The Magazine

Laureate of Dogpatch

How a bad man became a great cartoonist.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By JAY WEISER
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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.