Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary
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More than thirty years have passed since Al Capp's death, and he may no longer be a household name. But at the height of his career, his groundbreaking comic strip, Li'l Abner, reached ninety million readers. The strip ran for forty-three years, spawned two movies and a Broadway musical, and originated such expressions as "hogwash" and "double-whammy." Capp himself was a familiar personality on TV and radio; as a satirist, he was frequently compared to Mark Twain.
Though Li'l Abner brought millions joy, the man behind the strip was a complicated and often unpleasant person. A childhood accident cost him a leg-leading him to art as a means of distinguishing himself. His apprenticeship with Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka, started a twenty-year feud that ended in Fisher's suicide. Capp enjoyed outsized publicity for a cartoonist, but his status abetted sexual misconduct and protected him from the severest repercussions. Late in life, his politics became extremely conservative; he counted Richard Nixon as a friend, and his gift for satire was redirected at targets like John Lennon, Joan Baez, and anti-war protesters on campuses across the country.
With unprecedented access to Capp's archives and a wealth of new material, Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have written a probing biography. Capp's story is one of incredible highs and lows, of popularity and villainy, of success and failure-told here with authority and heart.
weakened by such heavy medication that he had a hard time thinking straight. In the past, Gordon explained, he and Capp worked quickly; now it was taking nearly six hours to prepare him for an hour’s work. “It is extremely difficult to plan around his condition,” Gordon told Hochberg. “As often as not, by 11 his eyes begin to close and we have to come to a halt. Or he calls a few minutes before 10 to set a new time. Or he calls a few minutes before I leave to say that he just must go up and
each covering a year of daily strips. _____. My Well-Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg: Memoirs. Foreword by John Updike. Santa Barbara, CA: John Daniel, 1991. _____. The World of Li’l Abner. Introduction by John Steinbeck. Foreword by Charles Chaplin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953. Eisner, Will. Will Eisner’s Shop Talk. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2001. Gray, Harold. Arf! The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie, 1935–1945. Introduction by Al Capp. New Rochelle, NY:
became an annual affair, staged every November for all single men and women. The Sadie Hawkins Day tradition debuted in “Li’l Abner” in November 1937. This fictional event immediately spawned hundreds of actual Sadie Hawkins Day celebrations across America. Readers loved it. These were days long before women’s liberation, when custom largely dictated that a woman should passively wait for a man to express interest in her; the idea of turning the tables on the men was enormously appealing.
Sunday evening, while watching The Ed Sullivan Show, Panama, Frank, and Kidd saw a young man dressed in a military uniform, singing “Granada.” He was blond, but at 6′4″ and 220 pounds, sporting the muscular build of the offensive tackle he’d been at the University of Illinois, and possessing a singing voice much better than Shawn’s, Peter Palmer was the Li’l Abner they were looking for. After delivering the bad news to Shawn, the producers placed a few calls to Washington, D.C., and secured an
screen in the movie houses. His father encouraged him at every turn. Otto Caplin was himself an amateur comics artist, and he drew his own strips on grocery bags or butcher paper. Most of his comics were about a married couple, not unlike him and his wife, and their daily travails. “He always triumphed over her in those strips,” Alfred would say, many years later. “But only in them. Never in real life.” Comic strips enjoyed widespread followings at that time. Comics had been around since before