Reclaiming the Legacy of Al Capp, Who Made Cartoons OK for Adults

The Li'l Abner cartoonist's public image was tarnished by scandal, and a new book about him reminds readers why the talented Capp had so much to lose in the first place.

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Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

The story of Li'l Abner creator Al Capp, as told in Michael Schuhmacher and Denis Kitchen's new biography Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, has absorbed me for months. I'm finishing a book on positive unintended consequences and looking at, among other things, the effects of childhood illnesses and injuries. Capp lost his leg in a streetcar accident at the age of 11 and explicitly credited his success as a cartoonist to what was then called "compensation," determination to prove his competence and mastery. Phantom pain plagued him every day for the rest of his life, but he became one of the world's most acclaimed and wealthiest cartoonists. During the World War II he volunteered enthusiastically as a role model and morale builder bucking up troops recovering from amputation, and drew a widely circulated comic about his career.

Today the best known part of Capp's life is his downfall as a sexual predator abusing his fame and connections, which extended all the way to President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew. A nationally syndicated column by Jack Anderson in 1971 (after a tip received by his investigative assistant, the young Brit Hume, who developed the story) broke decades of silence. Capp pled guilty to "attempted adultery," and while Li'l Abner continued to run until 1977, the scandal and family tragedies were mentally and physically devastating.

Capp's infamy has blurred his genius too long, and Schumacher and Kitchen remind us of why he had so far to fall. Capp was not only a masterly draftsman but an avid reader who settled down the street from Harvard and a razor-sharp wit who could create whole suites of memorable characters. He was the only cartoonist other than Walt Disney to inspire a theme park: Dogpatch USA, in Marble Falls, Arkansas, closed in 1993 and is now a ruin.

Fosdick is Capp's masterpiece, running postmodern-style as a comic strip within a strip, starring a character who was probably the most subversive of authority of any of the comic personalities.

I still think of Fosdick as Capp's masterpiece, running postmodern-style as a comic strip within a strip and accepted good-naturedly by Chester Gould, creator of its target Dick Tracy, for whom Capp always professed the highest regard. Its greatness exists even if Capp bowed to 1950s social conservatism in marrying Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae (which his emerging rival Charles Shultz called the worst comic-strip decision ever) in 1952. Even Disney didn't hitch Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Yet Fosdick, who had been introduced a decade earlier, was a pivotal character, probably the most subversive of authority of any of the comic personalities, but presented with such engaging absurdity that even Dr. Fredric Wertham's anti-comic crusade could not stop him. As Shumacher and Kitchen say, it was an adult strip—and yet it was one acceptable on a Sunday morning around the family dining table, whatever its effects on impressionable young minds.

Looking back, Fosdick and some of Capp's other creations were links between the high style of 1930s to 1950s comics and the youth counterculture that began with the launch of Mad Magazine in 1952, the very year of the fateful Dogpatch wedding. Around the same time, Capp told a magazine interviewer that Fosdick is "pure, underpaid and purposeful" but "without doubt the world's most idiotic detective. He shoots people for their own good, is pure beyond imagining, and is fanatically loyal to a police department which exploits, starves and periodically fires him." Nor have the issues Capp was dealing with gone away: All nine bystanders wounded during a police shooting of a murderer near the Empire State Building were hit by police bullets.

Al Capp's growing commercial licensing became, in due course, fodder for Mad cartoonists ribbing "Al Capital" for selling out. But in extending the underworld grotesques created by Gould to the Establishment itself, Capp had helped set at least part of a generation—Mad early adopters like me—on their course. Even the wildly popular, and now collectible, shmoo was occasionally attacked as pornographic.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Capp may have allied with Nixon and Agnew to ridicule the antiwar movement and youth culture, most notoriously Joan Baez as "Joanie Phoanie." Yet inadvertently, by pushing the limits of satire, he did as much any other cartoonist of his generation to create it.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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