Al Capp (September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979) was an American cartoonist best known for the satiric comic strip, Li'l Abner. He also created the comic strips Abbie and Slats and Long Sam. The National Cartoonist Society awarded him the 1947 Reuben Award for the comic strip Li'l Abner and the 1979 Elzie Segar Award.
Capp used his humorous strip to expose greed, corruption and social injustice to around 60 million readers for more than 40 years. His Dogpatch community became a symbol of mainstream America and its battle to maintain its values in a modern world.
In the 1960s Capp changed his politics from liberal to conservative and he came to be characterized by his critics as a bitter, disillusioned, conservative extremist. He was a paradoxical American icon, who was one of America's highest-paid and best known entertainers.
He was also a columnist for the Daily News syndicate and a regular syndicated radio and TV commentator. He appeared on the cover of Time and many other magazines. He was also very successful in franchising Li'l Abner into film, theater, and radio and became a pioneer in character merchandising.
Born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut, he was the eldest child of Otto and Matilda (Tillie) Caplin, immigrant Jews from Latvia. He lost his right leg in a trolley accident at the age of nine but his artistic father encouraged young Alfred to develop drawing skills as a form of therapy. With books and supplies provided by his family he began his journey to becoming one of the world's premier cartoonists.
Capp spent five years at Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut without receiving a diploma. The cartoonist liked to tell how he failed geometry for nine straight terms. After graduating from high school, Capp attended several art schools, including the Boston Museum School of Fine Art and Designers Art School.
In the early 1930s young Caplin went to New York City and found work drawing Mister Gilfeather, a one-panel, AP-owned property. At age 19, he became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America. While working in New York he met and later became friends with Milton Caniff, who took over Mister Gilfeather after he left. Caniff would later become famous on his own when he created the comic strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.
In 1932 he married a pretty art student named Catherine Cameron that he met in 1929, but she had to return to her parents in Amesbury, Massachusetts after the ceremony because he could not support her. They would end up having three children, Julie Ann, Catherine Jan, and Colin Cameron. After the wedding he spent a year studying at the Massachusetts School of Art and in 1933 he was back in New York and working as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the creator of Joe Palooka.
During one of Fisher's extended vacations, Capp's Joe Palooka featured a stupid, strong hillbilly named Big Leviticus, a prototype for Li'l Abner. After leaving Joe Palooka, Capp sold Li'l Abner to the United Features Syndicate and the feature was launched in the New York Mirror on Monday, August 13, 1934.
In 1934 L'il Abner was syndicated to eight newspapers and his poor and uneducated characters began to win the hearts and minds of Depression-era America. By 1937 it was published in 253 newspapers, reaching more than 15,000,000 readers, and by the early 1950s it was in 1000 papers with more than 60 million readers.
The comic strip starred Li'l Abner Yokum, the lazy, dumb, but good-natured and strong hillbilly who lived in Dogpatch with Mammy and Pappy Yokum. Whatever energy he had went into evading the marital goals of Daisy Mae, his well-endowed girlfriend, until Capp finally gave in to reader pressure and allowed the couple to marry in 1952. This was such big news that the happy couple made the cover of ''Life'' magazine.
Abner's home town of Dogpatch was peopled with an assortment of memorable characters, including Marryin' Sam, Wolf Gal, Lena the Hyena, Indian Lonesome Polecat, and a host of others, notably the beautiful, full-figured women Stupefyin' Jones and Moonbeam McSwine. Perhaps Capp's most popular creations were the Shmoo, creatures whose incredible usefulness and generous nature made them a threat to civilization. Another famous character was Joe Btfsplk, who wanted to be a loving friend but was "the world's worst jinx," bringing bad luck to all those nearby. Btfsplk always had a small dark cloud over his head.
Li'l Abner also featured a comic-strip within the comic-strip Fearless Fosdick (a parody of Dick Tracy).
The Dogpatch residents regularly combated the likes of city slickers, business tycoons, government officials and intellectuals with their homespun wisdom and ingenuity. Situations often took the characters to other parts of the globe, including New York City, tropical islands, and a miserable frozen land of Capp's invention, "Lower Slobbovia."
By 1947 Capp had become so successful that he purchased his own contract back from United Features Syndicate. He brokered a profit-sharing arrangement and not the original 50/50 split. Wisely, Capp kept all merchandising rights. At a time when syndicates owned the copyrights, trademarks and merchandise rights to comic strips Capp was one of three cartoonists (Milton Caniff and Wil Eisner were the others) who were able to pioneer this type of deal.
In 1940, a motion picture adaptation starred Granville Owen as Li'l Abner, with Buster Keaton taking the role of Lonesome Polecat. A successful musical comedy adaptation of the strip opened on Broadway November 15, 1956 and had a long run of 693 performances. The stage musical was adapted into a motion picture in 1959 by producer Norman Panama and director Melvin Frank with several performers repeating their Broadway roles.
He introduced the Shmoos in a four-month run of Li'l Abner in 1948. He used the small 'blobby' creatures as a symbol of ultimate consumerism. Providing all of life's necessities on demand the highly reproductive creatures made work and shopping unnecessary. In this Shmoo series he created a "Shmooicide squad" to exterminate the little economic threats. Capp returned to the Shmoos in 1959. His running theme in this series, that capitalism and utopianism are not compatible, was somewhat prophetic of today's modern consumer society. The Shmoo even became the star of a short-lived 1970s animated television series. In an ironic twist, Shmoo-related merchandise became a huge consumer success.
Also, in the 1940's and 1950's, Al Capp and another famous cartoonist, Lee Falk, ran six theaters (in Boston, Cambridge, Marblehead and Framingham, Massachusetts, and in New York City and Nassau, Bahamas) and produced more than 300 plays and theater productions. Their productions played to sell-out audiences for summer and winter 'stock' theaters. And, with many of the great theater stars of their time, they were among the first to desegregate the theater in the Bahamas.
During and after World War II, Capp worked without pay going to hospitals to entertain patients, especially to cheer recent amputees and explain to them that the loss of a limb did not mean an end to a happy and productive life. A U.S. Treasury Bond Certificate that was issued in 1949 was bordered with Al Capp cartoon characters and featured the Shmoo.
Capp and his assistants Andy Amato and Walter Johnston kept the strip going throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. No matter how much help he had, Capp insisted on drawing the faces and hands himself, and, as is usual with collaborative efforts in comic strips, his name was the only one credited. Frank Frazetta, later famous as a fantasy artist, drew the beautiful women in the strip's later years.
In the 1960s, Capp's politics swung from liberal to conservative, and instead of caricaturing big business types, he began spoofing counterculture icons such as Joan Baez (in the character of "Joanie Phoanie," a wealthy folksinger who offers an impoverished orphanage one million dollars' worth of "protest songs" He also attacked student political groups, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as "Students Wildly Indignant About Nearly Everything" (SWINE). He became a popular speaker on college campuses during the era, attacking anti-war protesters and demonstrators, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The film Imagine shows Capp confronting and berating Lennon and Ono during the famous eight-day anti-Vietnam War "bed-in for peace" in Montreal. "The left eventually broke his heart," wrote John Updike of Capp.
He also became a frequent and outspoken guest on the "Tonight" show, spanning hosts Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. Capp also had his own TV show four different times: The Al Capp Show (1952), Al Capp's America (1954), The Al Capp Show (1968), Al Capp (1971-72) and was the subject of an NBC special, This is Al Capp (1970).
In 1972 Capp did one of the few TV interviews given by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Moon asked him, "Do you mind if I sing a song?" Capp said no, so he sang, Ari Rong, a Korean song about the desire for national unity. When Capp asked if Jesus had spoken to him in Korean when he gave him his mission in a vision, Reverend Moon replied, "Yes, but with a slight Hebrew accent!"
In September of 1947 Li'l Abner was pulled from papers by Scripps-Howard when Edward Leech of Scripps stated, "We don't think it is good editing or sound citizenship to picture the Senate as an assemblage of freaks and crooks… boobs and undesirables."
In 1950 Capp took his long-running feud with Ham Fischer public, using the character of Happy Vermin (self-described as the world's smartest cartoonist) to portray Fisher. The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune pulled the strip, remarking that it ""constituted a personal attack upon another prominent cartoonist. The Tribune does not allow its reporters, editors or columnists to vent personal malice…."
Five years later Fischer filed a lawsuit against Capp, accusing him of obscenity in the Li'l Abner strips. The drawings he used as evidence were found to be forgeries, created by Fisher himself. Fisher, a founding member of the National Cartoonists Society, was expelled as a result. He took his own life later that same year.
In one run of strips in 1957, Capp lampooned the comic strip Mary Worth as "Mary Worm," depicting the title character as a nosy do-gooder. Allan Saunders, the creator of the Mary Worth strip, returned Capp's fire with the introduction of the character "Hal Rapp," a foul-tempered, ill-mannered cartoonist. 
His character Joanie Phoanie in 1967 resulted in Joan Baez demanding a public apology which never came. Baez was so upset by the obvious reference to her that she filed a court case, but Capp won based on the fact that free speech works both ways.
In 1970 Capp caught the headlines when conservative politicians Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew encouraged him to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat against the incumbent Ted Kennedy. He never ran but he was harshly criticized by his former liberal friends for even associating with the very unpopular Nixon.
In 1971 he was charged with attempted adultery by a female student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It developed that there were similar allegations from other campuses and as a result Capp pleaded no contest and withdrew from public speaking. The resulting bad publicity led to hundreds of papers dropping his comic strip
In American communities, high schools, and colleges sometimes sponsor "Sadie Hawkins Day" dances, where the girl is expected to ask a boy to attend the dance, patterned after the annual event in Dogpatch, from the Li'l Abner comic strip strip. In Li'l Abner it was a day-long event observed on the Saturday that follows November 9, named after Sadie Hawkins, "the homeliest gal in all them hills." If a woman caught a man and dragged him back to the starting line by sundown, he had to marry her.
In 1968 a theme-park called Dogpatch USA opened at Jasper, Arkansas based on Capp's work and with his support. The park was a popular attraction during the 1970s but was abandoned in 1993 due to financial difficulties and remains unused and in disrepair.
Al Capp designed the sculpture of Josiah Flintabattey Flonatin (Flinty) that graces the city of Flin Flon, Manitoba.
Kitchen Sink Press published 27 volumes of Capp's Li'l Abner daily strips in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The press covered decades of Capp's comic strip from 1934 through 1961.
All links retrieved November 7, 2016.
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