Dogpatch confidential

Al Capp, the creator of "Li'l Abner," one of America's greatest comic strips, brilliantly combined comedy and commentary, until he lost it over the '60s counterculture and championed Nixon.

By Dennis Drabelle

Published September 30, 2002 3:07PM (EDT)

In times of travail and confusion, when the beacon of faith dims and separating right from wrong poses a fearful challenge, I often find solace in a line from Al Capp: "Good is better than evil, because it's nicer."

This aphorism, which makes an end run around whole libraries full of ethical treatises, came from the mouth of Pansy Yokum, the doyenne of Dogpatch, Ky., and more important, the mother -- or, rather, mammy -- of a naive, bottomlessly good-hearted 19-year-old hillbilly called Li'l Abner. He, in turn, was the namesake of one of the 20th century's three greatest comic strips. The other two, for my money, were George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" and Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy," but "Li'l Abner" may have stood alone. "Krazy Kat" was cleverer, and "Dick Tracy" led to more chewed fingernails, but in "Li'l Abner" Capp mixed comedy and suspense in a daily cocktail that no one else has come close to duplicating.

We'll get to Capp's sense of humor soon enough, but I want to linger for a moment over his ability to intrigue readers. The mainstay of the adventure strip is a hero who gets tossed into predicaments we can scarcely imagine him scrambling out of -- how in blazes will Dick Tracy escape from that pit in which he is caught beneath that boulder slipping inexorably down those earthen walls? Capp saw that a trap could be metaphysical, taxing our brains whether or not it strained the protagonist's muscles.

In a memorable 1944 episode, a gypsy fortuneteller predicts that Li'l Abner will never leave a certain New York City tearoom. The gypsy has never been wrong, but the lad can hardly stay cooped up in that room for the rest of the strip's life, so what's going to give? After several days of teasing, Capp springs his surprise. The tearoom is destroyed by an explosion, so the gypsy was right -- Li'l Abner didn't leave the room, the room left him. Over time, watching the cartoonist set and then negotiate these snares became one of the strip's chief pleasures.

That pleasure is still available because, a quarter-century after the end of its 43-year run, "Li'l Abner" is very much with us. Abner himself -- bumpkin, hunk and Dogpatch's most eligible bachelor -- is still eluding the voluptuous Daisy Mae Scragg, whose self-effacing flame for him burns eternal (or at least until about midway through the saga, when the pair get "hopelessly, permanently married"). Moon Beam McSwine still lies down with hogs, Fearless Fosdick is still perforated with bullet holes, Lower Slobbovia remains the planet's smelly armpit, Joe Bftsplk has yet to shake the rain cloud that squats over his hapless head, and what's good for General Bullmoose is still good for the USA.

The handiest way to access this world is via the Web site where it's posted, one day's worth at a time, looking better than ever thanks to an on-screen resolution far superior to what you find in newspapers even today. About two-thirds of the "Abner" oeuvre came out in 27 volumes published by Kitchen Sink Press in the 1980s and '90s; though out of print, these books are not hard to find in comics shops and used bookstores. And now two related episodes from the strip have been collected in a new book, "The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo."

The Shmoo, you may recall, was the species that had everything and couldn't wait to give it away. It laid eggs, it gave milk, it provided meat -- indeed, "it dropped dead, out of sheer joy, when anyone looked at it hungrily." Plus, "the eyes [made] wonderful suspender buttons, and there [were] absolutely no bones." Such a godsend was bound to infuriate capitalist bosses pushing rival commodities, notably pork king J. Roaringham Fatback (roasted shmoo tasted "exactly like pork"). As Abner summed it up, "Th' reason shmoos is the worst thing thet kin happen to hoomanity is, wif shmoos around, nobody has to fight nobody else -- nor cheat nobody else, nor work thar hearts out for nobody else! An' wifout them sports, th' whole world would come to a stop!!" Shmoos became a nationwide craze, appearing on the cover of Time and racking up $25 million in sales of shmoo-related merchandise.

The original shmoo episode was published as a book in 1948. Overlook Press has coupled this with a reprise from 1959 to form a shmoomongously entertaining diptych, in which all the elements of Capp's artistry come into play: crackerjack drawing -- with the shape of an overfed bowling pin, the shmoo has the inevitability of a creature that has tumbled out of the collective unconsciousness; wordplay -- Capp's riffs on the word "shmoo" include "good shmoomer men," "shmoosical comedies," and the "by the light of the silvery shmoon"; black comedy -- out on a night mission to murder shmoos for the sheer spite of it, a blood enemy of the Yokums hopes to get off a round at Li'l Abner, too, because "it's bin so long since ah shot a sleeping boy"; skilled plotting -- the shmoos' arrival in Dogpatch sets off a chain of events that jeopardizes the national economy while also threatening Abner's bachelorhood.

The man behind it all -- Alfred Caplin, who restyled himself as Al Capp -- was far removed from the milieu of his backwoods creations. Born in 1909, the son of immigrant Jews from Latvia, he grew up in New Haven, Conn., where he lost a leg at the age of 9 after being run over by a streetcar. The physical splendor of so many of his characters -- that parade of busty, leggy "gals" and especially the strapping Abner, often glimpsed taking a physique-revealing outdoor bath -- can be seen as the wishful projections of a man with a mangled body.

In the early '30s Capp went to New York to seek his fortune as a cartoonist. The Associated Press hired him to draw a single-panel strip called "Colonel Gilfeather," but he soon quit to become an assistant to Hammond Fisher, creator of "Joe Palooka," one of the most popular strips of its time. When Fisher went off on vacation, leaving Capp in charge, the young cartoonist had the gall to introduce some new characters: a hillbilly named Big Leviticus and his family -- prototypes for the Yokums. Soon Capp struck out on his own, preparing 12 weeks' worth of "Li'l Abner" material, shopping it around and selling it to United Features Syndicate, which had placed it in only eight papers when it debuted on Aug. 13, 1934. (At its peak 15 years later, "Li'l Abner" adorned the comics pages of 1,000 papers.)

For the strip's first three decades, Capp seemed to have a direct plug-in to the American zeitgeist. But the advent of the '60s -- the Vietnam War, student protests, the whole counterculture freakout -- flummoxed him. His satire turned shrill. He dragged Joan Baez into "Li'l Abner" (under the lame name Joanie Phonie) and labeled demonstrators as "Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything" (you can do the acronym yourself). He took to the lecture circuit, where he excoriated liberals and championed Richard Nixon. On one of these forays something happened between Capp and a young woman (exactly what is not clear) that resulted in a 1972 conviction for attempted adultery. In the aftermath, hundreds of newspapers dropped the strip, which the ailing Capp brought to an end five years later. Two years after that, he was dead at age 70, done in by a lifetime of heavy smoking.

If you multiply the half-minute it took to get through "Li'l Abner" each day by the number of its readers, Capp's stacks up as one of midcentury America's most pervasive visions. To read those Kitchen Sink volumes in order is to watch an extended parody of the era, a kind of cartoon epic. John Steinbeck called Capp "the best satirist since Laurence Sterne," and readers might well have agreed if they had known who Sterne was. The likelihood that most of them did not underscores a vital aspect of Capp's art. He gave intelligent amusement to everyone "from 8 to 80," as the old formula went -- a knack that has all but disappeared from pop culture today.

He managed this feat, that is, until the '60s, when he began writing and drawing so as to alienate a large segment of his readership. This was an ominous change of heart -- perhaps a tragic one -- but it shouldn't be allowed to negate the glory of his previous work, when he tapped into what a broad swath of humanity has in common: a love of caricature joined with verbal tomfoolery; a thirst for vicarious adventure; an itch to laugh at stupidity, pretension, greed and cant, especially on the part of politicians and plutocrats; a delight in sex appeal; an appreciation of the difference between the male and female amorous agendas. Before he became unhinged, Capp had been shmoolike himself: a pop creator with something for everybody.

Dennis Drabelle

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor at the Washington Post Book World.

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