turn in the 1960s as an opponent of hippies; he even challenged John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their famous 1969 bed-in for peace. In “Li’l Abner,” he mocked Joan Baez viciously as hypocritical folk singer Joanie Phoanie, making a bundle off the sufferings of others.

Capp had become a popular, if antagonistic, speaker on the college circuit. But in 1971, he was charged with several sexual crimes after a hotel room incident in Eau Claire, where he was speaking at the University of Wisconsin campus.

As the biographers reveal in their careful and detailed reporting, it wasn’t his first such attempt to push himself on young women. A plea bargain minimizing the charges resulted in a fine with no prison time, but also accelerated the end of his career.

Capp ended “Li’l Abner” in 1977 after 43 years.

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