Al Capp?


Does anyone actually think that Li’l Abner was any good, at least for the last 15 years of its publication? I read it from the time that I was a kid, and I always thought it stank. I still think so. I eagerly read “Rex Morgan, MD” every day, so you know that my standards are very low.

It’s probably like the Peanuts – that one was okay in its early days, but for the last 20 years it was less interesting than the Family Circus (and I agree with the character from the movie “Go” about that feature).

I got my kids a DVD with a lot of Oscar-winning cartoons on it, and while most of them are pretty good, some of them are very boring. I think that the worst of them, including a Betty Boop as Cinderella cartoon, may have seemed special at the time, but perhaps we should empanel a commission to retract awards for things that are lousy. (One of my first nominations is to take the Oscar that Brigadoon got and give it to “Rear Window”.)

I guess you mean oscar nomination. Which one would that be, the Best Costume nomination, or the Best Art Direction nomination?

The URL shouldn’t have the final period:
but I want to know what the sex scandal was that killed poor ol’ Al. I don’t remember that.

My mistake. I thought that Brigadoon had won in 1954 for set design, but it lost to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, which is at least not an abomination. Anyway, “Rear Window” came out that year and didn’t even get nominated for set design.

That same year “On the Waterfront” won almost everything. That’s a movie that has aged quite badly. Hitchcock never won and his movies generally hold up very well. I would take back some of the Oscars given to others and give them to him.

I only vaguely recall Al Capp’s sex scandal. I think that it was the usual “girl too young for him” thing, although I can’t recall if she was just too young for anyone. He was such an creepy old man that probably the idea of him having sex at all would have caused public outrage.

A lot of Capp’s work was political and social commentary, which was probably over your head as a kid, and which today are not comprehensible without extensive footnoting (like obscure jokes about Adlai Stevenson.) I find the art work still highly admirable, although it doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud punch that Walt Kelly’s work can still pack.

It’s certainly true that time tends to change our appreciation. “That Shakespeare fellow, his stuff is OK, but he uses so many cliches.”

The sex scandal, as hardly mentions, was accusations made about his behaviour during a college campus tour. Anyone interested can read one of the bios cited in the Sadie Hawkins article.

I’ve been collecting and reading the Kitchen Sink reprints of Li’l Abner, which collected entire years of the daily strip (for example, Volume 1 has all of the first year’s strips, Volume 2 the second year etc.). I’m reading them in order, and the last one I read was Volume 8.

In the early years, at least, the strip was wonderful. The art is some of the best I’ve ever seen; Capp has never been surpassed in that arena, IMHO.

The stories are a mix of lighthearted adventure, screwball comedy and sight gags. I know the strip became more political in the later years, but there’s little of that in these early volumes. They’re good, fun stories, and their humor has aged pretty well. I often laugh out loud at bits like the panel where Mammy Yokum was ironing Pappy Yokum’s pants…with Pappy still in them! They really are a joy to read.

I’ve heard Al changed over his lifetime from an idealistic New Deal progressive to a bitter old fascist, and that this shift is reflected in the later years of Li’l Abner, when he used the strip as his soapbox. Maybe that’s the period the OP is more familiar with.

But, to torture a metaphor, don’t throw out the baby of the early years with the bathwater of the latter ones.

Thanks for the critiques. I started reading around 1960, and all I can remember of the strips is an endless boring parody of life in an Eastern Block country, a spoof of Dick Tracy, and tedious reactionary stories set in Dogpatch. Certainly by the time I was a teenager I was familiar enough with current events to have appreciated any wit in the strip, and there wasn’t any by then. I’ll try to find some of his early work.

Maybe it’s a general problem with comic strips. Even when they start off being funny (and most of them don’t), the artist runs out of things to say eventually. It makes me admire the few that retire at the peak of their popularity
all the more.

I strongly disagree with your assessments of the last
20 years of “Peanuts,” and Max Fleischer’s “Cinderella”
with Betty Boop in the starring role.

Who’s gonna be in charge of deciding which things were
really good, and which were just impressive to the
naive populous of the time?

It’s probably no coincidence that a lot of the people I know who thought Pogo was funny, didn’t like Li’l Abner, and the ones who thought Li’l Abner was funny, didn’t like Pogo.

I have to stand up for Betty Boop—I agree that “Cinderella” short was unwatchable, but that was at the very end of Betty’s reign, and was POST-Code.

Her early films, from 1930–33, were incredible. Great animation (much better than most of the crap you see today), story lines that mixed real humor with sex, the best of pop music and jazz, and some bizarre fantasy material. Ever see the one where Betty runs away from home and meets Cab Calloway? Or “Bimbo’s Initiation?” Yikes! Never been topped.

As for L’il Abner, I remember liking it when I was a kid, but even by then Al Capp was becoming a right-wing extremist. Loved those Schmoos, though . . .

I didn’t like either Pogo or Li’l Abner when I was a teenager. I have seen early Pogo strips, and liked those, but I’ve never seen the early work of Capp, and was curious about that. That’s why I posted.

As to who is to decide what’s really good and what’s not, I guess that’s mostly personal choice, unless Cecil wants to give the final word on the subject. Maybe I missed something in that cartoon, but I think that I was exposed to enough of Peanuts to know that I don’t like it. Obviously a lot of people didn’t share my opinion. (I have an aunt that likes the Family Circus, too.)

I didn’t mean to suggest that I didn’t like Betty Boop cartoons. I was surprised at how insipid I found the Cinderella cartoon. It made me wonder why that particular one had been honored (if it really had). As it turns out, my 5-year-old likes that cartoon, although as far as I can tell, she’d like anything with Cinderella in it…

I find both Pogo and Li’l Abner funny. Walt Kelly was probably marginally the better cartoonist, but Al Capp was probably more accessible to most readers at the time. Kelly did EVERYTHING pheomenally - the art, the story lines, even the lettering! - and was probably more gutsy a political commentator. Capp was more broadly, pratfall funny, (what John Steinbeck called “Rabelasian wit” - Steinbeck considered Capp to be the greatest American author at the time!) and he drew female humans as very few others ever could. Shmoos are regularly cited in economics texts to this day, as “supply-and-demand curve destroyers”. Capp did get more conservative and stridently so as he aged… and yes, after a while he probably did get repetitive. After forty years or more on a comic strip, it’s not easy to come up with original ideas. Walt Kelly died (alas) after 25 years of Pogo, from diabetic complications at the age of 60 in 1973. Bill Watterson and Gary Larson did what few comic artists do - they quit when they felt the springs running dry.

Betty Boop was a fine cartoon character in her earlier days. The Fleischer Studios were already running into problems by the time she was dropped in 1939. Another great cartoon of hers is Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1933). Surreal.

I’m with Guy as someone who likes both Kelly and Capp. The art work is superb; Kelly is the only cartoonist I’ve seen who can show a person running zig-zag across the strip. (Also, one stops here to shed a tear for the passing of Carl Barks, but that’s another topic.)

I’m on about volume 25 or so of the Kitchen Sink reprints of Li’l Abner, which gets me up to 1960. They’re good, they’re funny, but they contain very topical references that are hard to understand (e.g., Adlai Stevenson look-alikes, and if you don’t catch that, the joke seems … um… ?)

Most of Capp’s career was spent as a liberal, fighting for the underdog. In the 1960s, Capp sided with the police and establishment against the hippies and anti-war crowd; he said he thought the police were an “oppressed minority.” That’s at odds with his earlier police spoofs (Fearless Fosdick), and that’s how he earned the Fascist reputation. He was very pointed in targetting the anti-war movement for deep, bitter satire.

At the same time, Kelly was playing both sides (as he usually did), dressing Churchy La Femme in a wig and giving him a guitar, to satirize the hippie movement; but also portraying Nixon as a spider and Agnew as a hyena. Of course, Kelly always said he was against the extreme right, the extreme left, and the extreme middle.

Can you give me more information about the Kitchen Sink reprints so that I could look for them? Thanks.

By the way, how did your second marriage go? In your place I might have been tempted to wait several years and try to marry the “dream girl”, smallpox or not.

Unfortunately, Kitchen Sink Press has gone out of business. Capp Enterprises has a Li’l Abner web site, at this address:

In the Links section, one of the links is for Denis Kitchen, who published the Li’l Abner books.

I hope this helps.

Kitchen Sink has gone out of business, but its entire inventory, including all the Li’l Abner hardcover and softcover volumes, were bought up by Bud Plant Comic Art, which is now selling them at pretty steep discounts. They no longer have every volume, but between Bud Plant and BookFinder, you’ve got a good sporting chance of finding all the ones Kitchen Sink reprinted. I think they reached Volume 30 before going out of business, so the later years you’re not so enamored of probably aren’t even available.

Thanks for the information. I’ve ordered some of these collections to further my education.

I’ve always been fond of the post-war through mid-fifties “Li’l Abners.” Capp had begun doing social satire by this time (look for the Bald Iggle as well as the Schmoos), and he was still lefty enough for me to wholeheartedly appreciate his lampooning.

If you can find “The Zoot-Suit Hero,” “The Gourmets’ Club,”* and (especially) the entire episode dealing with the wedding and honeymoon of Abner and Daisy Mae**, you’ve located some of the best sustained sequences in comic-strip art.

  • aka “Roast Rump of Tree-Dwelling Elephant with Ecstasy Sauce”

** in which Abner is forced to marry because his “ideel,” Fearless Fosdick, weds Prudence Pimpleton within HIS comic-strip-within-a-comic-strip, and Daisy Mae weeps over her entire future happiness depending on “some stoopid comical strip.”

I bought some of the early strips last week and read them. They are considerably better than the ones I remembered from my teenage years, but I still don’t get goosebumps over them. Maybe it’s like Picasso – I didn’t care for his work when I first saw it as a kid, but it grew on me. May Li’l Abner will do the same.

Thanks to everyone for their feedback.

Just to chime in about Capp’s artwork - for a great percentage of Lil’ Abners run, the artwork was done by ghost artists, with only a few minor touchups/corrections by Capp himself. In fact, Frank Frazetta was a Capp employee for around nine years. This practice is not uncommon; Jim Davis hasn’t drawn Garfield for years. If you want a taste of Capp the man, see “Imagine: John Lennon” the documentary that came out in the late 80’s. Capp shows up at one of Lennon’s bed-ins full of bitterness and vindictive, and tries to take it out on Lennon. Funny/sad stuff.