In the 1960s, two of the greatest American comic strips lost their way. Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” bogged down in, of all places, the moon, which supported a race of pale humanoids with little antennas on their foreheads. Junior Tracy even married one of the creatures, whose preposterousness became clear at the end of the decade, when American astronauts learned firsthand that the moon is a lifeless wasteland.
The malady that plagued Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” was earthbound. A cartoonist who had poured his joie de vivre and satirical wit into a new hybrid — a strip serving equal doses of laughter and adventure — suddenly lost his touch. Enraged by anti-Vietnam War protesters, Capp turned heavy-handed and strident, and “Li’l Abner” degenerated into a vehicle for settling scores. At the same time, the cartoonist went through a personal crisis that transformed him into a sexual predator.
Denis Kitchen has a long history with “Li’l Abner”: His Kitchen Sink Press is best known for handsomely republishing the strip in multiple volumes. With his co-biographer, Michael Schumacher, Kitchen has ably sketched the life of its creator, a double-whammy entertainer — artist and writer — whose 43-year masterpiece holds a secure place among the few American comic strips that deserve to be called art.
Launched in 1934, the strip was set in Dogpatch, a hillbilly hamlet somewhere in the mountainous South, where hunky young Abner Yokum did his best to elude the voluptuous, marriage-minded Daisy Mae Scragg, who managed to chase him and keep her dignity intact. Dozens of vivid supporting characters ducked into and out of this pursuit-avoidance routine: pipe-smoking Mammy Yokum; pig-loving Moonbeam McSwine; Marryin’ Sam, famous for his cut-rate ceremonies; the Civil War antihero Jubilation T. Cornpone; hard-luck Joe Btfsplk, who lived under a perpetual dark cloud; and many others. Equally memorable were the phrases and institutions Capp contributed to the American playbook: “double-whammy,” “going bananas,” “oh, happy day,” “as any fool kin plainly see,” Sadie Hawkins Day, the frigid communist country of Lower Slobbovia.
Born Alfred Caplin, the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, in 1909, Capp came to resemble the Jewish moguls of Hollywood in wanting to fit in as an American so badly that he ended up helping to form the country’s sense of self. Capp also brought another pang to the drawing table. At the age of 9, he had been run over by a trolley in Boston, and “his left leg was amputated well above the knee.” It doesn’t take a shrink to connect the idealized specimens in “Li’l Abner” — not just Daisy Mae, Moonbeam McSwine, Stupefyin’ Jones and Appasionata Von Climax, but also Abner and Tiny Yokum, who are often glimpsed shirtless or taking a bath — as projections of the physical integrity denied their creator.
Amid all the satire and pulchritude and inventiveness, Capp was second to none in stringing the reader along. In 1943, for example, the public was kept tantalized for weeks by a character named “One-Fault Jones.” As Dogpatchers followed him around, crossing out faults that his actions proved not to be the “one,” he courted Daisy Mae, who finally married him, dashing any hope that she might snag Lil Abner. Then, in two glorious days’ worth of panels, Capp resolved both plot points. Jones’s one fault was that he was a multiple marrier, a bigamist, which meant that his union with Daisy Mae was null and void (and unconsummated).
Schumacher and Kitchen take pains to explain why Capp finally broke down and had Abner and Daisy Mae tie the knot in 1952. At the time, psychologists and Congress were blaming comics for corrupting American youth, and Capp felt he had to throw them a bone. Later, he admitted that his capitulation had been not only cowardly but an artistic mistake.
“Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary” has every virtue but a sense of humor, but the ample excerpts from the strip itself make up for that. The co-authors are to be commended for not flinching from the grimness of Capp’s last years — the decline of the strip, which he ended in 1977; his assaults of young women he met while on speaking tours; his gasping death from emphysema in 1979. But he had a noble side that shouldn’t be forgotten. One of his causes was to visit hospitalized soldiers who were fellow amputees. To lift their spirits, Capp would put aside the prosthetic leg he normally wore and which gave him an awkward gait, and strap on one that allowed him to walk smoothly, even though it hurt like hell. That repeated sacrifice at least partially compensates for the bad behavior of Many-Faults Capp.
A Life to the Contrary
By Michael Schumacher
and Denis Kitchen
Bloomsbury. 305 pp. $30