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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Contrarian Cartoonist

Wisconsin authors explore the life behind Li’l Abner

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Al Capp, creator of “Li’l Abner,” was a brilliant comic artist when comic strips were in their heyday, the 1920s through the 1960s. Brilliant is not too strong a word. There were several others, among them Walt Kelly (“Pogo”), Wisconsin native Frank King (“Gasoline Alley”), Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”), but Capp stood out as one of a kind.

He stood out, as Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen show in Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary (Bloomsbury), because, unlike the majority of cartoonists who live and work in relative seclusion, he lived in the public arena. Doing so helped make his fame and his fortune and, at the end, helped ruin him.

He was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Conn., in 1909. At the age of nine his left leg was amputated above the knee as the result of a streetcar accident, a calamity that affected him the rest of his life.

After attending art schools and working as an assistant to Ham Fisher, creator of “Joe Palooka,” he got his own strip in 1934. “Li’l Abner” told the escapades of its eponymous hero, a dimwitted Kentucky hillbilly, and other rural residents of a fictional region called Dogpatch.

The strip took off in 1937 when he introduced the Sadie Hawkins Day Race, an event at which Dogpatch women chase the men until they catch them and the men then are required to marry them. Soon it seemed that Sadie Hawkins Day races were being held at colleges and other places all over the country.

Sadie Hawkins Day is the perfect example of the wit and inventiveness that marked “Li’l Abner” through nearly all of its 43-year run and pushed its popularity up to 90 million readers in more than 900 newspapers. During that run Capp filled the strip with scores of clever creations, but none more notable than the shmoo, lovable little creatures that resembled large-bottomed bowling pins with two short legs and no arms. They existed for no other purpose than to please, nourish and otherwise accommodate human beings.

A shrewd merchandiser and self-promoter, Capp turned his creations into hundreds of consumer items and publications that earned him millions of dollars. Eventually there were successful stage, movie, musical and even theme park spinoffs.

Shmoos, like everything Capp drew or wrote, were part of his satire. A longtime liberal, he used them to satirize a grasping capitalism that corrupted the planet’s natural richness for the enrichment of capitalists. He also spread his views in magazine essays, on the radio and in TV appearances.

But in the 1960s, with the flaring of the Vietnam War, he made a 180-degree about-face to espouse a bilious kind of conservatism, creating a character, Joanie Phoanie, to mock folk singer Joan Baez, a favorite of student protesters, who were his preferred targets. He made a lot of money touring college campuses, taunting them.

The campus visits brought him down. Married with three children, he had had extramarital affairs all his life. On the campuses, however, his aggressive sexual predations led to accusations of harassment that finally brought public disgrace in a court case stemming from an incident at UW-Eau Claire.

Schumacher is a Wisconsin author of several biographies and Kitchen, a former Wisconsinite, is a pioneer underground cartoonist and former owner of the Kitchen Sink Press. Together they have mined the sources, carefully alerting us to the dubious ones, to produce an entertaining and informative biography. There are many pages of color and black-and-white photos and illustrations.

They chose their subtitle well, for Capp was in many ways a contrarian. A gregarious, genial, often generous fellow, he could also be mean, vindictive, spiteful and jealous. Nothing illustrates this better than his feud with Ham Fisher, which lasted 20 years until Fisher’s suicide, unless it is his turning bitterly against his own family in his final years.

Capp discontinued “Li’l Abner” in 1977, its declining popularity a result not only of his own declining popularity, but of changes in the comic strip and newspaper industries. He died in 1979 at age 70.