From 1934 to 1977, the hillbilly comic strip "Li'l Abner" was not just one of the most popular and successful strips in the world, it was a cultural force that inspired movies, radio shows, a musical and modern merchandizing. "Abner" made its creator Al Capp one of the most respected satirists and humorists of the day, coining terms that have entered the common lexicon like "going bananas" and "double whammy."
Rising from poverty to find wealth and success, Capp also had a dark side and his ill-spirited downfall overshadows his work and life story.
Denis Kitchen is known as a comics historian and the former head of Kitchen Sink Press, and in 2009 he wrote the acclaimed "Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics" published by Abrams ComicArts. Michael Schumacher is a biographer and historian of many books, including "Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics." The two recently collaborated on "Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary" published by Bloomsbury USA, the first full length biography of the cartoonist. CBR News spoke with Kitchen and Schumacher in detail about the book and the complicated life and legacy of Capp and "Li'l Abner."
CBR News: Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" stopped being published more than 30 years ago -- many people may know the name but are not familiar with the strip. Tell us about the "Li'l Abner" comic.
Denis Kitchen: To sum it up, "Abner" was arguably the most popular strip of its era and without question, Al Capp is the most famous cartoonist of his era. It was a vehicle for satire. The hillbillies were depicted as innocent, warm-hearted Americans even though they were ignorant and desperately poor -- Capp used them to poke fun at every aspect of the culture.
Michael Schumacher: I think it's important to remember "Abner" was probably the first really, really successful satire. This was not something done at that time. It was written for adults, which is another thing very very few people in the business were doing, so "Abner" was really breaking ground. I think Al Capp was inventing the rules as he went along; sex and violence were the two things that would get you in the most trouble -- both then and today -- and he would push the limits sometimes. They would tell him "you can't do that" and he would have to do it in a different way, but it was adult material. That's important to remember -- he wasn't writing for some nine year old kid. They weren't single gag strips, continuing for a long period of time and demanded a certain amount of attention. He was really working in a new area.
It was fascinating in your book discovering how Capp had to deal with so many of the things we take for granted regarding satire and parody. He satirized "Gone with the Wind" and when Margaret Mitchell complained, he and the syndicate stopped. By today's standards, it's more likely nobody would care about offending someone.
Schumacher: He was a big influence on Harvey Kurtzman. "Mad" Magazine made a fortune parodying popular culture topics whether it was movies, television or commercials. If it hadn't been for "Abner," I wonder whether or not that might have happened. Kurtzman certainly admitted the influence.
Aside from "Abner," what makes Al Capp an interesting biography subject?
Schumacher: His childhood alone was a book. It was one of those things Denis and I talked about between us -- if you're reading a biography, you want to cut to the chase. Let's face it; if you're reading a biography of anyone, their childhoods tend to not be all that interesting. You're reading the book because of "Li'L Abner," but Capp's childhood is so rich with anecdotal material and incidents -- it was easy to get onboard and just stay there.
Kitchen: His entire life was an ongoing drama of intrigue, sex, lifelong feuds and bitterness. He had everything -- the instant rise to fame and wealth from poverty. There were just so many aspects that were fascinating to us.
Was it a challenge writing about a man who had a tendency to sacrifice the truth for the sake of a good story? How do you make sense of Capp's embellishments while still presenting the truth?
Schumacher: [laughs] One of the things I found out as a biographer over the years is, while I've never dealt with an autobiography written by someone who was quite the liar Capp was, people have their own sense of who they are -- people naturally want to revise history in their own favor. We were running up against that repeatedly. Capp was such a great storyteller and he reminded me a lot of -- and this may seem like a stretch, but it's true -- Timothy Leary. Leary was one of those individuals who could tell the most outrageous whoppers and you almost forgave him because the whopper was so interesting.
In Capp's case, he was very engaging and a great storyteller, so he would tell these tales to fit his audience; whether he was talking to a university teacher, a magazine interviewer or people that came to see him at a function. He was great at that kind of thing and Denis and I saw this in his old autobiography. There are two versions Capp started and he couldn't even agree with himself on some of the points within them. Now, if you're the biographer this is a problem. What version do you believe? We have half a dozen different versions of Capp meeting Ham Fisher. Which one is real? You try to find corroboration and other sources -- people who knew him or whatever you can get your hands on. In our case, sometimes we told two or three different versions of the same event. They're all interesting, so we decided to let the reader take from it what they wish.
In telling a "warts and all" biography, was it difficult at times working with Capp's family who gave you access to his papers?
Kitchen: You have to remember the principal person who runs the estate is the surviving daughter Julie, and she really had avoided reading the negative things about her father when the scandals hit. She described herself as her father's biggest fan and honestly, we did shock her. Even when we brought things to her with evidence that was overwhelming, she was in denial and kept asking us not to include things she found disrespectful to her father's memory, her mother's memory or to herself. It was a constant battle, to be honest.
Schumacher: Denis, you should know, had a relationship with that family in reprinting "Li'l Abner" under Kitchen Sink Press and dealing with them on the IDW books that are coming out now. I think they really believed this was going to be a Valentine's card that talked pretty much about "Abner" and nothing else. So when these other things started to creep in they became defensive about it.
When David Michaelis published his biography of Charles Schulz a few years ago, he experienced something similar. Do you think unearthing dirt is part of the inherent nature of being a biographer?
Schumacher: Absolutely. There are times you're almost afraid of what you uncover. You learn something and go, "this is going to be a mess." Are you going to tell the truth or aren't you? This was the problem Denis and I ran into all the way through. Truly, neither one of us got anything out of discovering outrageous things about Capp.
Did you ever stop and think, "Maybe we should just write about the strip and leave it at that?"
Kitchen: No. It was the man. The strip was part of it, but "Li'l Abner" is really secondary to the story about the creator. There's a separate book that could be written just analyzing the strip itself. Mike and I could have written a two volume book, easily, had our publisher given the green light. We did cut a lot.
It should be said, as the subtitle indicates, he was a complicated guy and there were a lot of good things about him. Capp wasn't innately evil and we discovered a lot of things that were surprising, especially in the context of his behavior towards women. He was an early feminist who resigned from the National Cartoonist Society when the first woman, Hilda Terry, applied for membership and was turned down. He resigned and said, "I won't belong to this club if it won't let women in." He was likewise very kind to gay people and generous to sending money to widows of cops who were shot in the line of duty. But the dark side of him is so dark it tends to overshadow the human side.
Schumacher: It does. It was so strange when we were researching this book -- just when we were about to write this guy off, he would do something that was so unbelievable and compassionate and decent. He could be a really horrible, vile person and he could be so generous and kind. That's what makes a good subject. I've always tried in my biographies to look at people who were complicated and complex, not just as individuals, but in their art, too. The jury's out on them -- that's what makes a subject interesting to me.
Capp certainly had a dark side, but even at the end when he was often hateful, he performed surprising acts of kindness. In the book, you quote from a letter Capp sent to Ted Kennedy's son after he lost his leg. Capp loathed Kennedy, but he writes the man's son a very moving letter. What's with that?
Schumacher: It's unbelievable, isn't it? And Ted Kennedy was very moved by the letter. His son wrote back to Al Capp -- and none of this was planned. Capp had heard about it and he genuinely felt for this young man and so he writes him this very touching letter. Then Teddy Jr. writes him a thank you letter and Ted Sr. scribbled a note of his own. Nobody saw that coming. That was the kind of guy Capp was. You certainly didn't want to judge him too quickly or easily, let's put it that way.
People who read the book won't think you're trying to make Capp look bad -- you lay out all the facts without dwelling on things, like his lack of faithfulness.
Schumacher: I think the affair he had with Nina Luce was very sweet in a lot of respects. It showed a side of Al Capp we didn't see, even with his own wife when they were first dating. The ending of the book was somewhat controversial with the Capp family where Nina is the last character shown. She put Capp's obituary in her family bible and it's a very sweet story. Yes, he was cheating on his wife but at the same time, even in that, we were able to find endearing qualities about him. We were able to learn things we would not have learned otherwise.
Capp's feud with Ham Fisher is one of the most notoriously talked about stories in the history of comics. Leaving aside that Fisher tried to implicate Capp to the feds and the press -- without regard for how that might spillover to the rest of the medium and the industry -- Fisher's main complaint is that Capp was making thinly-veiled pornography, correct?
Kitchen: Yes, and he was right. One of the things we found was the strip is replete with all kinds of double entendres so consistently throughout that it can't possibly be a coincidence. Capp did it with his assistants as little private jokes, and probably a few clever readers were catching things. We know a few editors would keep an eye open and occasionally catch them, but by and large he got away with it. I think it was hilarious to him that he could get away with this despite having tens of millions of readers of all ages around the world.
Schumacher: It's interesting to note that with Ham Fisher, the two men were extremely similar. You can go into a whole armchair psychologist thing about self-loathing or whatever, but the fact of the matter is both of them were very disagreeable men who were very successful at their business; they loved their women and parties, basking in fame and with very little competition. Al Capp became the man he hated the most. The further we went on with the research we talked about this quite a bit between the two of us, how unbelievably similar the two became and that means. I don't know -- I'm not a trained psychiatrist, but it's shocking how similar they were. When Ham Fisher pulled the rug out by exposing the pornography in "Li'l Abner," Capp reacted the only way he could: with anger. His big joke had been exposed to everybody.
Kitchen: Even so, he effectively got away with it because the National Cartoonist Society punished Fisher. Not because he was wrong, but because he was shedding a negative light on the industry at a time when Dr. Wertham was already doing his best on the comic book side with "Seduction of the Innocent." Poor Ham ended up being depressed and taking his own life, which is a tragic ending. Capp didn't take that very graciously either. He crowed about it.
Schumacher: He claimed it was his greatest achievement at one point; driving Fisher to suicide.
Denis, you published "Li'l Abner" and know the strip -- can you talk about it and how it's changed over years?
Kitchen: "Abner" started out as an adventure strip and it evolved more into a satirical and humor strip. There was always humor present, but there used to be longer adventures. They became shorter and as they got into the 50s and certainly into the 60s, the strip became more pointed, more political. Capp always ran caricatures of famous politicians, sometimes in an approving way as background characters, but they became more and more political and not always to the right. Early on he used General Bullmoose as an example of the epitome of capitalism gone amuck. General Bullmoose was the richest man in the world, a kind of Scrooge McDuck type and so he was typically a villain; the poor denizens of Dogpatch were always the worst off Americans you can imagine, always enduring whatever indignities were heaped upon them by politicians or evil sorts. Then, as we discussed earlier, sometime around the late 60s Capp did this 180 degree turn and targeted students, leftists and Joan Baez. There was no turning back because unfortunately he was also losing his sense of humor. The bile and bitterness took over and the attempted humor was very awkward. When he retired the strip in 1977, in his last interview he said the strip hasn't been funny in years. That was a remarkable bit of candor.
Schumacher: I think there was a lot of perception and reality clashing in his later years, too. I was reminded of this reading about the 1968 election -- Hubert Humphrey appeared in Seattle and he was shouted down by a bunch of people while giving a speech, and it was interesting to read in accounts how it was handled. Dirty, unshaven and unclean hippies were referenced and that was the perception. I have a photograph of that gallery of protestors. Half of them are wearing sport jackets, their hair, by today's standards, was very reasonable. That's the reality. I think something similar happened with Al Capp, with the hippies and with the protestors. He saw them as a bunch of hypocrites. They were middle class kids who were sent to these nice Universities by their parents, whom they scorned, on a campus that was run by people and a government they scorned. S.W.I.N.E. [the student protest group in "Li'l Abner"] was something Capp dreamed up as a form of humor -- and it was funny at times -- but it was also not realistic. I think that's really dangerous when you're doing a satire and you're not truly honed in on what the white hot core of what it is that you're satirizing.
What do you think of Capp and the strip's legacy? So many things like Shmoo, Sadie Hawkins Day or any number of the phrases Capp coined became a part of American culture, but over time much of it has faded away.
Kitchen: It is hard to say. Obviously feminism trumped the novelty of Sadie Hawkins Day. The idea of asking a guy out meant something in 1937 or whatever. The Shmoo periodically they try to revive. There's probably nothing you could point to and say it's as vital now as it was then. The syndicate and Capp made a decision not to carry it on when he retired. It was determined, mainly by Capp himself, that it would die with him. Had they continued it and found some young Al Capp it could conceivably still be popular today. The other thing is making fun of Appalachians is not politically correct anymore. Today I think Southerners especially would look at it differently than they did in more innocent times. As a comics historian I think it's amazing in every respect, but I see clearly that it's not something that has an appeal to most younger readers who aren't interested in comic history. The sheer artistry of it, I think, speaks for itself. But in reprinting it, so much has to be annotated to put it in context because it's topical and has caricatures of people long gone.
Schumacher: Then again, when was the last time you heard someone use the expression "double whammy?" It happens on an almost daily basis. "Going bananas." Without "Li'l Abner," you don't have some of these expressions. Without "Li'l Abner," you don't have "Doonesbury" or "Pogo." The things we take for granted today had to have a starting point, and "Li'l Abner" was that starting point so often for a lot of things. Going to another medium, people today listen to the Beatles and go, that's not so special. But it sure as hell was when they were doing it.
Kitchen: As you pointed out earlier, Mike, the fact that "Li'l Abner" begat Harvey Kurtzman's "Mad" and "Mad" begat "Monty Python" and "Saturday Night Live" and so many things in the culture. That's the critical part of the legacy, the things it influenced.
Schumacher: It's interesting to me that even though Al Capp and the strip are long gone, when you can have that sort of influence on pop culture, popular culture continues and runs with that influence. Like you said Denis, it's all a matter of connecting the dots. The legacy and the influence is there even if people can't point to it and say, that's what this is.