Alfred Gerald Caplin
|Also Known As:||"Al Capp"|
|Birthplace:||New Haven, New Haven, Connecticut, USA|
|Death:||Died in South Hampton, Rockingham, New Hampshire, USA|
|Place of Burial:||Amesbury, Essex, Massachusetts, USA|
Son of Otto Philip Caplin and Matilda Davidson
|Occupation:||American cartoonist and humorist|
|Managed by:||Eldon Clark (C)|
Historical records matching Al Capp
About Al Capp
Alfred Gerald Caplin (September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979), better known as Al Capp, was an American cartoonist and humorist best known for the satirical comic strip Li'l Abner. He also wrote the comic strips Abbie an' Slats and Long Sam. He won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award in 1947 for Cartoonist of the Year, and their 1979 Elzie Segar Award (posthumously) for his "unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning."
Capp was far more an intellectual than he allowed the public to see. Li'l Abner was his joke on the dismal world around him. His humor welled-up from the melancholy pits of a strapping kid made an amputee at age nine...
Born in New Haven, Connecticut of Russian Jewish heritage, Capp was the eldest child of Otto Philip and Matilda (Davidson) Caplin. Capp's parents were both natives of Latvia whose families had migrated to New Haven in the 1880s. "My mother and father had been brought to this country from Russia when they were infants," wrote Capp in 1978. "Their fathers had found that the great promise of America was true—it was no crime to be a Jew." The Caplins were dirt poor, and Capp later recalled stories of his mother going out in the night to sift through ash barrels for reusable bits of coal.
In August 1919, at the age of nine, Capp lost his left leg in a trolley accident. This childhood tragedy likely helped shape Capp’s cynical worldview, which, funny as it was, was certainly darker and more sardonic than that of the average newspaper cartoonist "I was indignant as hell about that leg," he would reveal in a November 1950 interview in Time magazine.
"The secret of how to live without resentment or embarrassment in a world in which I was different from everyone else," Capp philosophically wrote (in Life magazine on May 23, 1960), "was to be indifferent to that difference." It was the prevailing opinion among his friends that Capp's Swiftian satire was, to some degree, a creatively channeled, compensatory response to his disability.
Capp's father, a failed businessman and reportedly an amateur cartoonist, introduced him to drawing as a form of therapy. He became quite proficient, learning mostly on his own. Among his earliest influences were Punch cartoonist–illustrator Phil May, and American comic strip cartoonists Tad Dorgan, Cliff Sterrett, Rube Goldberg, Rudolph Dirks, Fred Opper, Billy DeBeck, George McManus and Milt Gross. At about this same time, Capp became a voracious reader. According to Capp's brother Elliot, Alfred had finished all of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw by the time he turned 13. Among his childhood favorites were Dickens, Smollett, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and later, Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman.
Capp spent five years at Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut without receiving a diploma. The cartoonist liked to joke about how he failed geometry for nine straight terms. His formal training came from a series of art schools in the New England area. Attending three of them in rapid succession, the impoverished Capp was thrown out of each for nonpayment of tuition—the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Designers Art School in Boston—the latter before launching his amazing career. Capp had already decided to become a cartoonist. "I heard that Bud Fisher (creator of Mutt and Jeff) got $3,000 a week and was constantly marrying French countesses," Capp said. "I decided that was for me."
In early 1932, Capp hitchhiked to New York City. He lived in "airless rat holes" in Greenwich Village and turned out advertising strips at $2 apiece while scouring the city hunting for jobs. He eventually found work at the Associated Press. At 23-years old, he was reportedly the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America By March 1932, Capp was drawing Colonel Gilfeather, a single-panel, AP-owned property created in 1930 by Dick Dorgan. Capp changed the focus and title to Mister Gilfeather, but soon grew to hate the feature. He left the Associated Press in September 1932. Before leaving, he met Milton Caniff, and the two became lifelong friends. Capp moved to Boston and married Catherine Wingate Cameron, whom he had met earlier in art class. She died in 2006 at the age of 96.
Leaving his new wife with her parents in Amesbury, Massachusetts, he subsequently returned to New York in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. "I was 23, I carried a mass of drawings, and I had nearly five dollars in my pocket. People were sleeping in alleys then, willing to work at anything." There he met Ham Fisher, who hired him to ghost on Joe Palooka. During one of Fisher's extended vacations, Capp's Joe Palooka story arc introduced a stupid, coarse, oafish mountaineer named "Big Leviticus," a crude prototype. (Leviticus was actually much closer to Capp's later villains Lem and Luke Scragg, than to the much more appealing and innocent Li'l Abner.)
Also during this period, Capp was working at night on samples for the strip that would eventually become Li'l Abner. He based his cast of characters on the authentic mountain-dwellers he met while hitchhiking through rural West Virginia and the Cumberland Valley as a teenager. (This was years before the Tennessee Valley Authority Act brought basic utilities like electricity and running water to the region.) Leaving Joe Palooka, Capp sold Li'l Abner to United Feature Syndicate (now known as United Media). The feature was launched on Monday, August 13, 1934 in eight North American newspapers—including the New York Mirror—and was an immediate success. Alfred G. Caplin eventually became "Al Capp" because the syndicate felt the original would not fit in a cartoon frame. Capp had it changed legally in 1949.
His younger brother Elliot Caplin also became a comic strip creator, best known for co-creating the soap opera strip The Heart of Juliet Jones with artist Stan Drake, and conceiving the comic strip character Broom-Hilda with cartoonist Russell Myers. Elliot also authored several off-Broadway plays, including A Nickel for Picasso (1981), which was based on and dedicated to his mother and his famous brother.
Li'l Abner was a comic strip with fire in its belly and a brain in its head. —John Updike, Introduction, My Well-Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg, 1991
One of the 20th century's three greatest comic strips... In Li'l Abner, Capp mixed comedy and suspense in a daily cocktail that no one else has come close to duplicating. —Dennis Drabelle, Salon.com, 2002
What began as a hillbilly burlesque soon evolved into one of the most imaginative, popular and well-drawn strips of the 20th century. Featuring vividly outlandish characters, bizarre situations, and equal parts suspense, slapstick, irony, satire, black humor and biting social commentary, Li'l Abner is considered a classic of the genre. The comic strip stars Li'l Abner Yokum—the simple-minded, loutish but good-natured and eternally innocent hayseed who lives with his parents—scrawny but superhuman Mammy Yokum, and shiftless, childlike Pappy Yokum.
"Yokum" was a combination of yokel and hokum, although Capp established a deeper meaning for the name during a series of visits around 1965–1970 with comics historians George E. Turner and Michael H. Price. “It’s phonetic Hebrew—that’s what it is, all right—and that’s what I was getting at with the name Yokum, more so than any attempt to sound hickish," said Capp. "That was a fortunate coincidence, of course, that the name should pack a backwoods connotation. But it’s a godly conceit, really, playing off a godly name—Joachim means 'God’s determination', something like that—that also happens to have a rustic ring to it."
The Yokums live in the backwater hamlet of Dogpatch, Kentucky. Described by its creator as "an average stone-age community," Dogpatch mostly consists of hopelessly ramshackle log cabins, pine trees, "tarnip" fields and "hawg" wallows. Whatever energy Abner had went into evading the marital goals of Daisy Mae Scragg, his sexy, well-endowed (but virtuous) girlfriend—until Capp finally gave in to reader pressure and allowed the couple to marry. This newsworthy event made the cover of Life on March 31, 1952.
Capp peopled his comic strip with an assortment of memorable characters, including Marryin' Sam, Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecat, Evil-Eye Fleegle, General Bullmoose, Lena the Hyena, Senator Jack S. Phogbound (Capp's caricature of the anti-New Deal Dixiecrats), the (shudder!) Scraggs, Washable Jones, Nightmare Alice, Earthquake McGoon, and a host of others. Most notably, certainly from a G.I. point of view, are the beautiful, full-figured women like Daisy Mae, Wolf Gal, Stupefyin' Jones and Moonbeam McSwine (a caricature of his wife Catherine, aside from the dirt)—all of whom found their way onto the painted noses of bomber planes during World War II and the Korean War. Perhaps Capp's most popular creations were the Shmoos, creatures whose incredible usefulness and generous nature made them a threat to civilization as we know it. Another famous character was Joe Btfsplk, who wants to be a loving friend but is "the world's worst jinx," bringing bad luck to all those nearby. Btfsplk (his name is "pronounced" by simply blowing a "raspberry" or Bronx cheer) always has an iconic dark cloud over his head.
Dogpatch residents regularly combat the likes of city slickers, business tycoons, government officials and intellectuals with their homespun simplicity. Situations often take the characters to other destinations, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Hollywood, tropical islands, the Moon, Mars, and some purely fanciful worlds of Capp's invention. The latter includes El Passionato, Kigmyland, The Republic of Crumbumbo, Skunk Hollow, The Valley of the Shmoon, Planets Pincus Number 2 and 7, and a miserable frozen wasteland known as Lower Slobbovia, a pointedly political satire of backward nations and foreign diplomacy that remains a contemporary reference."Indeed, Li'l Abner incorporates such a panoply of characters and ideas that it defies summary," according to cultural historian Anthony Harkins. "Yet though Capp's storylines often wandered far afield, his hillbilly setting remained a central touchstone, serving both as a microcosm and a distorting carnival mirror of broader American society."
The strip's popularity grew from an original eight papers, to ultimately more than 900. At its peak, Li'l Abner was read daily by 70 million Americans (the U.S. population at the time was only 180 million), with adult readers far outnumbering children. Many communities, high schools and colleges staged Sadie Hawkins dances, patterned after the similar annual event in the strip.
Li'l Abner has one odd design quirk that has puzzled readers for decades: the part in his hair always faces the viewer, no matter which direction Abner is facing. In response to the question “Which side does Abner part his hair on?," Capp would answer, “Both.” Capp said he finally found the right "look" for Li'l Abner with Henry Fonda's character Dave Tolliver, in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936). In later years, Capp always claimed to have effectively created the miniskirt, when he first put one on Daisy Mae in 1934. Parodies, toppers and alternate strips
Li'l Abner also features a comic strip-within-the-strip: Fearless Fosdick is a parody of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. It first appeared in 1942, and proved so popular that it ran intermittently over the next 35 years. Gould was personally parodied in the series as cartoonist "Lester Gooch"—the diminutive, much-harassed and occasionally deranged "creator" of Fosdick. The style of the Fosdick sequences closely mimicks Tracy, including the urban setting, the outrageous villains, the galloping mortality rate, the crosshatched shadows, and even the lettering style. In 1952, Fosdick was the star of his own short-lived puppet show on NBC, featuring the Mary Chase marionettes.
Besides Dick Tracy, Capp parodied many other comic strips in Li'l Abner—including Steve Canyon, Superman (at least twice; first as "Jack Jawbreaker" in 1947, and again in 1966 as "Chickensouperman"), Mary Worth, Peanuts, Rex Morgan, M.D., Little Annie Rooney and Little Orphan Annie (in which Punjab became "Punjbag," an oleaginous slob). Fearless Fosdick—and Capp's other spoofs like "Little Fanny Gooney" (1952) and "Jack Jawbreaker"—were almost certainly an early inspiration for Harvey Kurtzman's Mad Magazine, which began in 1952 as a comic book that specifically parodied other comics in the same distinctive style and subversive manner.
Capp also lampooned popular recording idols of the day, such as Elvis Presley ("Hawg McCall," 1957), Liberace ("Loverboynik," 1956), the Beatles ("the Beasties," 1964)—and in 1944, Frank Sinatra. "Sinatra was the first great public figure I ever wrote about," Capp once said. "I called him 'Hal Fascinatra.' I remember my news syndicate was so worried about what his reaction might be, and we were all surprised when he telephoned and told me how thrilled he was with it. He always made it a point to send me champagne whenever he happened to see me in a restaurant..." (from Frank Sinatra, My Father by Nancy Sinatra, 1985). On the other hand Liberace was "cut to the quick" over Loverboynik, according to Capp, and even threatened legal action—as would Joan Baez later, over "Joanie Phoanie" in 1967.
Capp was just as likely to parody himself; his self-caricature made frequent, tongue-in-cheek appearances in Li'l Abner.] The gag was often at his own expense, as in the above 1951 sequence showing Capp's interaction with "fans" (see excerpt), or in his 1955 Disneyland parody, "Hal Yappland." Just about anything could be a target for Capp's satire—in one storyline Li'l Abner is revealed to be the missing link between ape and man. In another, the search is on in Dogpatch for a pair of missing socks knitted by the first President of the United States.
In addition to creating Li'l Abner, Capp also co-created two other newspaper strips: Abbie an' Slats with magazine illustrator Raeburn van Buren in 1937, and Long Sam with cartoonist Bob Lubbers in 1954, as well as the Sunday "topper" strips Washable Jones, Small Fry (aka Small Change), and Advice fo' Chillun.
According to comics historian Coulton Waugh, a 1947 poll of newspaper readers who claimed they ignored the comics page altogether revealed that many confessed to making a single exception: Li'l Abner. "When Li'l Abner made its debut in 1934, the vast majority of comic strips were designed chiefly to amuse or thrill their readers. Capp turned that world upside-down by routinely injecting politics and social commentary into Li'l Abner. The strip was the first to regularly introduce characters and story lines having nothing to do with the nominal stars of the strip. The technique—as invigorating as it was unorthodox—was later adopted by cartoonists like Walt Kelly [Pogo] and Garry Trudeau [Doonesbury]," wrote comic strip historian Rick Marschall. According to Marschall, Li'l Abner gradually evolved into a broad satire of human nature. In his book America's Great Comic Strip Artists (1989), Marschall's analysis revealed a decidedly misanthropic subtext:
Capp was calling society absurd, not just silly; human nature not simply misguided, but irredeemably and irreducibly corrupt. Unlike any other strip, and indeed unlike many other pieces of literature, Li'l Abner was more than a satire of the human condition. It was a commentary on human nature itself.
Over the years, Li'l Abner has been adapted to radio, animated cartoons, stage production, motion pictures and television. Capp has been compared, at various times, to Mark Twain, Dostoevski, Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne and Rabelais. Fans of the strip ranged from novelist John Steinbeck, who called Capp "possibly the best writer in the world today" in 1953, and even earnestly recommended him for the Nobel Prize in literature—to media critic and theorist Marshall McLuhan, who considered Capp "the only robust satirical force in American life." John Updike, comparing Abner to a “hillbilly Candide,” added that the strip’s “richness of social and philosophical commentary approached the Voltairean.” Charlie Chaplin, William F. Buckley, Al Hirschfeld, Harpo Marx, Russ Meyer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ralph Bakshi, Shel Silverstein, Hugh Downs, Gene Shalit, Frank Cho, Daniel Clowes and (reportedly) even Queen Elizabeth have confessed to being fans of Li'l Abner.
Capp was master of every technique postmodernists celebrate: juxtaposition, parody, satire, irony, intertextual referencing, bricolage, chaos, the surreal, the carnivalesque, the tragicomic slapstick of differences. In Li'l Abner, systems of logic and morality clashed... and from the resulting dreamscape of discourses came satirical comedy. Like all satire, the real and the fictive combined to produce grotesque offspring. —Rodger Brown, The Road to Hokum, 1994
Li'l Abner was also the subject of the first book-length, scholarly assessment of an American comic strip ever published. Li'l Abner: A Study in American Satire by Arthur Asa Berger (Twayne, 1969) contained serious analyses of Capp's narrative technique, his use of dialogue, self-caricature and grotesquerie, the place of Li'l Abner in American satire, and the significance of social criticism and the graphic image. "One of the few strips ever taken seriously by students of American culture," wrote Professor Berger, "Li'l Abner is worth studying... because of Capp's imagination and artistry, and because of the strip's very obvious social relevance." It was reprinted by the University Press of Mississippi in 1994.
Al Capp drew his own autobiography, the 34-page Al Capp by Li'l Abner (1946), distributed to returning WWII amputee veterans.
During World War II and for many years afterward, Capp worked tirelessly going to hospitals to entertain patients, especially to cheer recent amputees and explain to them that the loss of a limb did not mean an end to a happy and productive life. Making no secret of his own disability, Capp openly joked about his prosthetic leg his whole life. In 1946 Capp created a special full-color comic book, Al Capp by Li'l Abner, to be distributed by the Red Cross to encourage the thousands of amputee veterans returning from the war. Capp was also involved with the Sister Kenny Foundation, which pioneered new treatments for polio in the 1940s. Serving in his capacity as honorary chairman, Capp made public appearances on its behalf for years, contributed free artwork for its annual fund-raising appeals, and entertained crippled and paraplegic children in children's hospitals with inspirational pep talks, humorous stories and sketches.
In 1940, an RKO movie adaptation starred Granville Owen (later known as Jeff York) as Li'l Abner, with Buster Keaton taking the role of Lonesome Polecat, and featuring a title song with lyrics by Milton Berle. A successful musical comedy adaptation of the strip opened on Broadway at the St. James Theater on November 15, 1956 and had a long run of 693 performances, followed by a nationwide tour. The stage musical, with music and lyrics by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, was adapted into a Technicolor motion picture at Paramount in 1959 by producer Norman Panama and director Melvin Frank, with a score by Nelson Riddle. Several performers repeated their Broadway roles in the film, most memorably Julie Newmar as Stupefyin' Jones and Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam.
Other highlights of that decade included the 1942 debut of Fearless Fosdick as Abner's "ideel" (hero); the 1946 Lena the Hyena Contest, in which a hideous Lower Slobbovian gal was ultimately revealed in the harrowing winning entry (as judged by Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff and Salvador Dalí) drawn by noted cartoonist Basil Wolverton; and an ill-fated Sunday parody of Gone With the Wind that aroused anger and legal threats from author Margaret Mitchell, and led to a printed apology within the strip. In October 1947, Li'l Abner met Rockwell P. Squeezeblood, head of the abusive and corrupt Squeezeblood Comic Strip Syndicate. The resulting sequence, "Jack Jawbreaker Fights Crime!," was a devastating satire of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's notorious exploitation by DC Comics over Superman. It was later reprinted in The World of Li'l Abner (1953). (Siegel and Shuster had earlier poked fun at Capp in a Superman story in Action Comics #55, December 1942, in which a cartoonist named "Al Hatt" invents a comic strip featuring the hillbilly "Tiny Rufe.")
In 1947, Capp earned a Newsweek cover story. That same year the New Yorker's profile on him was so long that it ran in consecutive issues. In 1948, Capp reached a creative peak with the introduction of the Shmoos, lovable and innocent fantasy creatures who reproduced at amazing speed and brought so many benefits that, ironically, the world economy was endangered. The much-copied storyline was a parable that was metaphorically interpreted in many different ways at the outset of the Cold War.
Following his close friend Milton Caniff's lead (with Steve Canyon), Capp had recently fought a successful battle with the syndicate to gain complete ownership of his feature when the Shmoos debuted. As a result, he reaped enormous financial rewards from the unexpected (and almost unprecedented) merchandising phenomenon that followed. As in the strip, Shmoos suddenly appeared to be everywhere in 1949 and 1950—including a Time cover story. A paperback collection of the original sequence, The Life and Times of the Shmoo, became a bestseller for Simon & Schuster. Shmoo dolls, clocks, watches, jewelry, earmuffs, wallpaper, fishing lures, air fresheners, soap, ice cream, balloons, ashtrays, comic books, records, sheet music, toys, games, Halloween masks, salt and pepper shakers, decals, pinbacks, tumblers, coin banks, greeting cards, planters, neckties, suspenders, belts, curtains, fountain pens, and other shmoo paraphernalia were produced. A garment factory in Baltimore turned out a whole line of shmoo apparel, including "Shmooveralls." The original sequence and its 1959 sequel, The Return of the Shmoo, have been collected in print many times since, most recently in 2011, always to high sales figures. The Shmoos would later have their own animated TV series.
Capp followed this success with other allegorical fantasy critters, including the aboriginal and masochistic "Kigmies," who craved abuse (a story that began as a veiled comment on racial and religious oppression), the dreaded "Nogoodniks" (or bad shmoos), and the irresistible "Bald Iggle," a guileless creature whose sad-eyed countenance compelled involuntary truthfulness—with predictably disastrous results.
Li'l Abner was censored for the first, but not the last time in September 1947, and was pulled from papers by Scripps-Howard. The controversy, as reported in Time, centered on Capp's portrayal of the United States Senate. Said Edward Leech of Scripps, "We don't think it is good editing or sound citizenship to picture the Senate as an assemblage of freaks and crooks... boobs and undesirables." He criticized Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, calling him a "poet." "He uses poetic license to try to create the beautifully ordered world of good guys and bad guys that he wants," said Capp. "He seems at his best when terrifying the helpless and naïve."
Capp received the National Cartoonists Society's Billy DeBeck Memorial Award in 1947 for Cartoonist of the Year. (When the award name was changed in 1954, Capp also retroactively received a Reuben statuette.) He was an outspoken pioneer in favor of diversifying the NCS by admitting women cartoonists. Originally, the Society had disallowed female members. Capp briefly resigned his membership in 1949 to protest their refusal of admission to Hilda Terry, creator of the comic strip Teena. According to Tom Roberts, author of Alex Raymond: His Life and Art (2007), Capp delivered a stirring speech that was instrumental in changing those rules. The NCS finally accepted female members the following year. In December 1952, Capp published an article in Real magazine titled “The REAL Powers in America” that further challenged the conventional attitudes of the day: "The real powers in America are women—the wives and sweethearts behind the masculine dummies..."
Highlights of the 1950s included the much-heralded marriage of Abner and Daisy Mae in 1952, the birth of their son "Honest Abe" Yokum in 1953, and in 1954, the introduction of Abner's enormous, long lost kid brother Tiny Yokum, who filled Abner's place as a bachelor in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race. In 1952, Capp and his characters graced the covers of both Life and TV Guide. 1956 saw the debut of the Bald Iggle, considered by some Abner enthusiasts to be the creative high point of the strip, as well as Mammy's revelatory encounter with the "Square Eyes" Family—Capp’s thinly-veiled appeal for racial tolerance. (This fable-like story was collected into an educational comic book called Mammy Yokum and the Great Dogpatch Mystery!, and distributed by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith later that year.) Two years later, Capp's studio issued Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 1958 biographical comic book distributed by The Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Capp had often parodied corporate greed—pork tycoon J. Roaringham Fatback had figured prominently in wiping out the Shmoos. But in 1952, when General Motors president Charles E. Wilson, nominated for a cabinet post, told Congress "...what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa," he inspired one of Capp's greatest satires—the introduction of General Bullmoose, the robust, ruthless, and ageless business tycoon. The blustering Bullmoose, who seemed to own and control nearly everything, justified his far-reaching and mercenary excesses by saying "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!" Bullmoose's corrupt interests were often pitted against those of the pathetic Lower Slobbovians in a classic mismatch of "haves" versus "have-nots." This character, along with the Shmoos, helped cement Capp's favor with the Left, and would increase their outrage a decade later when Capp, a former Franklin D. Roosevelt liberal, switched targets. Nonetheless, General Bullmoose continued to appear, undaunted and unredeemed, during the strip's final right-wing phase and into the 1970s.
Al Capp's Timeline
September 28, 1909
New Haven, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, USA
November 5, 1979
South Hampton, Rockingham, New Hampshire, USA
Amesbury, Essex, Massachusetts, USA