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Book review

‘Al Capp’ by Schumacher and Kitchen

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The difficulties that Massachusetts Republicans face in recruiting Senate candidates are nothing new. In 1970 they needed someone to challenge the young Senator Edward Kennedy, and they went so far as to court a politically conservative cartoonist and political ally of President Nixon — Al Capp, creator of the comic strip “Li’l Abner.”

By the time he entertained and rejected a run for office, Capp had created one of the most successful strips in the history of comics and helped pave the way for Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” and the “usual gang of idiots” at MAD magazine. He created an entire universe in Dogpatch, a rural backwater of dialect-drawling bumpkins who regularly got the better of city slickers, sophisticates, and plotting politicians. He brought political and social satire into a genre that had been the province of action stories and gag cartoons. And he enriched the popular lexicon with expressions such as “hogwash,” “double whammy,” “going bananas,” and “Sadie Hawkins Day.”

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Capp’s ascent to comic-strip stardom and celebrity from Depression-era poverty, however, did not calm a roiling bitterness that began early and increasingly dominated his life. In the decade before his death in 1979, he became an increasingly strident reactionary, faced trial for one sexual assault and was accused of others, and eventually descended into madness. Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen trace the riveting trajectory of this brilliant but darkly, troubled man in their richly told new biography “Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary.”

AL CAPP: A Life to the Contrary

Author:
Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
Publisher:
Bloomsbury
Number of pages:
305
Book price:
$30

Schumacher and Kitchen chose a challenging subject. Central to Capp’s success was his prodigious talent as a storyteller, and his favorite subject was himself. He gave multiple accounts of key events in his life, and the authors take pains to distinguish truth from tall tale. The result is a gripping biography, balanced and understated, but unnerving in its account of consuming ambition and corrosive anger.

Capp was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven in 1909, grandson of a rabbi and son of a salesman father and a mother overwhelmed by caring for their four children, particularly the “surly and vile-tempered” Alfred. He had reason to be angry. At age 9 he was run over by a trolley, an accident that resulted in the amputation of his left leg. It was a loss that pained him both physically and psychologically for the rest of his life. In an autobiographical fragment published posthumously, Capp wrote about his isolation as a teenager: “To this day, I sit at the gate, vainly waiting for the day when I may enter. Sometimes the children come to the edge of the [garden] gate and speak a few words of pity to me — but not for long. They hear the call of health and, hastening back, resume their play.”

Drawing pictures became a refuge — a ticket to social acceptance that he felt had been shut off by his handicap. With his father’s encouragement, he devoured books, avidly reading Dickens and Shaw. Movies were his other escape, and he later attributed his sense of narrative pacing to his study of films. A restless and contrarian student, Capp skipped out of high school and took off with a friend on a hitchhiking trip through the South. Impressed by the “simple, appealing humanity” of the people he met, he would soon mine those encounters for the cast and setting of “Li’l Abner.”

Capp studied at several art schools, including two in Boston, but dropped out of each for lack of money. He married artist Catherine Cameron in 1932, and they remained together for his entire life, despite his serial adultery. The Capps settled in Boston and then moved to Cambridge, not far from Harvard Square.

A chance encounter in New York in 1933 with Ham Fisher, creator of the popular “Joe Palooka” strip gave Capp his big break. It also led to a lifelong feud, one of many Capp had with friends, colleagues, and family. When Capp left his job as Fisher’s apprentice, the established cartoonist accused him of stealing the hillbilly characters that populated “Li’l Abner.” The charge lacked merit, but the acrimony didn’t end until Fisher committed suicide two decades later. The authors recount that, upon hearing the news, Capp gloated over Fisher’s death.

For most of its 43 years, “Li’l Abner” was largely immune to the rancor in Capp’s personal life. It was a refuge of innocence and virtue and a terrific parodic playground. Daisy Mae pursued the disinterested Li’l Abner for 18 years, winning his hand in marriage only when the McCarthy era scared Capp into thinking he’d be wise to champion traditional domesticity. Until then, Li’l Abner fled Daisy Mae in favor of fishing and the comics pages.

Those pages were often the play-within-a-play that Capp used for send-ups of rival comics like Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” and Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.” His many satires included Elvis Presley (as Hawg McCall), Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones,” and John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck later compared Capp to Cervantes and Rabelais and said that he “may very possibly be the best writer in the world today.”

Capp saw his work as a continuity strip with action pacing and sophisticated satire. From eight papers in 1934, “Li’l Abner” eventually appeared in more than 900 papers by the 1960s. There were “Li’l Abner” movies, a play, a theme park, product endorsements, and merchandise — particularly of the shmoo, a character that debuted in 1948. It looked like a soft bowling pin, and its purpose in life was to please humankind. Not only could shmoos produce food, but they were delicious to eat, and obligingly died of love if a human so much as looked at them with hungry intent. Readers lapped it up.

Capp used his fame for public service appearances during World War II. He made frequent visits to veterans hospitals and drew comics about the loss of his leg to help amputees deal with their physical and emotional losses.

Capp was a liberal Democrat until the 1960s, but the cultural and political changes of the time unsettled him. He couldn’t stand folk singers or the Beatles, found hippies hygienically offensive, detested the violent fringes of the antiwar and black-power movements, and he supported the Vietnam War. He confronted John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “Bed-In For Peace” in Montreal in 1969, questioning their motives and proudly making a racist gibe at Ono, comparing her to South Vietnam’s Madame Nhu. William Buckley, a fellow conservative, accused him of “overkill which at times borders on vulgarity.”

Schumacher and Kitchen are rarely judgmental, letting the facts speak for themselves even in the face of Capp’s most repugnant behavior. A pattern of sexual assaults on coeds and young women, including Goldie Hawn, finally caught up with him in 1971, and he was charged with sodomy and indecent exposure in Eau Claire, Wisc. Nixon’s special counsel, Charles Colson, sent an assistant to pressure the district attorney to drop the charges, without success. Capp ridiculously accused leftists of trying to smear him but eventually pleaded down to a lesser charge.

His reputation, his health, and the strip all went into decline over the next few years. He halted “Li’l Abner” in 1977 and, amid failing health, died a delusional paranoid in 1979.

Cartoonist Charles Addams said Capp had created characters that “will go down in the history of our times.” Novelist John Updike, at one time an aspiring cartoonist himself, said Capp had created a comic strip that had “fire in its belly and a brain in its head.”

The biography captures that dialectic in the strip and in the man. It is fast-paced, fascinating, rich in Boston-based history. It will satisfy the appetites of comic fans and political junkies alike.

Dan Wasserman can be reached at d_wasserman@ globe.com.

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