Sunday, November 17, 2019

Flashback, November 1977: Capp Steps Away From ‘Li’l Abner’ Cartoon

Ill health and low spirits led Al Capp to stop writing “Li’l Abner,” the comic strip he had once turned into a national institution, in November 1977. The move probably came several years too late, as readers for the last decade had watched the cartoonist fall into creative decline and public scandal. 

In some ways, before the term was coined, Capp was a neoconservative—a left-winger so unnerved by the cultural tumult of the 1960s that he turned sharply rightward. An artist whose criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy was so fierce that he provoked monitoring by the FBI ended up supporting Richard Nixon.

In a far more sinister way, he was Harvey Weinstein before the #MeToo movement—a predator who used his wealth and power to harass or violate numerous women who crossed his path, up to and including actresses Edie Adams, Grace Kelly and, as recounted here, Goldie Hawn.

The “cancel culture” has retroactively brought to the surface how to evaluate Capp. His activities certainly deformed his life, but to what extent did they deform his art? How can we view Dogpatch, USA knowing that its creator could be as bad as the outsiders who periodically threatened the peace of hillbilly innocents like its strapping title character?

When I first wrote about Capp 40 years ago for my college paper, I knew about an accusation of a sexual offense in the early ‘70s. At that time, my feelings about him were similar to the praise offered by Stefan Kanfer in this 2010 City Journal piece. But I was unaware that this was part of a persistent, deeply troubling pattern of Capp's misconduct. Since then, I must admit, I find it harder to appreciate his work.

It was hard to imagine anything like that at the height of Capp’s influence, when “Li’l Abner” ran in 900 U.S. papers and another 100 in 28 countries around the world. 

Capp had readers hanging on every curved line of his to see which fictional characters he would parody (e.g., Dick Tracy became “Fearless Fosdick”), which holiday he would create (Sadie Hawkins Day, in which unmarried maidens set their eyes on bachelors), or which term he would coin (the “Double Whammy” endures).

Lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Gene De Paul used the strip as a basis not just for a 1956 Broadway musical but for its 1959 film adaptation. John Steinbeck not only compared him to Laurence Sterne but championed him for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Li’l Abner” gloried in its Dickensian names and exuberant characterizations (Senator Jack S. Phogbound and the sultry "Appassionata Bon Climax"). But literary devices were not the only traits that Capp shared with the Victorian novelist:

*Childhood trauma: The indebtedness of his father led Dickens to work at age 12 in a rat-infested factory pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking. But, while Dickens’ wound was psychic, Capp’s was physical: run over in a trolley accident, the nine-year-old awoke to find a leg amputated. Each incident would have a lasting impact on their work: Dickens would be obsessed with poverty, while Capp’s cynical, Swiftian worldview assumed the rule of those who had seemingly everything.

*Success by their mid-20s: From a start reporting parliamentary debates, Dickens soon gained a mastery of London’s streets, then parlayed that into short vignettes (Sketches by Boz) and a full-length novel (The Pickwick Papers) that made him the hottest young fiction writer in the city. Capp’s father may have been as unsuccessful in business as John Dickens, but at least he introduced his depressed son to one of his own hobbies: cartooning. After a year acting as “ghost writer” for “Joe Palooka” creator Ham Fisher, he broke off to start his own strip, “Li’l Abner,” which quickly became an enormous success.

*Fame lasting several decades, crossing media: A number of observers, including Dan Brotzel in this Digital Doughnut piece, have noticed Dickens’ expert skills in marketing his own work, including through serialization (which enabled him to hook readers through “cliffhangers” and to adjust his narrative if he sensed lagging interest) and personal appearances (in which he wowed audiences with highly theatrical readings). In the mid-1950s, after several abortive attempts, Capp agreed to having DePaul and Mercer adapt his strip into their musical. In other cases, Capp was even more visible in the entertainment media: serving as a judge for “Miss Television” in 1950, for instance, and, in the late Sixties, airing a series of radio commentaries collected in the LP, Capp on Campus.
*Sexual scandals: In middle age, the eyes of both Dickens and Capp were caught by young women. The 45-year-old novelist, tiring of his wife, took up with an 18-year-old actress, printing a “Personal” statement announcing his separation from his wife but providing few other details. (I discussed the affair with Ellen Ternan in this blog post.) Capp’s sexual misadventures were more protracted than Dickens’, more numerous, and, in the end, more damaging. Although Adams, Hawn and Kelly all went on to enjoy success in show business, not all the objects of his advances were so fortunate. (For instance, see Dr. Jean Kilbourne’s account of how his rebuffed advances nearly led “to extinguishing my sense of myself as a talented, competent and hopeful person.")

The death spiral of “Li’l Abner” was precipitated by muckraking columnist  Jack Anderson’s exposure of how Capp groped co-eds at two different college campuses—incidents even more embarrassing and hypocritical because the cartoonist was constantly castigating student immorality. The number of papers carrying Capp's strip dropped precipitously, and, with his health troubles mounting, the joy quickly went out of his work. 

In his farewell to readers, Capp admitted that the quality of his work had suffered in the last several years. Actually, it had probably been dropping for the prior decade, as his characterizations became increasingly shrill. (Joan Baez, for instance, was renamed “Joanie Phoney.”)

In one sense, Capp’s anger was understandable. He could not help comparing what he saw as privileged, pampered baby boom radical students with his own difficult upbringing.

Even during his creative and personal decline, Capp could show the better angels of his nature, as when, upon hearing of an operation to amputate the leg of the son of Ted Kennedy (whom the cartoonist had taken to dubbing “O. Noble McGesture”), he wrote an extended sympathy message to the boy, explaining how he might cope with his physical loss. The plight of wounded veterans could also move him to numerous quiet and extremely generous contributions.

But Capp’s advances toward young women—compulsive, and filled with threats about what could happen to their careers if he were refused—represented exactly the kind of hypocrisy his comic strip used to send up at its best. And that was utterly sad.

1 comment:

Eric Laursen said...

Mike, I remember the excellent piece you wrote about Al Capp in the Columbia Daily Spectator. You’re quite right to relate Capp to Dickens, but reading your post reminds me also of what a genuinely weird place comics and cartoons were in the so-called Ozzie and Harriet decades. Besides Li’l Abner, there was Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Bullwinkle and Rocky, early MAD—and Capp’s fellow angry neocon, Jack Chick, whose “Chick Books” exercised an unhealthy but unsettling fascination for me and other kids at the time. A lot of Chick’s trauma seems to have stemmed from the horrors he saw in WWII, but he filtered it all into rants against Communism, Catholicism, evolution, feminism, and generally anything that represented cultural change. As Capp grew more embittered later in his career, his and Chick's views seemed to converge. So far as I know, no one accused Chick of sexual abuse—he was an extremely private person, considering his work has been translated into over 100 languages and sold in the hundreds of millions—but we don’t know the whole story yet.