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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 527

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This is the grave of Al Capp.

Born in 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut, Al Caplin grew up in a Jewish family with immigrant parents. They were very poor, but his parents were happy to have escaped the anti-Semitism of what is today Latvia. But Caplin had a very bad incident as a child. He was run over by a train. He didn’t die, but he had his leg amputated. Capp’s father was into drawing and with the child bitter and angry but recovering, he taught the son how to draw. He went to high school in Bridgeport but never graduated, despite spending five years in school. He finally dropped out and went to art school. He tried to start drawing professionally, but this was the early 1930s and times were very difficult for everyone. He took whatever work he could get, but struggled to eat and even left his wife at her parents in Massachusetts so that he could do this on his own without supporting her.

As a teenager, despite his prosthetic leg, he hitchhiked through Appalachia. In the early 30s, he started experimenting with a cartoon based on the people he met there. That would become Li’l Abner, one of the most popular cartoons in American history. He managed to sell it to United Features Syndicate in 1934 and it started getting big. It was the syndicate that changed Caplin’s named to Capp. They said it was because the name was too long to fit in the cartoon, but I imagine anti-Semitism had more than a bit to do with it too. To me, Li’l Abner always just seemed like southern stereotypes–the heroic mother, the lazy father, the idiotic but good-natured main character. He objectified women to all get out, drawing large-breasted young women that definitely appealed to the readers; most of these female characters found themselves painted onto bombers in World War II.

Over the years, the strip grew in character numbers, often going long stretches with little to do with the original characters. It also grew in popularity, eventually being carried in around 900 papers and with estimates that maybe 40 percent of Americans read it on a daily basis. It was by far the most popular comic of the day. John Steinbeck recommended Capp receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He started parodying real people in it, sometimes showing his nasty streak. And Al Capp had a very nasty streak that often included his personal life, but also the comic. Sometimes, these parodies were well-meaning. Frank Sinatra loved his character. But in later years, especially as an aging Capp got plain mean, his targets became angry. Liberace threatened to sue. So did Joan Baez, whose character was called “Joanie Phonie” when it debuted in 1967. Al Capp was not a man for the late 60s.

Capp became a huge star of his own, a truly famous and public man in a way that comic artists rarely do (far more prefer a private lifestyle it seems, as relative recluses such as Bil Watterson demonstrate). He was particularly involved in visiting wounded soldiers, and sometimes others in hospitals, joking about his prosthetic leg as he did so. He was a big public face in the anti-polio fight as well. In 1940, RKO put out a movie based on the Li’l Abner that actually had Buster Keaton in a supporting role and with Milton Berle singing the theme song. A stage adaptation was made that started in 1956 and became a movie of its own in 1959. There was a huge two-part New Yorker profile of Capp in 1948 and a Newsweek cover story in 1947. He also created The Shmoos, which, when Capp won a lawsuit against the syndicate to gain total control, made him a tremendous amount of money through marketing toys and other merchandise based on that strip.

Capp was everywhere in the media. He played himself in the Bob Hope film That Certain Feeling. He was on talk shows all the time. He became one of the leading endorsing figures of Chesterfield cigarettes. He did tons of USO tours during Vietnam. He knew presidents and the nation’s leading actors.

On some issues with women, Capp was pretty progressive. He protested the exclusion of women from the comic pages and from the National Cartoonist Societies, once publicly resigning after Hilda Terry, who created the strip Teena, was denied membership. On the other hand, with his Hollywood power, he had more than a little Harvey Weinstein in him. Both Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn accused Capp of trying to rape them in casting rooms, forcing them into sex in exchange for a career, which both resisted. But who knows how often Capp succeeded in this disgusting behavior. He also liked to expose himself to young women. He was accused of doing this to at least four students at the University of Alabama in a 1971 investigative report. Soon after, he was arrested after giving a talk at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire for propositioning a married women in his hotel room, which also included exposing himself. He was fined $500 and the major charges of sodomy were dropped. This all demonstrates how men can say one thing about women’s rights but then act in a very different way privately.

Politically, Capp started as a New Deal liberal and often lampooned the wealthy in his column. One of his original Li’l Abner characters was based on the idiot rural guy who hated the New Deal even though he benefited from it. When GM president Charles Wilson made his famous “what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa” before Congress, Capp created a character directly making fun of that and corporate greed generally. But like a lot of New Deal liberals, he grew to hate the New Left and turned starkly conservative as he aged and the culture changed. He lived in Cambridge during the Vietnam War and was disgusted by the anti-war protestors, which became an increasingly big topic in his declining strip. In 1969, still a huge star, he managed to meet John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their Bed-In for Peace, where he just started insulting both of them to their faces. By the 1970s, Li’l Abner was a right-wing crank comic strip that had long ago lost whatever comic value it once had, as Capp became like so many comic strip artists who followed, washed up hacks who nevertheless were given lifetime tenure by the syndicate on the funny pages. In 1970, Spiro Agnew begged his buddy Capp to run in the Democratic primary for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, but the cartoonist declined. He did become a big supporter and fundraiser for Jack Kemp’s political career.

Finally, Capp mercifully ended Li’l Abner in 1977, actually apologizing to readers for how bad it had become. If only Bil Keane or Brad Anderson had done the same with their horror shows! Capp’s health was declining as well, thanks to a lifetime of smoking. He died of emphysema in 1979.

Al Capp is buried in Mount Prospect Cemetery, Amesbury, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other comic strip artists, which I would very much like to do so I can talk more about how bad they were, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bil Keane is buried in Phoenix and Brad Anderson is in Portland, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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