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Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary

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If Al Capp’s life story were a work of fiction then it would be considered the epitome of the perfectly structured three-act drama. His early life provides the narrative with that vital opening motivation – the horrific childhood accident that costs him a leg – after which Capp seeks to overcome this adversity by proving himself not just as good as the next man but significantly better. The second act charts his self-made rise to fame as this former impoverished working class lad becomes not just the creator of a pop cultural phenomenon, and one of the most influential newspaper comic strips of all time, but also sees off his rivals to become a media mover and shaker, television personality, columnist and confidante to a President. And then we have the climax, wherein our protagonist’s hubris proves to be his self-inflicted downfall as his career collapses amidst controversy, scandal and allegations of sexual assault.

But, of course, this isn’t fiction. What Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have chronicled in their biography Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary is the remarkable true story of an extraordinary man; a complex individual whose darker side would eventually consume him, but not before he had spent decades in the public eye, and Capp the commentator and personality had become as influential and dominant a figure as Capp the creator of the exceptionally popular Li’l Abner strip.

Drawing on a wealth of firsthand source material, Schumacher and Kitchen trace Capp’s life from his childhood in the early twentieth century when, on a runaway hitchhiking trip in the 1920s, the (then) Alfred Caplin first became entranced by the culture of the American South that would prove the inspiration for his most famous creation. Through the years he would hone his artistic craft in a variety of unconventional ways; from his schoolday entrepreneurial endeavours selling nude sketches of a favoured teacher to his inspired opportunism years later inventing rich relatives to enrol at numerous art schools (only to drop out when the payment of fees were due on the pretence that said fantasy kin had seen a sudden and dramatic reversal in their fortunes).

It’s when we reach the era that Capp broke into the newspaper strip business, though, that the authors begin to examine a more ruthless side to Capp in greater depth. His apprenticeship with Joe Palooka creator Ham Fisher would lead to a bitter lifetime feud that would only end decades later when Fisher committed suicide. For two men who hated each other with a frightening ferocity – and the strokes recounted here that they pull over the years to bring each other down prove the depth of that animosity – there’s a poignant irony that in their mutual self-destructive behaviour they were more alike than they probably would ever have been comfortable with.

It was the popularity of Capp’s Li’l Abner – the hillbilly humour strip set in the town of Dogpatch that would become a 43-year publishing marvel and was seen by millions across an international audience during that period – that became the central area of contention in the Capp-Fisher enmity. Fisher remained obstinate in his belief that the characters were based on those introduced within the confines of the Joe Palooka continuity and thus a creative infringement. This was doubtless not helped by the ever growing popularity of Li’l Abner’s mix of twisting storylines, social satire and slapstick silliness which would eventually ensure its place as America’s most esteemed newspaper strip. Even those unfamiliar with Li’l Abner will be aware of its lasting impact on the English language with phrases like “double whammy” and “hogwash”, amongst others, now so indelibly an idiomatic part of the English language. “Sadie Hawkins Day” – the annual event in Dogpatch where single women were allowed to hunt themselves an eligible bachelor for matrimonial entrapment – is another excellent example of the way in which Capp’s fancy has ingrained itself in a national consciousness.

                     

A selection of Li'l Abner comic book compilations featuring some of Capp's most fondly remembered concepts including Sadie Hawkins Day, Dick Tracy send-up Fearless Fosdick and the loveable Shmoos.

A Life to the Contrary paints a vivid picture of lost Americana – a time when the Sunday funnies were a major pop cultural phenomenon; when the comparative “water cooler topics” of the day would revolve around Daisy Mae’s latest pursuit of the perpetually teenaged Abner Yokum, and the comics sections of daily papers were so important to circulation figures that they would spark “newspaper wars” between publications. Analyses of Capp’s achievements here, including the cross-media adaptations of Li’l Abner, the Shmoo merchandising phenomenon of the late ‘40s-early ‘50s, and Capp’s growing media presence are intriguingly counterpointed by examinations of his marital infidelities, his fractious business relationship with his brother Bence, and the radical and often obdurate shifting of his politics to the right in the latter years of his life.

And it’s in those last, downward spiralling years of his life, ironically, that Capp the great satirist created perhaps his most memorable caricature of all as he unwittingly descended into virtual self-parody; the former liberal adopting a form of belligerent, uncompromising conservatism that seems so exaggerated that it echoed the larger-than-life send-ups of many of the over-the-top grotesques that had populated the pages of Li’l Abner over the decades. This latter period would see Capp becoming a regular speaker at college campuses where he would stir up his student audiences with controversial oratory. It was also a time when he would vent his ire on public figures with particular venom; notably with the likes of Joan Baez who he lampooned in Li’l Abner as Joanie Phoanie, and an infamous confrontation with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “bed-in for peace” in the late ‘60s.

A Life to the Contrary is a story of contrasts. In those early chapters the reader finds themselves rooting for Capp because, despite his curmudgeonly ways, his clawing his way up the ladder constitutes an amazing “rags to riches” story given his modest beginnings and traumatic childhood. But as one gets to those final events in his life, when his career and popularity are swallowed up in allegations of sexual assault and a subsequent prosecution, there’s an obvious realisation of just what a fundamentally flawed human being Capp was. It’s a sobering read – a man who had overcome so much disadvantage in his life ultimately brought down in disgrace by the more sinister side of his personality.

The great strength of Schumacher and Kitchen’s approach to the subject matter is that they adopt an unobtrusive authorial voice throughout, even-handedly juxtaposing the often seemingly contradictory aspects of this complex individual’s layered personality, from his kindness to fellow amputees to his bitter vindictiveness towards those he felt had wronged him. It’s never less than an utterly compelling read, meticulously researched from contemporary accounts and historical sources, and carefully crafted from interviews with family members, professional colleagues and extended acquaintances.

Sat next to the beautifully reproduced compilations of Li’l Abner published by IDW since 2010 Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary is essential complementary reading for those impressive and densely packed collections. This is a book that is not just for the comic strip aficionados but also an account that provides a compelling read for anyone with even a passing interest in Capp’s work or the history of American newspaper strips. A required and indispensable offering for the comics scholar.

Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary is published by Bloomsbury and available priced $30.00 in the U.S. and £20.00 in the U.K.

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