Monday, February 2, 2015

REVIEWS: Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary

I’ve mentioned in prior posts that the increased mainstream interest in comics has led to an explosion of serious, in-depth biographies and documentaries focused on cartoonists like Hergé (Tintin), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), and Alex Toth.

A recent such book that I read awhile back and am finally getting around to reviewing is Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen. Capp is the creator-cartoonist of L’il Abner, a hillbilly comic-strip that ran from 1934 to 1977, which often satirized American culture and politics, and reflected Capp’s rather cynical view of the world. I grew up with L'il Abner in the pages of the New York Daily News during the 1960s and '70s, and, as an early avid student of comics history, was well aware of the history of the strip. (The following is a review of the Kindle edition of the book.)

Though now partly obscured by the passage of time, at his peak, Capp was a media celebrity, partly because, like many of the most successful of newspaper cartoonists, he was a master self-promoter. He was among the first cartoonists to become wealthy merchandising his characters and he successfully leveraged his syndicated comic strip into other media, including a still-staged Broadway musical based on his comic strip. Capp himself was a popular public speaker and often appeared on television, including the Tonight Show.


Even if you never heard of Capp or aren’t familiar with his work, many of the characters and settings that sprang from his imagination—L’il Abner, Daisy Mae, Pappy and Mammy Yokum, the town of Dogpatch—have become part of iconic mainstream American lore. His strip also gave us Sadie Hawkins Day and the Shmoo.

Capp also had a legendary dark, misanthropic and curmudgeonly streak that ultimately proved to be his undoing, which has somewhat cast a shadow over his achievements.

To partly understand the man is to know that Capp lost one of his legs in a trolley accident at the age of 9. While the ambitious Capp early on refused to let it define him, his very determination to do so no doubt colored much of his personality. To his credit, this made Capp, to a degree, a model and advocate for people with disabilities. The book movingly tells of his work in reaching out to amputees, especially children, to assure them that they could continue to have normal, successful lives. During World War II, he produced a comic-strip pamphlet for war amputees that drew on his own personal experience.

Capp came from a home with an absentee salesman for a father and a mother who doted on him but always struggled to make ends meet. Due to his father’s absence, Capp was forced to be the “man of the house” at an early age, but he also had a streak of independence and rebellion. As a youth, he hitchhiked across much of the country and soon realized that his artistic talent was his ticket to fame and fortune.

Capp never shied away from a fight and several such scrapes brought him notoriety:

Best known is his legendary bitter feud with fellow cartoonist Ham Fisher, creator of Palooka Joe, for whom Capp once worked as an assistant. Capp chafed at Fisher’s claims that the concept of L’il Abner originated in his strip, while Fisher resented the success of his once assistant. The feud became very nasty, with Fisher accusing Capp in court surreptitiously placing pornographic images in his comics; in turn, Capp taunted Fisher and turned his cartoonist peers against Fisher. The incident led to Fisher being humiliated and ostracized, and his eventual suicide.

There is also Capp’s infamous 1969 public encounter with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a Montreal hotel room, during the couple’s famous “bed in” for peace during their honeymoon. The incident coincides with Capp’s seeming political shift from bleeding heart liberal to arch conservative during the 1970s. At the risk of over-simplifying, much of this shift could be attributed to the generation gap. While Capp always sided with the “little guy,” his poor background and hard scrabble upbringing made if difficult for him to sympathize with the hippie youth movement, particularly since, in his eyes, many of these young people were privileged college kids. Capp went all out in going to the other side, embracing people like Nixon and Spiro Agnew, taunting student audiences at his college appearances, and even considering a run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. (Capp at one point received serious encouragement from the GOP establishment, including the White House.)

The ego and ambition that led him to fortune and power also was his undoing. As the book shows, Capp was likely a serial sexual predator, often using his celebrity and power to bed women. While Capp always found willing partners who, as social climbers or would-be starlets, were often willing to trade favors with Capp, he also apparently often preyed on co-eds at the university campuses he frequently visited. (Actress Goldie Hawn has acknowledged that she was the victim of one of Capp’s “casting couch” encounters, but she walked out on him.) While some of his college age victims simply let it slide (or the colleges, in those less enlightened times, simply asked him to leave town), serious charges were eventually brought against him that proved to be his undoing. While never charged, the notoriety put a chill on his work and reputation. (The Capp family initially cooperated with the authors of the biography; though they initially understood the writers would necessarily cover some of the darker aspects of Capp’s life, the family apparently became less cooperative once they saw the extent of the coverage of these incidents in the early drafts.)

In the meantime, Capp’s complex relationships with his family and money also added to his problems. Though he genuinely loved his family and took seriously his obligations to support them once he attained a measure of affluence (including his siblings, who helped him with his business dealings, and his mother), he nevertheless still felt resentment and enormous pressure, which manifested itself in frequent feuds, health issues, and at one point, even a suicide threat. In addition to his serial affairs, Capp also had a longterm affair with an entertainer; though he and his wife considered divorce, Capp ultimately could never bring himself to end the marriage.

While Capp left behind a legacy and an estate which continues to control his creations (he was one of the few cartoonists to gain ownership of his own characters in his lifetime), he nevertheless died a somewhat lonely, broken man, having been ill equipped to enjoy or handle the wealth and fame his cartooning brought him.

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