Just How Bitter, Petty, and Tragic Was Comic-Strip Genius Al Capp?

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Writing a definitive biography of the "Li'l Abner" creator meant coming face to face with just how shockingly mean, and just how perplexingly kind, the controversial artist could be.

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Capp on the cover of a 1952 TV Guide

In the 43-year run of his satiric comic strip "Li'l Abner," Al Capp not only launched iconic American characters (Abner, Daisy Mae, Mammy Yokum, Pappy Yokum, the Shmoos) and places (Dogpatch, Lower Slobbovia), but introduced lingo like "hogwash," "natcherly," and "double-whammy" into the lexicon. His legacy, though, is more complicated than that. A controversial TV and radio personality whose life took a tragic spiral downward, Capp is the subject of a spicy new biography, Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary (Bloomsbury, USA). Its authors, veteran biographer Michael Schumacher and underground comics pioneer Denis Kitchen, set out to highlight his talents as an artist—but found themselves inevitably also chronicling the man's dark side.

Both authors grew up reading "Li'l Abner," and while Schumacher was too young to understand all the finer points of the strip, years later he became intrigued with Capp's story. "The good and the bad was gripping, and it appealed to the biographer in me," he wrote in an email to me. Kitchen also loved Capp's unpredictable plots, his sexy women, and his uncouth, often grotesque cast. But as a college student, Kitchen told me, he witnessed Capp's transformation "from a progressive figure to a student-hating, pro-Vietnam War pal of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. And not long afterward saw sex scandal headlines gut his fame. Almost overnight he lost everything." This intense love-hate feeling toward Capp and his work is what led Kitchen to want to understand the man better.

The authors met Rita Castillo, daughter of Capp's mistress, Nina Luce, who supplied them with dozens of Capp's letters. They also obtained a cache of Capp's correspondence through Todd Capp, Al's nephew. Kitchen, who had been collecting "all things Capp" for many years, had published through his Kitchen Sink Press nearly 30 volumes of "Li'l Abner" strips in the '80s and '90s. Capp's family asked him to represent them, so his agency licensed merchandise and additional book collections. "The family liked and trusted me," Kitchen says. When he approached Capp's daughter Julie about wanting to co-author a biography that would depict her father, "warts and all," she provided full access to her father's surviving papers, though she withheld her mother's papers and diaries. But the relationship eventually turned tense. "Julie was dismayed by some things we uncovered elsewhere and included in our bio," Kitchen says. "The family was clearly hoping for a bio with 'fewer warts.'"

Although the dark side wasn't their primary focus—Schumacher and Kitchen were adamant about capturing Capp's true genius as a writer, artist, and self-promoter—with this wellspring of material it was hard to avoid reporting his highs and lows. "I was amused by the stories of his youth," Schumacher says, "and genuinely touched by some of his acts of kindness, which seemed so strange, coming from someone as cranky as Capp." Yet he adds he was "shocked by some of the depravity, and by some of the sheer mean spiritedness of the man."

Capp's actions were often a study in contrasts. He, for example, was an unabashed womanizer and eventually a sexual predator, but he resigned from the National Cartoonist Society when male colleagues wouldn't admit a female member. And while he had a lifelong intolerance for racism, there were virtually no black characters during the four-decade run of 'Li'l Abner. "Readers prone to dislike Capp's politics might be surprised to learn that he once took a flamboyantly gay man to a White House banquet," Kitchen says. "He was generally self-aggrandizing and a penny pincher, yet he very quietly gave money to widows of slain policemen and even to struggling students."

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A notorious storyteller and, as the authors noted early in the book, an occasional liar, "Capp had no qualms about inventing the facts of his life," Schumacher says. "For instance, there are four or five varying accounts, at the very least, of his meeting with fellow cartoonist and lifelong enemy, Ham Fisher, creator of 'Joe Palooka.' Our policy was pretty basic: We told differing versions of the important events but kept the lesser, unverifiable stories out."

The book quotes from Capp's suicide note, but chose not to include anything that would have been very painful to the family. "In some other cases we found tantalizing evidence of sexual crimes but not enough to draw factual conclusions," Kitchen reports. "During his final days at the studio, two years before his death, Capp tellingly ordered his last assistant to destroy the entire contents of a storage unit. The assistant later described some of the material as incriminating. We'll never know what Capp wanted incinerated."

When his rival and nemesis Ham Fisher committed suicide, "Capp was thoroughly elated and didn't hide it."

Capp could build a story—or character—out of anything. Some of the characters were based on real people. For instance, Schumacher notes that Mammy and Pappy Yokum were based on Capp's parents, Tillie and Otto. Mammy represented all that was good in the world, and was Capp's favorite character. "He held his largely absentee father Otto in much lower esteem," Kitchen says, "so it's no coincidence that Pappy Yokum in the strip is a shiftless and unreliable appendage to the Yokum family. Evil and depraved characters like the Skraggs, extremely greedy characters like General Bullmoose, and the utter stupidity of most characters, including Li'l Abner himself, probably stem from Capp's inherent misanthropy." He also frequently parodied other comic-strip characters, most notably with Fearless Fosdick, who started as a spoof of Dick Tracy.

Capp was certainly very protective about how his characters appeared in newspapers or were marketed through Capp Enterprises, Inc., "but it was all a business to him—to such an extent that he didn't even respect his original art, once it had appeared in print," Schumacher says. "Having said that, he had some kind of connection between Li'l Abner, Daisy Mae, and other characters that went beyond just business. When Capp decided to retire, he refused to allow anyone to continue the strip."

Even so, Capp was never content with his success. "He was highly competitive and hated hearing that another artist had a greater circulation or was read by more than he was," Schumacher says. Kitchen adds, "He was absolutely cutthroat with his competition. Other than Milton Caniff, his best friend, he'd do anything to get publicity and gain advantage over other cartoonists." When his rival and nemesis Ham Fisher committed suicide, "Capp was thoroughly elated and didn't hide it. Striving to stay on top was what drove him."

The sex scandals, however, led to many newspapers canceling their subscriptions to the strip. That, along with Capp's belief, the authors assert, that "Li'l Abner" wasn't as funny as it had been at one time, led him to put an end to a strip in 1977.

Capp began his political life on the liberal left and turned radically to the right. But Schumacher makes a distinction between social liberalism and political conservatism: "I believe that he was unchanged over the years, in terms of what he felt about, say, social injustice, and that what had once bothered him about the politics of the right later bothered him about the politics of the left. Keep in mind that he was still liberal-left enough to campaign for Johnson in 1964. He started to change shortly afterward, when he saw and was angered by the activism on the college campuses across the United States. He had no patience for what he felt were privileged kids attending college on their parents' money, raising hell and showing disrespect toward all authority figures, talking like know-it-alls when they actually were very limited in experience, and so on." Capp, Kitchen notes, had a low regard for the human race in general "and probably saw in new friends like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew a pragmatic political realism that he no longer saw in the 'bleeding heart' liberal crowd."

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Kitchen maintains that politics ruined Capp's art. "The drawing of 'Li'l Abner' steadily deteriorated, and his story lines grew strident and less inventive, in inverse relation to Capp's conservative swing." As his primary assistants resigned or were fired in the '60s, Capp brought in second-rate talent and the brushwork worsened while the characters lost their distinctive look. "The patented Al Capp style was eventually unrecognizable," Kitchen says. "I don't think this was a coincidence. As his politics hardened, he lost his pride of craftsmanship and seemed unable to focus on what had made his strip so great over the years."

Capp was a bitter man, but Schumacher's "not sure there was a connection between his work and the bitterness of his later years. He was never, by nature, a pleasant person, although he could be pleasant around those whom he loved. He was probably as ill-tempered as a child as he was as an adult. His relationship with his wife was not the best, he felt used by his children, he was beaten down by the exposure of his sexual misbehavior, and he was angry about the politics of the day."

"He could have been bitter from the moment he lost a leg at nine," Kitchen observes, "but he overcame that and over the years inspired others similarly handicapped to do the same. So I would reserve the term 'bitter' for his later years, when he had fallen from grace, was no longer welcomed by Johnny Carson or other TV venues, and had lost hundreds of subscribing newspapers. Toward the end, with health failing, he didn't even want to see childhood friends or the estranged brother who reached out to him. He rejected physical therapy and resigned himself to being wheelchair-bound, with a wife and family he had largely alienated."

The authors would have liked even more access to his papers, as well as to those of his wife, but that wasn't going to happen "once his family realized that we weren't writing a whitewashed account of his life," Schumacher says. "With a budget for private detectives who knows what else we could have achieved," Kitchen says with a laugh. "The bio could have easily been two volumes, but we told Al Capp's story truthfully and fairly."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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