Passing Through Dogpatch:

Al Capp's Li'l Abner

I was thirteen when I first decided to become a cartoonist. My father came to an undeniable conclusion: I had lost my mind. He stuck to that idea with barnacle-like tenacity, ignoring whatever project I was working on, regardless of subject matter. The only response I would invariably get was "If you have to do this kind of stuff, why don't you do something like Li'l Abner?".

So you can imagine my feelings when, in 1990, I was offered the chance to draw a proposed revival of Li'l Abner....

Dad had passed on by that time but, whoa, what an opportunity for closure! On the other hand, Al Capp had shuffled off this mortal coil, too; if there is an afterlife, what sort of reception could I expect from Mr. Capp when it was my turn to trot through them Pearly Gates (or wherever)?  Does The Afterlife have health insurance?

I needn't have worried; after working up three weeks worth of daily Dogpatch continuity the project went belly up for reasons beyond my control.

Aside from the (pant, pant!) thrill of getting to draw Daisy Mae for three weeks, a major perk on that job was the ten years worth of Li'l Abner strips I was given for reference, providing me with many months of chortles, grins, and guffaws. When it comes to comic strip laughs, Al Capp is *The Man*, bar none.

Al Capp, or Alfred Gerald Caplin, was born in Connecticut on September 28 1909 to a father who was an amateur cartoonist and who drew his own comics to amuse his family. This couldn't help but have an influence on young Alfred (as well as his brother Eliot, who went on to script Abie n'Slats, as well as Dark Shadows, Dr. Kildaire, and The Heart Of Juliet Jones}.

Two other influences were to play a part in the formation of both Capp's personality and the outlook of his future strip. At the age of nine he was run over by an ice truck, resulting in the loss of a leg and sending Capp to the sidelines of a normal boyhood (which must have contributed to a certain amount of self-consciousness). And at age fifteen he hitchhiked down south and through the Ozarks --Dogpatch territory.

In 1932 Capp began working for the Associated Press, hired to take over a mediocre single-panel strip called Col. Gilfeather (an obvious imitation of Major Hoople). Capp hated working on Gilfeather and struggled mightily over each drawing. At that point the young artist was married and supported his new bride with a good portion of his meager salary, living a hand to mouth existence as a result. Aside from valuable work experience, the only other plus at the AP job was meeting another future comic strip great, 21 year old Milton Caniff. The two future colleagues became life-long friends.

After three months at AP Capp resigned in disgust and headed for New York. There he would meet yet another important influence, Ham Fischer, creator of the boxer comic strip Joe Palooka. The legend is that Fischer met Capp on the street, winning a bet with his chauffeur that Capp was carrying cartoon strips under his arm. Fischer hired him as ghost for Joe Palooka, at a rate that was roughly half what AP had paid. Capp later wrote of his impressions of Fischer in The Atlantic Monthly: "It was my privilege, as a boy, to be associated with a certain treasure-trove of lousiness, who, in the normal course of a day, managed to be, in dazzling succession, every conceivable kind of heel. It was an advantage few young cartoonists have enjoyed --or survived." ("I Remember Monster.")

After a year of laughably low pay, Capp left Joe Palooka and his millionaire creator, but not before he had created a some new characters for the strip, Big Leviticus and his vicious hillbilly family, while Fischer was on an extended vacation. After Li'l Abner broke print Fischer swore that the hillbilly idea had been his, and a life-long feud between the two men erupted.

Eventually Fischer attempted to get Capp thrown out of the National Cartoonists society, reportedly by forging pornographic Abner strips, but was expelled for the fraud. In 1955 Fischer committed suicide.

Capp left the Palooka job with twelve weeks of Li'l Abner continuity, first shopping it to King Features. Capp was often creative with biographical facts, but the official story is that the syndicate head offered the poor young cartoonist hefty rates for the strip, but *only* on the condition of a few "minor" changes: give Abner a suit, Daisy Mae a dress, drop Mammy, and set the strip in the suburbs! Whatever the case, Capp sold the strip to United Features.

In 1934 the first daily episode was released, and by 1935 the strip was a success. Part of the reason for Li'l Abner's popularity may have been that the Depression-stressed American public may have enjoyed reading about the antics of Dogpatch's denizens, obviously even more poverty stricken than they were. But mainly the popularity lay in Capp's unique brand of humor. Capp seemed to believe the dictum that cruelty is the wellspring of humor: Abner and his family were beaten, robbed, starved, and cheated in every way possible, enduring it all with relentlessly cheerful stupidity.

The man cast of the strip consisted of the perpetually dense Abner Yokum, the equally imbecilic Mammy and Pappy, and the drop-dead gorgeous Daisy Mae, who was hopelessly in love with the oblivious Abner. Capp's ability to draw the sexiest women in comics were obviously a plus for the strip, but Daisy Mae's continual frustrated pursuit of Abner was a gag device that spawned countless hilarious situations. Another linchpin for humor in the strip was the fact that the Yokums were hopeless suckers, a foil for Capp to display every kind of human venality and corruption.

Dogpatch itself had a large cast of memorable supporting characters who helped keep the strips humor fresh. There was Moonbeam McSwine, world's filthiest beautiful young woman, Hairless Joe and his friend Lonesome Polecat  (brewers of Kickapoo Joy Juice), the world's ugliest woman, Lena the Hyena (drawn by Basil Wolverton), Evil-Eye Fleagle, and the cannibalistic Wolf Gal, to name just a few.

Capp did well with critters, too. There were the kick-loving Kygmys, the truth-impelling Bald Iggle, and, most famous, the Shmoos, a capitalism-threatening free source of endless food, clothing and entertainment. Other memorable inventions were Sadie Hawkins Day (which launched a college fad), Lower Slobbovia (the most pathetic nation on earth), and Fearless Fosdick, a satire on Dick Tracy (and perhaps the ancestor of Judge Dredd).

In 1952 Capp took the most dangerous step in his career by letting Daisy Mae finally catch her man. The wedding even made Time and Life Magazine, but did remove a source of suspense in the strip. Still, Capp was able to maintain the level of humor in his strip throughout the fifties. Then, at some point in the sixties, Capp's political views underwent a radical swerve to the right just as a large portion of his readership, college students, turned leftward.

 Where Capp had once satirized corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and brutal cops, he now went after hippies and radicals --who despised corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and brutal cops! Go figure!

Of course, the "counter culture" had its own share of idiots and frauds, but where once Capp had wielded a razor sharp wit, he now bashed with a club. The cartoonist was booed on campus and had an ugly scene with John Lennon and Yoko One during one of their "bed-ins" for peace. Capp's health was rapidly declining, which perhaps contributed to events. The strip lost readers until it finally folded on November 13, 1977. Al Capp died two years later, on November 5th, 1979.

--Steve Stiles