The Magazine

Laureate of Dogpatch

How a bad man became a great cartoonist.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By JAY WEISER
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Despite their striking resemblance, Li’l Abner, the midcentury comic strip hero, was everything his creator Al Capp was not: an unlettered, unambitious, all-American hillbilly who was strapping (rather than one-legged) and repelled by sex with women (rather than compulsively bedding them). Al Capp springboarded the success of the strip into three decades as a multimedia celebrity/commentator/shock jock, transitioning from New Deal liberal to conservative—only to be brought down by social changes he had helped create.  

Al Capp, William F. Buckley Jr., 1970

Al Capp, William F. Buckley Jr., 1970

GETTY

As a youthful hitchhiker traveling through rural Tennessee, Capp, the New Haven child of Jewish immigrants, had viewed the locals as friendly and ingenuous; he set his strip there starting in 1934. Appalachia was exotic and remote, with hillbilly jokes part of the era’s ethnic humor. (As late as the 1980s, basketball’s Larry Bird could still be called the “Hick from French Lick.”)  

As a satirist, Capp was compared to Mark Twain: Li’l Abner spoke in dialect and had a touch of the innocent; but unlike Huckleberry Finn, he never matured. The inhabitants of the mythical town of Dogpatch owed more to Jonathan Swift’s lazy, ignorant, and dirty Yahoos. Like Swift’s Gulliver on the Island of Laputa, Li’l Abner also satirized technocratic elites: In the 2000 New York revival of the 1956 Li’l Abner Broadway musical based on the strip, a conga line of Washington scientists—memorably led by a deranged Christopher Durang—celebrated a future of “assembly line women, conveyor belt men.”

Capp’s hicks and potentates each epitomized one or two consciously Dickensian traits. The money-grubbing Available Jones, whose long nose and curly hair recalled Jewish stereotypes, plastered his office with lists of degrading acts he would do for a fee. Cuddly and ham-shaped, 1948’s lovable Shmoo cloned itself and gladly keeled over dead to provide humans with endless meat, milk, eggs, and suspender buttons. Symbolizing the Depression generation’s anxiety about the post-World War II boom, the Shmoo made evil monopolists panic, as they were unable to compete with free, while Dogpatchers became even more complete slackers. 

Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen pay less attention to the larger meaning of Capp’s work than to his artwork, plots, and production methods. (Quality reproductions for the first two-thirds of the strip’s 43-year run are available, many published by Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press.) At its peak, Li’l Abner was a pop culture phenomenon, running in nearly 1,000 newspapers. Recognizing his limitations as an artist, Capp ran the strip like an assembly line, keeping the faces and plots for himself while delegating production to well-paid assistant cartoonists, some of whom stayed for decades. Starting in the 1940s, he had the time to cultivate a loudmouthed, pugnacious media personality, including regular appearances as a Life magazine essayist, NBC radio Monitor commentator, and Tonight Show guest. He made the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Life.

Capp’s aggression extended to his personal and professional life, although Schumacher and Kitchen resist the temptation to write a prosecutor’s brief. While the cartoonist shamelessly reinvented his past, he was more sinned against than sinning in his long battle with Joe Palooka cartoonist Ham Fisher, an early boss who falsely claimed that Capp had stolen the idea for Li’l Abner. Nonetheless, Capp responded in an equally underhanded and obsessive fashion until the alcoholic Fisher’s suicide, which Capp called the man’s greatest accomplishment. Capp’s rage at his brother Bence, who ran the strip’s lucrative character-licensing company mostly for his own benefit, deserves more sympathy as a lesson in the perils of family businesses. And despite his flaws, Capp maintained long-term friendships with other leading cartoonists, inventively cross-promoting through staged comics-page “feuds.” Most famously, Li’l Abner satirized Dick Tracy and its creator, Chester Gould, in the long-running, ultra-violent strip-within-a-strip, “Fearless Fosdick.” (Schumacher and Kitchen sourly focus on one feud in which Capp didn’t deliver his end of the deal.)