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.
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.)
This biography is subtitled A Life to the Contrary, but the cartoonist’s quest for money and celebrity was numbingly conventional. Even the shock-jock persona, while uncouth by the standards of the day, had antecedents in the New Dealer Harold Ickes and right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler. Far from being contrarian, Capp’s politics reflected common attitudes, except for some advanced anti-racist tendencies. The cartoonist was part of the Harry Truman center-left consensus of his day before joining the consensus against 1960s radicalism—at which point, such equally conventional and fame-obsessed Democrats as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith dropped him as a friend, while Richard Nixon picked him up. Today, we might call Capp a populist.
Capp became increasingly venomous as the sixties went on. The authors note that, a decade earlier, Li’l Abner’s truth-inducing Bald Iggle had caused a Capp-like figure to blurt out: “The only thing I have against the younger generation is that I’m too old to be one of ’em!! (sob!!) (sob!!).” Capp attacked hippies as dirty, like the Dogpatchers, and he crashed John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 antiwar Bed-In for Peace, where they regally received media from their Montreal hotel room bed. But while he scored points against John and Yoko’s preachy universalism, Capp seemed invested in his own obsessions, launching personal attacks on Ono (“Good God, you’ve got to live with that?” he asked Lennon) and accusing the couple of being interested only in money! (Lennon responded that the Bed-In was far less lucrative than songwriting.)
Capp’s real contrarianism lay in Li’l Abner’s sexual politics. Dogpatch’s male inhabitants were almost uniformly weak, brutal, or stupid, while Abner’s mother, Mammy Yokum, was the moral and intellectual center of the strip—not to mention superhumanly strong. (When the craven Daddy Yokum would steal her preserved turnips, she would “take him to the woodshed” and inflict what would now be regarded as domestic violence.) Mammy aside, Capp’s women were utterly unlike the strong, articulate females who populated Hollywood’s 1930s screwball comedies and three-hankie movies. Whether grotesque, like the world’s ugliest woman, Lena the Hyena, or scantily clad, like the absurdly big-breasted and at-the-edge-of-publishability Daisy Mae, Capp’s women aggressively wanted to bed men, or, in the case of Wolf Gal, devour them.
Li’l Abner’s first hugely popular success came with Sadie Hawkins Day in November 1937, which initiated a role-reversing annual event in which Dogpatch’s single women wildly chased its single men. This still being the 1930s, any man caught was obligated to marry his pursuer. Despite the satirical intent, 201 colleges in 188 cities staged their own Sadie Hawkins Days by 1939, with more in later years: Real-world women demonstrated that they, too, could be sexually assertive, setting the stage for the sexual revolution 30 years later.
Capp’s sexual politics informed the last phase of his celebrity career: He became an unlikely star of the college lecture circuit, earning big fees for attacking sixties students as elitist (like the strip’s businessmen, politicians, and scientists), as well as filthy and hypersexual. The college circuit provided ready access to female students, all, by his definition, sex-crazed. The one-legged Capp may have thought that women were as eager for him as they were for Dogpatch’s undesirable males, but Capp was no follower of the six lessons from Adam Lazonga, Li’l Abner’s smooth wooer: The authors provide evidence of his sexual assaults on young women, including actresses Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn, going back to the 1940s.
In 1968, administrators at the University of Alabama covered up Capp’s aggressive advances on four female students; other universities had reportedly done the same. But in 1971, at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Capp’s luck ran out: The excoriator of the “new morality” forced student Patricia Harry to engage in oral sex, and, supported by her husband, she pressed charges. The district attorney resisted until a Jack Anderson/Brit Hume column on Capp’s Alabama assaults appeared three weeks later. Even after the accusations exploded into national news, however, prosecutors remained unenthusiastic: Capp got off by pleading guilty to attempted adultery and paying a $500 fine.
Decades of Sadie Hawkins Days had established that college women were sexual beings who would choose whom to bed. Feminism was on the rise, and with it, a redefinition of rape as no longer dependent on resistance from a damsel in distress. Suddenly, Capp’s lecture and TV gigs dried up, newspapers dropped Li’l Abner, and an embittered Capp—suffering from emphysema, addled by a psychoactive pharmacopoeia, and reeling from a daughter’s suicide—became Joe Bftsplk, the jinxed character living under a rain cloud. He ended the strip in 1977 and died two years later.
Al Capp is now nearly unknown to anyone under the age of 50. But whenever a shock jock berates a guest, he lives on. Li’l Abner, too, remains influential, and not just in Capp’s linguistic inventions, including “double whammy,” “skunkworks,” and “going bananas.” Like Walt Whitman, the strip contained multitudes. In the 1960s, CBS needed two caustic classics to rip it off: the Hollywood satire of The Beverly Hillbillies, and its magic-realist cousin Green Acres, where scheming rubes ceaselessly fleeced a Park Avenue lawyer (and Arnold the pig mirrored Li’l Abner’s Salomey). Today, lumpen cartoon protagonists less innocent than Li’l Abner still outwit the local rabble and sanctimonious elites in Dogpatch’s spiritual colonies, The Simpsons’s Springfield and South Park’s eponymous small town.
Jay Weiser is associate professor of law at Baruch College.