A warts-and-all biography of the creator of “Li’l Abner.”
Co-authors Schumacher and Kitchen bring a unique set of tools to their excavations. The former is the biographer of Allen Ginsberg, Eric Clapton, Phil Ochs and, most recently, comic pioneer Will Eisner (Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics, 2010). Kitchen is a cartoonist and publisher—Al Capp’s Complete Shmoo, 2011. From 1934 to 1977, Capp’s “Li’l Abner” strip appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Its creator, born Alfred Caplin in 1909, lost his left leg in a traffic accident at age 9 but soon realized his artistic and humorous talents. He worked for a while with cartoonist Ham Fisher on his “Joe Palooka” feature, but the two fell out and remained bitter competitors for decades. Once “Li’l Abner” began, it took off quickly, and as the authors show, Capp was a master of self-promotion and marketing. Movies and TV shows did not work out too well, but the 1956 eponymous Broadway show was a success, as were a number of his characters, both human (Daisy Mae) and non (the Shmoo). His Sadie Hawkins Day remains a tradition in many schools and colleges, though probably few teens could now identify the source. Capp had a couple of marriages and some family conflicts (especially with brother Bence), but when the 1960s roared in, the formerly liberal Capp veered right and charged high fees to visit college campuses, where he ridiculed student activists and fiercely attacked the left. And it was on some campuses that his libido ended all. Some highly publicized attacks on young women students in his motel rooms cost him both his popularity and his career.
Both the light and dark sides of the man who made the country both laugh and gag.