Li'l Abner's Al Capp: A Monstrous Creature, a Masterful Cartoonist
No doubt about it: Al Capp engaged in depraved behavior. Most disgraceful was his attempted rape of a number of women, from college co-eds to Grace Kelly. And, as the interview below suggests, there may be more. Capp also created Li’l Abner, once one of America’s most acclaimed comic strips. It began in 1934, the Depression era, and was centered around the fictional, dirt-poor Appalachian town inhabited mostly by innocent yokels and conniving scoundrels. At its best, it ridiculed the powerful and pompous in politics and culture with shrewd insight, rollicking humor, and a distinctly lush, elegant drawing style.
Abner rapidly gained unprecedented popularity and ran for 40-plus years. My copy of a 1953 paperback collection has a foreword by Charlie Chaplin and an intro by John Steinbeck, who writes, “I think Capp may very possibly be the best writer in the world today. I am sure that he is the best satirist since Laurence Sterne.” Capp was at his peak through the 1940s and ’50s, entertaining tens of millions of newspaper readers. And with IDW’s new release of the fifth volume in its series of Abner dailies and color Sundays, this one featuring Fearless Fosdick, his work continues to delight fans of classic quality comics.
And now, both his dark and light sides are chronicled in Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, a valuable, thorough, and sensitive 300-page biography of this contradictory and deeply troubled individual, written by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen.
Steven Heller describes the book as “spicy,” a word that also applies to the strips themselves, always bursting with provocatively erotic females. It also details Capp’s many spoofs: of books (author Margaret Mitchell threatened him and his syndicate with a lawsuit for his lampoon of Gone with the Wind), plays, movies, T.V. shows, movie stars, and generations of pop singers from Sinatra to Elvis to the Beatles and, most notoriously, Joan Baez. His parodies of popular funnies—Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Steve Canyon, etc.—often prefigure Harvey Kurtzman’s iconic mid-1950s Mad comic book satires in both style and sensibility.
Capp’s mockery could target corporate injustices against comic book creators, as with DC Comics’ exploitation of Superman‘s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It could also be a calculated publicity hoax along the lines of the Jack Benny – Fred Allen radio feud: his “Mary Worm,” a battle-axe busybody, supposedly provoked Mary Worth writer Allen Saunders, who was actually his friend, to retaliate with a plotline about “Hal Rapp,” an egotistical cad. But all too often such attacks were driven by personal vindictiveness and bitter quests for revenge. He ruthlessly raged against fellow professionals, with real life maliciousness as well as in print, if he felt they had wronged him or that their popularity threatened to overshadow his own. The book describes his intense, 20 year feud with his former boss, Joe Palooka‘s Ham Fisher—who he caricatured as Happy Vermin, a fat, ruthless, mercenary cartoonist—in often chilling detail. Capp referred to Fisher in a 1950 Atlantic Monthly essay as a “monster,” and boasted that his death in 1955 was “a personal victory,” and “that driving Fisher to suicide was his greatest accomplishment.”
Denis Kitchen, the book’s co-author, good-humoredly refers to himself as “a very confused man who can’t seem to pick a career and stick with it.” He began as an underground cartoonist in the late 1960s and was a publisher for 30 years: back in the ’90s his Kitchen Sink Press released 27 volumes of Abner daily strips from 1934 to 1961. He founded the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and oversaw it for 18 years. Today he’s simultaneously an art, literary, and merchandising agent (he represents the estates of Capp, Kurtzman, Will Eisner, and others), a book packager, and a writer. Oh, and he still draws comics, and curates on the side.
Speaking of which, Denis’s latest exhibitions are “The Art of Harvey Kurtzman,” which opens this Friday, March 8th at the Museum of American Illustration in New York, and a show of underground comix art, opening next week in Lucerne, Switzerland. And he recently finished a comics style mini-bio of Dr. Seuss for an upcoming anthology about famous cartoonists. He’s also working on a screenplay based on Capp’s life.
In our conversation below Denis explores not only Capp’s malevolence and self-hatred but also his sympathetic side and artistic legacy, as well as the parts that were left out of A Life to the Contrary.
All images copyright © Capp Enterprises, Inc.
What first attracted you to Capp?
As a kid in the 1950s I eagerly grabbed our newspaper’s comics section and devoured every strip. But Li’l Abner was always my favorite. His clever cliffhangers were part of what kept me turning to his strip first, but it was also the style. I loved the way he drew: the bold but delicate brushstrokes, the distinctive lettering, the heavy use of blacks and silhouettes. And probably the moment puberty kicked in, it was Capp’s beautiful and voluptuous women. At the same time, the grotesque villains and inventive character names were a big appeal.
Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy is an obvious source for Fearless Fosdick; were there any other media that may have influenced Capp?
There was a hitherto unknown inspiration: a 1941 Columbia serial, Holt of the Secret Service. The protagonist Jack Holt has both the Fosdick hat and the mustache. He’s a human dead ringer for Capp’s character. So we’re pretty certain that Fosdick was initially an amalgam or simultaneous parody of both Holt and Tracy, but no one remembers Holt.
What shared sensibilities do you see between Capp and his fellow satirist Harvey Kurtzman?
Attacking injustice and hypocrisy and the foibles of the rich and powerful are the hallmarks of satirists. “Exposing the truth” was the way Kurtzman put it, and during their primes both he and Capp were among the best satirists ever. That was their commonality.
Do you also detect Jewish roots in their humor?
Their Jewish family upbringing and early neighborhood influences are undeniable. But neither was religious at all, neither practiced Jewish traditions in any meaningful way, and neither injected overt Jewish humor into their comics. With Harvey you do sometimes get Yiddish-sounding phrases in strips, but largely because they just sound funny.
Harvey worked for much of his career in comic books, an industry populated overwhelmingly by Jews during its early decades, and he collaborated with largely Jewish cartoonists, notably Wolf Eisenberg – Will Elder – who delighted in adding what he called “chicken fat” into their stories. But Capp quickly became a star in the syndicated newspaper strip world, and that was a distinctly more WASP-ish world. Capp moved to Boston, hung for a long time with rather patrician Harvard crowds. His co-workers were more often Italian than Jewish.
I’m sure some would argue this, but I don’t see much Jewish humor. When I’ve discussed this topic with Harvey’s widow, Adele, and Capp’s daughter, Julie, they seem to agree.
What was their relationship?
They didn’t have a relationship, per se. When Harvey’s “Hey Look!” sales to Stan Lee and Marvel trailed off in the late ’40s, Harvey began contributing similar filler pages and more developed stories like “Pot Shot Pete” to Toby Press, the publishing arm of the empire Al Capp had carved out with his brothers Elliot and Bence.
Harvey worked closely with Elliot and liked him. Elliot even let Harvey retain his copyright, and they later collaborated on a syndicated strip pitch that failed. But Harvey was a huge admirer of Al Capp’s work. He probably parodied Li’l Abner more than any other comic strip, not just in a full-blown parody treatment but in countless ongoing details in “Hey Look!,” Trump, Humbug, and “Little Annie Fanny.”
Did Kurtzman acknowledge Abner‘s influence on Mad?
Harvey acknowledged his deep debt to Capp, as well as Will Eisner, for their pre-Mad parody work.
But Capp was such a huge figure that by the time Harvey acquired some fame in his own right as editor of Mad, he was still too cowed to even ask Capp directly for a simple favor. When he was writing and laying out his graphic adaptation of “The Face Upon the Floor” for Mad #10, Harvey wanted the very last panel—the image that strikes the artist dead—to be Lena the Hyena, Basil Wolverton’s prize-winning entry in Capp’s famous 1946 contest judged by Frank Sinatra, Salvador Dali, and Boris Karloff. But instead of asking Al directly, or via Elliot, he wrote to Capp’s clueless and careless syndicate, which summarily rejected the request. So, for better or for worse, Harvey had Wolverton create a new hideous face for that Mad story.
It’s a small example of how Capp’s bigger than life persona intimidated Harvey.
Were there aspects of Capp’s life that his heirs would have preferred to be excluded from the book?
Hah! I’m afraid there were a good number of things that key members of his family resisted having us include. In some cases, out of genuine respect for their feelings, we truncated excerpts from letters—in particular a discarded suicide note —because Capp’s invective was so bitter and personal. We also agreed, for example, to eliminate a raunchy story that Frank Frazetta once related to me.
In some cases the evidence for certain alleged events was not enough for us to be comfortable stating as fact, so such elements didn’t make the cut for evidentiary reasons. But in most cases we included fact-based controversial material over their objection. I’ve known the family for many years and felt we had become friends. So when I started this biography with Mike Schumacher I assured them that we were very serious and that it would be a “warts and all” biography. To their credit, they cooperated fully and provided access to most of the surviving papers and correspondence. But I don’t think they realized what other people had on Capp.
When they finally read our draft manuscript they made it clear they were hoping we downplayed his dark side and portrayed the later years more sympathetically.
As Capp rose to fame in the late 1930s you note that he “couldn’t understand why [Ham] Fisher didn’t seem to realize that there were plenty of room for both strips in the comics universe…” Capp was a smart man; how could he remain unaware that he himself became the “monster” he saw in Fisher?
Capp was exceptionally smart, and an astute observer, so I suspect he had at least some awareness he was becoming a mirror image of his monstrous enemy. But if so, I don’t think he cared much. After his youth he didn’t seem eager to make close friends. He was misanthropic and self-loathing, so what did it really matter? That he had defeated or destroyed his enemies was the point.
Similarly, even though Capp ridiculed Charles Schulz’s commercialization of Peanuts in the 1960s, during his own heyday he’d likewise cashed in on the Abner “brand” with everything from Shmoo merchandise to ads for hair oil, underwear, and many other products.
Exactly. No one in the comic strip business had commercially exploited his property like Capp. And in his case, after 1947, his own family corporation controlled licensing, cutting out the middleman.
The 1968 Peanuts parody to me was a sign of Capp’s awareness that he was inexorably slipping from top of the heap. As Peanuts and other strips began to gain on and surpass Li’l Abner in popularity, he had a very difficult time coming to grips with his waning influence, not to mention his diminishing licensing revenue. That particular parody was not funny. It was downright mean, even suggesting that Schulz had no cartooning talent.
Schulz, in turn, had said that having Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae marry in 1952 was the biggest mistake any cartoonist had ever made.
Where might Capp have gotten the idea for his faux feuds?
I don’t know what specifically might have sparked the notion, but he was masterful at publicity stunts in general during his long career. He had learned to manipulate the media as masterfully as anyone of his period. And he didn’t rely on a paid press agent to generate ideas and pull things off.
Capp and his core assistants were notorious for their wild brainstorming bull sessions with loud guffawing. The fake feud concept could have easily come out of such back and forth or from Capp alone during his often solo all-nighters.
And as you know, he was also capable of arranging a fake cartoonist feud and then reneging on his end, as he did with Will Eisner. Eisner drew a wonderful parody in The Spirit called “Li’l Adam, the Stupid Mountain Boy,” on the premise that Capp would reciprocate. Not only did Capp fail to keep his end of the bargain, he also muscled in on the subsequent Newsweek feature story that was supposed to be on Eisner himself.
How have your views of Capp changed in the process of writing this book?
At the start of the commitment to the book I was already a longtime fan of his work. I thought Al Capp was a flat-out genius. That said, I had also known for many years that he had quite a dark side. I’d been collecting every article and scrap for years and interviewing any associate I could find, so I fully expected our biography to depict a deeply flawed and even tortured man. And we did. So in that sense, my views were largely pre-formed going into this biography with Mike. Certainly we learned a good many subtleties as the contrarian and complex man emerged.
I was very cynical and even judgmental about his relationships with women. He certainly initially loved his wife Catherine but the humiliation she had to endure for many years was, I thought, a form of cruelty. She lived well into her nineties but consistently refused to be interviewed about Al. But in one 1974 diary entry we had accidental access to she called Al the “worst creature I ever could have spent my life with.”
I had heard and read so many distressing stories about Capp’s serial “womanizing”—to put it in polite terms—and later the kind of aggressive behavior that today we would call sexual predation or attempted rape that I had effectively concluded he was an irredeemable pig of a man. Then a few years ago a woman contacted me whose mother had died and left a pile of love letters wrapped in a blue ribbon. They dated from the early 1940s and were from Al Capp. They revealed a previously unknown relationship with a nightclub singer named Nina Luce, but most importantly, they revealed what had been a true and intense love affair. He wrote remarkably revealing and tender letters to her, punctuated, I should add, by sometimes crass and thoughtless statements as well.
Afterward, with the exception of a lengthy affair with William Saroyan’s wife Carol, Capp’s “relationships” with woman were comprised of paid companions, countless one-night stands, and predatory behavior. But after carefully reading those 1940s love letters I can never again see Capp quite the same way. He was, for a while at least, a real, emotional, head-over-heels-in-love man. Before he became Ham Fisher.
How do you think he’ll be remembered?
Ultimately it’s usually the work that endures. I hope he is recognized for a long time as one of America’s great cartoonists and satirists.
He was without doubt the most famous cartoonist of his era. But as we see in so many high-profile areas of culture and politics, even the most famous of the once famous tend to fade quickly into oblivion. Dogpatch USA, not all that long ago a thriving amusement park in Arkansas, is already abandoned and decrepit.
Sadie Hawkins Day was a liberating idea in its day, so much so that it spawned literally hundreds of annual campus dances for many years in which the girls could—gulp!—ask the boys for a date. How quaint. Now we watch Girls on HBO and anything goes. But assuming comics in some form continues as a popular medium, I think Al Capp was so prominent in his time and so fascinating and controversial a figure that he—and perhaps to a lesser degree his work—will continue to hold a good degree of fascination.
Of course it’d help a lot if the Capp movie [Will Eisner documentary director] Andy Cooke and I are planning gets made and is a big hit!
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