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The wizard of dogpatch: the wretched life and amazing art of cartoonist Al Capp.

Everything about the life and art of Al Capp, creator of the mid-century comic strip masterpiece Li'l Abner, was brash and over the top. Even the way he lost his left leg at the age of 9 was right out of a Warner Brothers cartoon: He got run over by a streetcar. As one might expect, that traumatic event affected the rest of Capp's life for good and for ill. It inspired him to become good at something not requiring the use of two legs, but it also compounded his innate and profound self-loathing. The lifelong pain and embarrassment it caused him (Capp always walked with an awkward, comical gait) contributed to his negative, curmudgeonly psyche.

Even before the accident, Capp had a tough row to hoe, as biographer Michael Schumacher and former underground comics publisher Denis Kitchen reveal in their fine new biography Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary. Born Alfred Caplin in New Haven in 1909 to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Capp quickly exhibited the traits that defined his life: ambition, creativity, and a wicked sense of humor, along with an explosive, hair-trigger temper. His lovable yet ne'er-do-well father dragged the family from city to city, starting one failed business after another, while his stoic, no-nonsense mother occasionally had to rummage through the neighbors' trash at night looking for something to feed her children the next morning. As a young man in the 1930s, Capp had to drop out of school just to feed himself, while cunningly sneaking into one art school after another and disappearing before the tuition payment was due. As with many Depression survivors, these hardscrabble beginnings eventually turned Capp into a money-obsessed miser who by the 1960s grew to despise the younger generation for having it so easy.

Debuting in 1934, Li'l Abner was a unique mix: bawdy, burlesque humor, featuring the musclebound yet child-like Abner Yokum and his backwoods clan. It quickly transcended this hillbilly setting, taking on a strong satirical tone. Capp used his strip to spoof not just other comic strips (most famously with Fearless Fosdick, his send-up of Dick Tracy) but also theater, movies, and politicians. He was doing what Mad magazine became famous for a full decade before Mad existed. His strip was intricately well-crafted: simultaneously and in equal measures loud, gaudy, sexy, and detailed. It was a masterful blend of high and low humor, "pretty" and "ugly" art. The strip clearly was not for children, not only because of the sophisticated references but also due to the blatant sexual innuendos and the impossibly curvy, scantily clad women who populated the Yokums' hometown of Dogpatch.

By the early 1950s Li'l Abner was a full-blown cultural phenomenon, while its energetic and opportunistic creator had his finger in countless pies. There were merchandising and movie deals, product tie-ins, a successful Broadway musical, and even an odd, short-lived Fearless Fosdick TV puppet show, plus essays for the most widely read magazines of the day. None of this would have been possible without the help of assistants, and by this time Capp had a whole slew of talented artists working for him, including famed science fiction illustrator Frank Frazetta. The help allowed Capp time to wallow in his celebrity status, hobnobbing with other celebrities in Hollywood and New York and using his fame to seduce starlets, including a young Goldie Hawn and a distraught and disheveled Grace Kelly.

Capp went through an ideological transformation during the '60s that left many people astounded. Prior to then he'd always been a fairly typical New Deal Democrat, albeit a particularly fearless and sharp-tongued one, which made him a highly valued ally to his fellow liberals. The counterculture changed all that: The beatniks, the folkies, and the hippies all disgusted him. Soon his strip was targeting the likes of Joan Baez rather than Joe McCarthy. Imagine Michael Moore turning overnight into Bill O'Reilly. It was that dramatic.

Capp, to be fair, was a first-rate hippie baiter; although he took aim at an easy target, he could make you laugh even when you completely disagreed with him. This ability led to a new side career for Capp, who became the highest-paid speaker of the campus lecture circuit. His shtick was to bait and insult his audience as much as possible, while they responded in kind. It was pure sadomasochistic theater--just a big, dumb shouting match--and he relished every second of it.

This was the beginning of the end for Capp, both creatively and personally. For one thing, his newfound political worldview was purely reactionary, hardly the type of conservatism that a reason fan might relate to or admire. As late as 1964 he was still making fun of Barry Goldwater, but four years later Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were his political heroes (and soon to be close friends and confidants). His ideology boiled down to resenting young people, supporting the Vietnam War, and being chummy with people in power.

But Capp reached a new low during his campus lecture tours, which he hoped would give him a chance to get it on with the young co-eds he resented so much. His batting average must have been close to zero, and the married man became what sounds like a serial rapist. Make that a serial failed rapist, since the few women who reported their encounters with him to the authorities always got away, as Capp would routinely remove his prosthetic leg along with his pants. One would-be victim described tipping him over like a floor lamp, as he crashed into the hotel furniture. It almost seemed as if it was humiliation, not sex, that he was truly striving for.

In 1971 Capp succeeded in physically forcing a 20-year-old Wisconsin college student to perform oral sex on him. To her credit, and against overwhelming pressure, the student pressed charges. Capp was eventually charged--not with rape but with three lesser counts: indecent exposure, sodomy, and, weirdest of all, "attempted adultery." He was found guilty only of the last charge. Clearly he got off easy, but his career and reputation were irreparably damaged. He was now a pariah as well as a physical and emotional wreck.

It was during this time, in the early to mid '70s, that I was finally old enough to appreciate Li'l Abner. I thought it was brilliant. Little did I know that long-term fans of the strip now found it a wretched shadow of its former glory, or that its creator was even more wretched. It still stood out from the rest of the funny-paper dreck, and when I got a chance to read the work Capp did in his heyday, it was a revelation. The only thing that worries me about this book is that its subject's flaws may make people disinclined to read the classic Li'l Abner strips, which remain some of the finest comics ever created.

Peter Bagge (peterbagge@eartblink.net) is a reason contributing editor and cartoonist.
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Author:Bagge, Peter
Publication:Reason
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2013
Words:1156
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