Dennis Kitchen, Kitchen Sink Press, KSP

 Al Capp Bio

Alfred Gerald Caplin (1909-1979): A Life Summary

Cartoonist AL CAPP (1909-1979) created "Li'l Abner," regarded by many as the greatest comic strip of all time. He was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, CT. At the age of 9 he lost his left leg in a trolley accident. Encouraged by an artistic father, young Alfred developed his own cartooning skills. In 1932, at 19, he became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America, drawing "Colonel Gilfeather," a daily panel for Associated Press. But, bored with the staid and formulaic Gilfeather, Capp left AP and went back to art school. By 1933 he was ghosting the popular boxing strip "Joe Palooka" for Ham Fisher, creating a memorable sequence about a hillbilly named Big Leviticus. But Capp found the working conditions in Fisher's studio intolerable and quit.

In 1934 Capp struck out on his own. He took a new hillbilly idea to United Features Syndicate (creating a lifelong public feud with Fisher) and "Li'l Abner was born. Abner was initially syndicated to a mere eight newspapers, but his hapless Dogpatchers hit a nerve in Depression-era America. Within three short years Abner's circulation climbed to 253 newspapers, reaching over 15,000,000 readers. Before long he was in hundreds more, with a total readership exceeding 60,000,000. In the late '40s, at a time when syndicates owned the copyrights, trademarks and merchandise rights to comic strips, Capp wrested ownership of "Li'l Abner" from United Features, an almost unprecedented event.

Besides entertaining millions daily, many of Capp's inventions permanently entered the popular culture. In 1937 he introduced the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race into his strip. It quickly inspired real life girl-asks-boy dances across America. Sadie Hawkins Day became a national institution, celebrated at thousands of venues annually. In 1948 his lovable Shmoo became a national sensation, creating the largest mass merchandising phenomenon of its era (see Shmoo Facts Sheet). Capp followed up in 1949 with the Kigmy, another popular and merchandised character and the Bald Iggle, but nothing ever again approached the popularity of the Shmoo. After nearly 20 years of prominent bachelorhood, Li'l Abner finally married the long-suffering Daisy Mae in 1952, an event that shocked the country and made front page news, including the cover of Life magazine.

Capp's celebrity admirers included Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, author John Updike, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and even Queen Elizabeth. Pulitzer prize winning Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck was not only a fan, he called Capp "the best writer in the world."

Capp speckled his wild narratives with unforgettable characters --- among them heartless capitalist General Bullmoose; human jinx Joe BTFSPLK, whose personal bleak rain cloud hovered directly overhead; Evil-Eye Fleegle whose concentrated whammy stare could knock a man senseless and whose double whammy could melt skyscrapers; cave-dwelling buddies Lonesome Polecat and Hairless Joe, who concocted the potent Kick A Poo Joy Juice, the ultimate moonshine; Mammy Yokum, the sweet matriarch who could outbox men twice her size; diminutive and hapless Pappy Yokum; Li'l Abner's "ideel," Fearless Fosdick, the fumbling detective whose often bullet-riddled body resembled Swiss cheese; and the gorgeous but odorous Moonbeam McSwine who never bathed, preferring the company of pigs to men. And when readers thought there was no sadder and poorer place conceivable than Dogpatch, Capp would take his readers to frostbitten and pathetic Lower Slobbovia.

It is no surprise that the colorful Li'l Abner cast inspired a long-running Broadway musical and two Hollywood films. A 1940 film starred Granville Owen as Abner and down-on-his-luck silent star Buster Keaton as Lonesome Polecat, with a song by titular producer Milton Berle. The 1956 musical starred Peter Palmer as Abner, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae, Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam and voluptuous Julie Newmar as the show-stopping Stupefyin' Jones. Paramount's 1959 adaptation of the musical reprised Palmer as Abner with Leslie Parrish as Daisy Mae.

In addition to the enormous popularity of his comic strip, Capp's personal fame stemmed from a high media profile that was unprecedented among usually low profile cartoonists. Capp was a frequent and outspoken guest on NBC's "Tonight" show, spanning hosts Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. Capp was variously a guest, panelist or host on several late '40s and early '50s television programs and even briefly had his own TV shows. The prolific satirist also authored a syndicated newspaper column, a syndicated radio show, and was a frequent guest lecturer at campuses nationwide, a sideline that was to be his undoing. In the late '60s his politics took a sharp rightward slant (he even briefly considered running for a Massachusetts senate seat vs. Ted Kennedy). The film Imagine shows a curmudgeonly Capp confronting and insulting John Lennon and Yoko Ono during a Montreal anti-war bed-in. Following some highly publicized sex scandals on Alabama and Wisconsin campuses, and in declining health, Capp retired "Li'l Abner" in 1977 after a 43 year run. He died two years later.

In 1986 Kitchen Sink Press embarked on a program to publish Capp's entire "Li'l Abner" oeuvre as a fifty-four volume comics "encyclopedia." It was the most ambitious effort undertaken for any comic strip, and rare in scope even for "literary" works. A dozen years later, at the halfway point of twenty-seven volumes, the company went out of business, having collected all the Abner dailies from 1934 to 1961. Four new color volumes of Li'l Abner Sundays covering 1954-1961, packaged by Denis Kitchen for Dark Horse Comics, bring us closer to the day when all forty-three years of this important Americana is available to fans and scholars alike. "Li'l Abner" stands the test of time as a pinnacle of cartoon art and social satire.

Al Capp's many characters bios

(Li'l Abner, Daisy Mae, The Shmoo, Mammy and Pappy Yokum etc.)

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