Cartoonist AL CAPP (1909-1979) created
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
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
Capp speckled his wild narratives with
unforgettable characters --- among them heartless capitalist
Bullmoose; human jinx Joe
BTFSPLK, whose personal bleak rain cloud hovered directly
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
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
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
Al Capp's many characters bios
(Li'l Abner, Daisy Mae,
The Shmoo, Mammy and Pappy Yokum etc.)