One long Purimspiel

The Al Capp story, with its rise to eminence and its spectacular crash and burn, was the stuff of a classic drama.

Al Capp 521 (photo credit: TOMSIMODI / WIKIPEDIA)
Al Capp 521
(photo credit: TOMSIMODI / WIKIPEDIA)
DISCLOSURE: MANY years ago this reviewer considered writing a biography of Al Capp. After a good friend and I discovered a mutual admiration for the creator of the American newspaper comic strip “L’il Abner,” the friend began badgering me. Capp was a perfect subject for me, my pal repeatedly insisted. He almost had me convinced.
I even went so far as to correspond with the late cartoonist’s brother Elliot Caplin and other members of the family. All politely resisted my proposal. The chief reason for this, I suspect, was that the scandals that had blackened Capp’s last years were still too raw and painful for the family.
I understood that and dropped the idea of the biography. Indeed, I was secretly relieved.
I had greatly admired Capp as a satirist and respected him as a prose writer and as a TV raconteur. I also felt, of course, that his personal story, with its rise to eminence and its spectacular crash and burn, was the stuff of a classic drama.
But the truth was that, much as I was drawn to Capp, I had no interest whatsoever in his industry – the world of cartoons and comic books. I had been an avid fan of “L’il Abner.”
I couldn’t have cared less about any other comic strip. So I happily let my Capp project join the list of other books I was ultimately glad not to write.
I was delighted, therefore, when others finally took up the task. And Michael Schumacher, a veteran show-biz biographer, and Denis Kitchen, a cartoonist and publisher, prove up to the job. They’ve done the research, conducted the interviews, and produced a balanced, straight-forward, well-illustrated and comprehensive life story. And what a story it is.
Alfred Gerald Caplin (1909-1979) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a family of Lithuanian Jews. Losing a leg at the age of nine in a traffic accident apparently was a wellspring of young Al’s lifelong temperament, a froth of sardonic humor, bitterness and rage.
Demonstrating talent at the drawing board from an early age, Capp was too restless to finish high school. Instead, Capp talked his way into a sequence of prestigious art schools, only to be tossed out after one semester at each when he failed to produce his promised high school diploma and tuition money. No matter. Barely into his twenties, Capp moved to New York City, where he blustered his way into the world of comic strips. He was apprenticed to Ham Fisher, creator of what was then the enormously popular “Joe Palooka” strip. Capp soon set off on his own. (He and Fisher would engage in a vicious feud for some 20 years.) By age 25 Capp had sold a newspaper feature syndicate on a hillbilly comic strip. It was to be like no other feature in the funny papers. With its sharp social and political satire, its arcane dialogue and its buxom female characters, “L’il Abner” appealed more to adults than to children. And appeal it did, appearing for 43 years (1934-1977) and reaching tens of millions of readers daily; at its height, the graphic misadventures of Abner and the other denizens of Dogpatch were circulated in approximately 1,000 newspapers.
Younger generations, enamored as they are of Spiderman, Batman and their super-powered ilk, can hardly conceive of the cultural impact of this newspaper comic strip – or of Capp himself. Although largely lost to history now, Capp was once one of the best-known figures in America, appearing on the covers of Time and Life, writing essays for the Atlantic and other prestigious magazines, making frequent appearances on television talk shows, having his own radio show and becoming a highly paid, if controversial, fixture on the college lecture circuit (controversial because he customarily excoriated college students).
CAPP WAS THE friend of presidents and once, improbably enough, considered running for the US Senate. He was also the only cartoonist, other than Walt Disney, whose work inspired a theme park (Dogpatch USA, which flourished in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas from 1968 to 1993).
Capp’s skill at marketing products spun off from his drawings also rivaled that of Disney.
(The Dogpatch vin ordinaire, Kickapoo Joy Juice, actually appeared on grocery shelves.) “L’il Abner” was the source of an award-winning Broadway musical comedy and Hollywood film; “Fearless Fosdick” (Capp’s parody of “Dick Tracy”) became a TV series; Sadie Hawkins Day dances, to which the women invited the men, became annual events on hundreds of college campuses.
Literary luminaries like John Steinbeck and John Updike admired Capp and wrote introductions to collections of his comic strips.
It was in the satire and wit of the comic strip that Capp’s genius was most evident.
Political and cultural figures, often thinly disguised, were Capp’s most frequent targets, and he had a talent for parody that recalls Mel Brooks. In Capp’s hands, for example, Abner and Daisy Mae portrayed Wreck Butler and Scallop O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” In a “Grapes of Wrath” parody, the turnip crop fails in Dogpatch and the residents migrate to Boston in the dead of winter to pick oranges. Frank Sinatra, Orson Wells, Marlon Brando, Liberace, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, all became targets of Capp’s satiric pen, as did several other comic strip artists, and in general the targets relished being punctured.
And then there were the enduring and endearing characters who peopled, if that’s the right word, the comic strip. The mere names delight: Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Old Man Mose, J. Roaringham Fatback, Earthquake McGoon, Jubilation T. Cornpone, Marryin’ Sam, Joe Bfstblk, Evil Eye Fleegle, Available Jones, Senator Jack S. Phogbound, General Bullmoose, and such memorable female characters as Moonbeam McSwine, Lena the Hyena, Stupefyin’ Jones, and Appassionata Von Climax. Not to mention such mythical creatures as the Shmoo, the Kigmy and the Shtoonk. Or the unfortunate country called Lower Slobbovia.
BUT THIS ALL came crashing down, as Schumacher and Kitchen thoroughly document, as the result of two developments. First, in the 1960s and 1970s Capp evolved from a cheerful liberal into a curmudgeonly conservative, defending figures like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, J. Edgar Hoover and the segregationist George Wallace. He vociferously supported the Vietnam War, and condemned the youthful protest movement; the comic strip was rancorous about Joan Baez (Joanie Phoanie) and S.W.I.N.E (Students Wildly Indignant about Everything). Capp also had an especially mean-spirited filmed exchange with John Lennon and Yoko Ono that surely endeared him to no one.
More devastating were the charges that Capp had sexually molested female students at two of the college campuses at which he had lectured. (Actresses Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly reportedly made similar charges against the cartoonist.) Capp, who had a long history of infidelity, claimed the accusations were the result of set-ups concocted by leftist student organizations. But the damage was done and the cartoonist abruptly lost his audiences.
After four decades, “L’il Abner” had also lost its bite, and in 1977 Capp folded up his drawing board. Two years later, in crippling poor health and staggered by the suicide of a daughter and the accidental death of a favorite granddaughter, Capp was dead.
Aside from the occasional hint in his comic strip’s dialogue balloons (shtoonk, goniff, nogoodnik), nothing overtly Jewish ever appeared in Capp’s cartoons. Such were the times; Alfred Caplin was only one of an enormous conga line of American Jewish cartoon artists who concealed their Jewishness.
But to my mind Capp’s humor was Jewish to the core, the deflation of the prominent and the self-important, the word play, the illogical logic, the satire and the parody, the sheer inventiveness of it all. How could it be otherwise? To me and to other Jews who I knew and who reveled in “L’il Abner,” this lowly comic strip was one long Purimspiel.
And all this was long before Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and graphic novels and other “respectable” forms of cartooning.
But I was recently chatting with a talented American Jewish cartoonist, age 36, who was only vaguely aware of the name Al Capp. Sic transit and all that.