Alfred Caplin emerged from the dim, gray depths of the Great Depression as Al Capp, creator of the beloved hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner and the most celebrated cartoonist of the American century. In the strip’s early years, Li’l Abner was praised by liberal intellectuals, who saw Capp as a sort of populist knight-errant, the people’s own satirist, a witty warrior whose pen punctured the bloated plutocrats lording it over the downtrodden everyman. Years of left populism made Capp a rich, rich man. But by the time his career ended in the early Seventies, Capp had switched sides, becoming the comic Lancelot of the right. He was still praised as a defender of the average man, but now it was the loony, high-horse student left who served as Capp’s target, those comfy Ivy Leaguers who rode roughshod (and bareback, naturally) over us humble commoners of the “Silent Majority.” Al Capp began his career as the FDR of the funny pages and ended it as their George Wallace.
Or so the story goes. Capp’s left-to-right, head-to-tail flip is the standard narrative one encounters in the various biographies of the cartoonist, and the big question raised by Capp’s conversion to the right in the Sixties—namely, why did it happen?—is the toss-up put to the reader by Alexander Theroux in his recently published booklet, The Enigma of Al Capp (Fantagraphics, 1999). Unfortunately, Theroux never decides exactly why Capp changed sides. He comes closest to a convincing explanation when he focuses, as do all Capp’s biographers, on Capp’s wooden leg as the man’s lifelong curse and a symbol for all the insecurity and resentment his impoverished youth bred in him. Using what we might call the wooden-leg-as-Rosebud theory and running through a list of Capp’s other personal disappointments, Theroux essentially retells the usual Capp narrative, that of the eventually curdled sourpuss whose acidic comics were once upon a time sweetened with a little more of the milk of human kindness. According to Theroux, the left lost something great, something almost revolutionary, when it lost Al Capp. “Underneath [Li’l Abner’s satire] is social seriousness if not solemnity, and, if it’s not an oxymoron, almost Marxist humor,” Theroux notes. “It’s my belief that the comic strip Li’l Abner is one long fable about greed.”
To use a word of Capp’s own invention, this is hogwash. While it’s true that Li’l Abner can be read as one long fable about greed, the greed in question was clearly Al Capp’s own. As is so often the case, the seemingly irreconcilable left and right sides of Al Capp’s politics were really flip sides of our only coin: money.
They ignore the less obvious story of poverty’s victory over Al Capp.
Like almost everyone else who has written about Capp, Theroux assumes that his subject changed in some fundamental way, and that this is what explains his political shift. But Theroux would have done well to listen more closely to the words of his own subject. Capp himself maintained until the end that he had always been the same man; that society, not him, had changed. Al Capp did not turn into a bitter, greedy asshole in the Sixties—he was always a bitter, greedy asshole. Oddly, Theroux presents all the evidence necessary to prove this, but shrinks from drawing the obvious conclusions. In fact, any fairly critical look at Capp’s life and a trudge through Capp’s alleged “funnies” forces upon one the obvious truth that Capp was not so much a knight but a mercenary in the earliest of the culture wars. Capp himself put it best when asked by a student what exactly had inspired him to begin drawing a comic strip about hillbillies: “Money,” he barked.
Despite the intellectual significance once attributed to Capp’s awful comic strips, Capp was always a pawn in a larger game. To be sure, he was one of the culture war’s first heroes and perhaps its first casualty, but in a larger sense his story is that of the middle class’s endless fascination with the authentic, unwashed culture of the common man, of the inflated prices intellectuals will pay for cultural populism of almost any kind. Capp’s biographers tell the story of Al Capp’s victory over poverty; they ignore the less obvious story of poverty’s victory over Al Capp.
Alfred Gerald Caplin was born in the first years of this century, a poor Jewish boy on the ghetto side of New Haven. Class resentment seems to have dogged him from the beginning. Although his family moved constantly, Alfred grew up always in the metaphorical shadow of Yale, an upper-class fortress that haunted his entire life. When Alfred was nine years old a streetcar ran over him and severed one of his legs. Because Alfred loathed his wooden leg, his friends and brother tugged him in a wagon when they made their self-described “Robin Hood raids” on the local Woolworth’s, stealing pocket knives, cheap jewelry, and kewpie dolls. In adolescence Alfred would play the part of a Yalie alter ego he invented, the scruffy-genteel Alfred Von Schuyler, in various ill-fated attempts to seduce powdered and pampered girls from the upper crust. After dropping out of several art schools Alfred began a career as a cartoonist assisting Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka. It was during this period of plodding poverty, at the very pit of the Great Depression, that Caplin hit on the idea of making fun of poor people. After he saw a hillbilly revue in a New York vaudeville house, Caplin changed his name to Al Capp and began drawing hillbillies—lazy white people who were poor as dirt, dumb as dirt, and who, like their equally imaginary black counterparts, said “Shonuff.” Sure enough, the idea caught on. Al Capp struck gold in them thar hills.
The popularity not just of Li’l Abner but of all cartoons in those years is almost inconceivable today. The comics were postwar America’s most popular art—as Capp himself noted in an essay he wrote for a supplement to the 1946 Encyclopædia Britannica—and by Capp’s peak in the early Fifties Li’l Abner was the most popular strip of them all. More than ninety million Americans read Li’l Abner every single day of their lives; in quantitative terms this made Al Capp the most important artist in America. Only the Beatles’ arrival a decade later can compare to the chorus of oohs and aahs that rose and fell with the vacillating fortunes of Capp’s cornpone heroes, the Yokum family.
Today, only twenty-five years after his retirement, Capp is largely forgotten and for good reason. The only thing about Li’l Abner that is funny now is the fact that so many people once gave a hoot about it. After plowing through all forty-three years of Capp’s daily comics—comics consisting almost entirely of vicious burlesques, boilerplate dialogue, and ridiculously contrived “situation comedy”—one is bored beyond all emotions save irritation. Most irritating of all is Capp’s ham-handed use of ethnic stereotypes. Whether it was the Polecat tribe, injuns drunk on Kickapoo Joy Juice (a nonalcoholic version of which Capp marketed, and which is still sold today in parts of the Third World); the “Unteachables” (a mob of greaseball, pinstripe Sicilians); or the snoring meggsican hombres and impossibly oversexed, red hot gorls of El Apassionato, racial caricatures were Capp’s forte. In a perhaps intentional show of bogus “integrity,” Capp even drew his own people as a tribe of hooknosed shysters.
Capp’s main character was Li’l Abner hisself, the proto-Gump and first mass-media imbecile to serve as an emblem of all the lunkheads that the two coasts imagine to inhabit America’s great middle. This Brobdingnagian lummox was “the man with the lowest I.Q. in America.” As Capp once crowed, “When Li’l Abner speaks, he speaks for millions of morons.” The mate Capp fashioned for Abner was the buxom, brainless Daisy Mae, a naive, chaste, barely clothed shotgun-shack tart who fully, and I do mean fully, embodied the Madonna/whore complex. When not chasing Abner on her fleet bare feet every Sadie Hawkins Day, Daisy Mae was heaven-bent on capturing him for marriage. Capp’s idjit Adam and Eve hailed from the mountain hamlet of Dogpatch, U.S.A., a yokel’s Yoknapatawpha, a hillbilly Eden where all stayed poor by virtue of their inanity. As the strip’s plot unfolded, Abner clodhopped his way across the landscape of American life, exposing folly and avarice wherever he loped—admirers of Capp from Theroux to John Updike refer to Abner as a sort of aw-shucks Candide—and won out in the end by virtue of his stupidity, naiveté, and deep faith in the red, white, and blue. Virtually all of Capp’s central cast of characters fit the same profile: lazy, illiterate, barefoot sharecroppers in tattered clothes—charming innocents untouched by sivvylyzashun, mouthing in their every encounter with city folk and all forms of authority a dumb profundity, one all the more compelling for its being untouched by subject-verb agreement. There’s something about this formula of average-dope-confronts-power that has always appealed to middle-class Americans, perhaps because, as with the denizens of Dogpatch, these simpleton protagonists are always portrayed as children. No matter what their age, they and their grotesque lumpen brothers in poverty were constantly sleeping, drinking, hoodwinking, and screwing—that last act being of course only suggested, especially on Sadie Hawkins Day. After Li’l Abner finally married Daisy Mae, he got the only job he ever held—a mattress tester. Zzzzz. Natcherly, the Dogpatch crowd were good chilluns, prefacing their address of rich folk with “yassuh,” “nossuh,” and other markers of old-fashioned deference. What Capp invented was a new kind of minstrelsy, one that did without the basic element previously thought necessary for a minstrel show—namely, black people. For all his nasty stereotyping, Capp’s great accomplishment was his bleaching of this all-American form of mockery.
Capp’s admirers on the left warmed to his savage portrayals of the big fat bad guy.
The only experience that approaches the agony of following years of Li’l Abner’s picaresque adventures is reading what overeager intellectuals of his time made of these insufferably dumb comics. Believe it or not, they were convinced that Capp was the mythical common man in the flesh, a veritable fount of the vox populi. The dialect of Dogpatch was a particular favorite of these thinkers, the ancestors of today’s cult-studs. For Capp’s 1953 book, The World of Li’l Abner, John Steinbeck—of all people!—contributed an introduction in which he proclaimed, “I think Capp may very possibly be the best writer in the world today.” Steinbeck then recommended that Capp be given the Nobel Prize for literature because, he reasoned, literature is what the people actually read—and everybody read Al Capp. “He has not only invented a language but has planted it in us so deeply that we can talk it ourselves,” Steinbeck wrote, apparently forgetting that by then Sambo dialect had been around for well over a hundred years. As an example of Capp’s “high-faluting, shimmering, gorgeous prose,” Steinbeck trotted out this typical Capp passage: “After ah dances a jig wif a pig, Ah yanks out two o’ mah teeth, an’ presents ’em to th’ bride-groom—as mementos o’ the occasion!!—then—Ah really gits goin!!” And in a book-length 1970 attempt to justify the study of Al Capp, the academic Arthur Asa Berger declared: “Capp’s use of an American vernacular is, in itself, an ‘affront’ to the social order, and has strong egalitarian implications.” Only an intelligentsia desperate to prove that they were still down with the people could claim that mouthing minstrelsy did a democrat make.
Capp’s admirers on the left warmed most of all to his savage portrayals of the big fat bad guy. In the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, Capp reveled in drawing porcine, bejeweled tycoons and big bidnessmen with names like J. Colossal McGenius, Rockwell P. Squeezeblood, and J.P. Gorganfeller. Such caricatures, in and of themselves, were populism enough for most, and the critics duly painted Capp as a dyspeptic, chain-smoking, wooden-legged champeen of the common man. And yet I cannot find one instance of a Capp-champion actually doing the dirty work of looking deeply into the forty-three years’ worth of plodding Dogpatch storyline in order to extract evidence of the cartoonist’s alleged populism. Maybe the fact that Li’l Abner was a comic strip, and hence popular, was sufficient.
But it’s hard to blame the critics for their lackadaisical generalizations. Reading Capp’s ceaseless strips is an excruciating exercise. The closest most critics came to paying attention was during Abner’s famous 1948 encounter with the blobby, amorphous Shmoo. This was the episode, more than any other, that cemented Capp’s reputation as a spokesman for the common man and sent the prototype cult-studs riffling through their thesauruses. Shmoos were soft little white penises, cuddly creatures with a perpetual smile and a moozikal song of “Shmoo” on their lips. They reproduced spontaneously and essentially provided everything man needed to survive, laying an endless supply of milk, aigs, and butter. When a Shmoo saw a human look at them with hunger in his eyes, the Shmoo died of happiness on the spot. The hongry Dogpatcher could then eat them broiled, so they tasted like steak, or boiled, so they tasted like chicken. Sawed lengthwise and dried, they made wood; cut in slabs, they made leather; sliced thin, they made the fahnest cloth. Abner plucked out their eyeballs to make suspender buttons and picked their meat from his grin with toothpicks made from their whiskers. If ever there was a metaphor for American abundance, the Shmoo was it. Natcherly such a utopia could not stand. The swine-king of the pork industry, J. Roaringham Fatback, grew pop-eyed and indignant over the Shmoos and, in an apoplectic fit, had his double-breasted henchmen execute them all. Exactly why Fatback killed the Shmoos, nobody bothered to examine—but we will come to that later.
Almost overnight the myth of Capp’s career as cornpone friend of the common man was born. Capp printed the newspaper Shmoo strips as an actual book in 1948. The Life and Times of the Shmoo sold seven hundred thousand copies, and on November 6, 1950, Capp, Abner, Daisy Mae, and the Shmoos made the cover of Time magazine. It was official: Comics were now Culture. Steinbeck’s recommendation followed soon after, making comics not just pitchers but actual Writing as well. In his 1963 book, The Politics of Hope, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called Capp “the most brilliant and daring of our comic strip cartoonists.” Then came the ultimate compliment. In a 1965 article Capp wrote for Life, entitled “My Life as an Immortal Myth: How Li’l Abner Became the Intellectual’s Delight,” Capp recounted with his characteristically annoying false humility how one morning Alain Resnais, the French New Wave director, had stood humbly on Capp’s doorstep and proclaimed Li’l Abner to be “America’s one immortal myth, and the dominating artistic influence of my life.” Rather than regarding this endorsement as a product of that curious Gallic tendency to see buffoons like Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke as avatars of a noble American savagery, Theroux presents it as proof of Capp’s arteestishness. Capp himself ate up these accolades, dining and wisecracking with the likes of Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, and the patron saint of lifestyle liberation and bodacious ta-tas, Hugh Hefner himself. Capp even campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. He was a celebrity, and if the liberals embraced him, then a liberal he was.
On the surface, at least. When he wasn’t flying to his favorite spot in the world, London’s Savoy Hotel, to have his suits tailored on Savile Row, the newly minted populist resided in his home in Cambridge—trading the yin of Yale for the yang of Harvard—and rode to work in Boston in one of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac convertibles with the name “Al Capp” painted on the door. All shows of vanity aside, Al Capp the man was in a very real sense not at all who he pretended to be. At his studio the nouveau Brahmin used a number of “assistants” to help him crank out the products of his imagination in a more efficient fashion. After the studio’s morning brainstorming session Capp would rough in the action they’d concocted. Then Capp inked in the heads and bodies of the main characters—“getting the look of the strip,” as Theroux puts it—and left the rest of the penciling, inking, shading, lettering, and coloring to his assistants. As is always the case in any such relationship, the people who actually did the work knew better than the bossman how to do it. Today Capp collectors pay far, far more for the Abner strips known to be “assisted” by Frank Frazetta, the unsung genius behind the cheesiest of Capp’s oft-ogled cheesecake. (Frazetta eventually huffed out of Capp’s studio and went on to great fame as the world’s foremost painter of barbarians, Molly Hatchet album covers, and big-hipped maidens in chain-mail bikinis.) The crowning touch of phoniness was this: Capp paid his assistant Harvey Curtis to sign each and every Li’l Abner strip with the trademark Al Capp “signature.” Al Capp was not even “Al Capp.”
In the late Sixties Capp seemed to lose interest in baiting industrialists and PR men. He had a new target now, the hippies and the student left, whom he treated with the same contempt he had always held for everyone else. Once again, Al Capp was warping and mocking a kind of white Negro—but this time it was white middle-class kids who consciously tried to be culturally black. First and foremost came that all-important bugaboo of the backlash, the welfare mother. Capp condensed his previous emblems of impoverished fertility, Dogpatch’s Misser and Missus J.P. McFruitful and their forty-odd kids, and turned them into the decidedly more urban Miss Ann Yewly Fruitful, the national chairman of Militant Unwed Mothers (MUMs). Capp’s caricature of rotund, limousine-riding businessmen (like himself) slimmed into the svelte Joanie Phonie, a thinly veiled lampoon of Joan Baez, who rode to and from her pinko charity benefits in a caviar-laden limousine. Capp tied a polky-dot tie on Abner and replaced the raggedy Dogpatchers with the equally raggedy group of barefoot student protesters he called Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything (SWINE). These new underdogs made a fuss, unlike their earlier, yassuh forebears, and for that reason Capp drew them with extra venom and without the sentimentality that some had found so endearing in the good old days.
Once again, Capp’s mockery of the underdog made him a rich, rich man. Once again, the middle class leapt at the chance to embrace Capp’s attack on the idle rich, but this time it was the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Elks who backed Capp. He became the prophet of the Silent Majority, fulminating against the hordes of long-haired rich kids wearing tea shades, waving placards, and hurling firebombs with their soft, pink hands. Again he made bogus populism into something of an industry: Capp stumped about college campuses on a $5,000-per-appearance lecture tour, where he wagged a nicotined finger at students and growled jowly, spittle-flecked denunciations of their hair, their “hate America” music, their privilege, their youth, and their goddamned laziness. Ever the showman, Capp even crashed John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace, barging in and unleashing an incoherent torrent of abuse and invective. Capp prospered from the bitter culture wars, and he took to taking black coffee with Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, dining and grousing with Ross Perot and William F. Buckley Jr., and publicly threatening to run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. Once again, Capp was a celebrity, and if the right embraced him, then a righty he was.
But by the time Capp published The Hardhat’s Bedtime Story Book in 1972, the jig was up for him. The book was a set of dystopian essays featuring half-real, half-imagined stereotypes such as Jerry Rubin, whom Capp imagined as president of Harvbaked University in 1984—a Harvard with a Richard Speck School of Ethics and a campus Gestapo run by Abbie Hoffman. It seemed like perfect stuff for the newly populist right, which was learning to portray itself as the ally of the average worker in his fight against a new establishment—but Capp could not get anybody to write the introduction this time. “John Steinbeck wrote the preface to my last book,” Capp wrote in his own, self-described “lonely” introduction, “and in it, he nominated me for the Nobel Prize. When they gave it to him instead, it broke his heart and I vowed that never again would I cause a great man pain. And so I have not asked quite a few great men to write this preface for me.”
The truth is that the right was through with Capp, and that nobody, liberal or conservative, wanted to touch Capp’s book with a ten-foot pole—mainly because Capp had been trying to touch young women with his pole. In 1971 the Boston Phoenix reported that Capp had “exposed himself” and made “forceful advances” toward four separate girls in the course of one visit to the University of Alabama, and had been forced out of town by the university president. In 1972 Capp waved his cock at a married coed at the University of Wisconsin, then attempted to sodomize her. She was a “left-wing” girl, Capp said, a “do-gooder determined to remake me.” She pressed charges. Capp claimed innocence but pleaded guilty to “attempted adultery,” and shortly thereafter retired in disgrace. Five years later he was dead from emphysema, suffocated by his own ceaseless smoking.
But just how abrupt was Capp’s conversion to the right? Take a close look at the most celebrated episode from his liberal period—the story of the Shmoo—and you will notice that the Shmoo was much more a metaphor for laissez-faire capitalism than it was for any leftist vision of utopian plenty. J. Roaringham Fatback did indeed exterminate the cute li’l creature and all humanity’s hopes for easy prosperity, but not for the reason Capp’s liberal-populist admirers imagined. In fact, Fatback ordered his genocide over the protests of his fellow bizmen, savvy capitalists who saw immediately a million new Shmoo markets that would arise for them to penetrate and exploit. “New developments don’t ruin American business, Fatback!!” the Suits enthused. “They just open new fields for us!!” “Sure!” piped up another tycoon. “Everybody’s got Shmoos—plain Shmoos!! But who’s got chocolate-covered Shmoos? There’s a tremendous field, right there!!” Their ingenious list went on: salted Shmoos, canned Shmoos, candied Shmoos, Shmoo knives, Shmoo shoop—I mean soup—and so forth as the barons of business danced in an endless circle of product differentiation and brand extension. Meanwhile, the fat villain Fatback harrumphed, “I hate anything new!! … If those things aren’t exterminated, I’ll have to change my way of life—and I hate change!!” And so Fatback wiped out the Shmoos, subverting the true visionaries of Capp’s Shmoo episode: the suit-clad seers of market-based prosperity. Fatback was a villain only because he was a lousy businessman, unable to comprehend or appreciate the eternally provident market—America’s actual immortal myth.
Capp knew whereof he lampooned. In real life Al Capp was just such a seer of boundless abundance and no doubt had his share of encounters with piggish old-style businessmen. In 1948 Capp worked with the 17th Military Air Transport Squadron to airlift chocolate-filled Shmoo dolls and life-size inflatable Shmoos into Berlin—a fraction of the blessings he showered on the poor, beleaguered “common people” here at home. Capp left us Shmoo dolls, Shmoo rings, Shmoo clocks, Shmoo soaps, Shmoo banks, Shmoo salt shakers, Shmoo records, Shmoo cookie jars, Shmoo pencils, Shmoo stationery, Shmoo soda pop, Shmoo balloons, Shmoo overalls, Shmoo shampoo, and Shmoo breakfast cereal. An article about the Shmoolift in Life magazine rhapsodized about the “CAPPitalistic lessons” that the captive Teutonic commies might learn from the man who had invented his own prosperity.
If capitalism could just get soft and cuddly, Capp was telling us, all its—and our—problems would be solved. The metaphor even worked the other way around: Not only were Shmoos capable of becoming consumer products, but consumer products were capable of making nonbelievers into Shmoos! At one point during the Cold War Capp drew comic strip ads for Cream of Wheat in which Nogoodniks—unshaven, fanged Russian lumpkins hailing from “Lower Slobbovia”—were transformed into chirpy, white Shmoos by eating the bland, gooey stuff. “All I know about modern capitalism I learned from the Shmoo,” Capp wrote in The New Republic in 1949. “But don’t cry, kiddies, there is a real live Shmoo,” he continued. “This big earth itself will give us everything we want, just as the Shmoo does, if only we’d let it alone—if only, in our passion and hatred and intolerance, we don’t tear it apart.”
Capp’s noble way of saying, essentially, don’t ever change a damn thing.