Al Capp, Creator of Li'l Abner

17 September 2004

    Backwoods hillbillies, curvaceous girls and the town of Dogpatch were a few of the things that gave Al Capp a long cartooning career filled with fame and fortune. But the one-legged cartoonist who created the poor and uneducated Yokum family was himself just the opposite: well-read, well-educated and well-known as a “cynical sophisticate.” *(1) Al Capp’s work in Li’l Abner touched the hearts of comics fans everywhere and even added words to daily vocabulary. You'll recognize one phrase for sure - Sadie Hawkins Day.

    Alfred Gerald Caplin was born in Connecticut on September 28, 1909 to Otto and Matilda Caplin. The family was far from rich, existing on the earnings of Otto’s unsuccessful sales jobs. The young Al was an avid sketcher and reader, devouring books years beyond his age group. Sadly, he lost his right leg under the wheels of a streetcar, giving him a mission for the rest of his life to show others how well they, too, could survive such a loss. *(2)

    After graduating from high school, Al attended several art schools, including the Boston Museum School of Fine Art and Designers Art School. Al changed his name to Capp (making it official in 1949) and struck out for New York City. Drawing advertising cartoons to earn a living, he showed his work to an editor at Associated Press. The editor was unimpressed with the new cartoonist’s undeveloped style, but saw the spark. “Never have I seen anything alike the Capp line. It was vital, alive,” the editor said at the time. He called Al a month later to take over the “Colonel Gilfeather” cartoon. *(3)

Al Capp 3

    Unhappy with the “Colonel Gilfeather” comic, Al changed the focus and the title to “Mr. Gilfeather.” Struggling and overworking the details of the cartoon, he gave the strip up about six months later, returning to art school in Boston for further studies. Al met Catherine Cameron at art school and they were wed in 1932.

    Returning to New York City in 1933, Al took a position as an assistant on the “Joe Palooka” comic strip under cartoonist Ham Fisher. Though Al's work was unannounced, his good friend Milt Caniff spotted his pen work. Al Capp’s unique style was becoming recognizable.

Al Capp 1

   While working on “Joe Palooka,” the young cartoonist began drawing his own comic strip featuring a hillbilly family with a not-too-bright teenager, Abner Yokum, as the unlikely star. The 1930s was a time of fascination for the American public with the boondocks and poor white people. On its debut on August 13, 1934, Li’l Abner cartoon soared in popularity. Al gave Li’l Abner a satirical voice, taunting bigots, the greedy and governments of the day and producing a united laugh from his fans.

   The ingenious Al Capp devised and wrote two other comic strips: “Abbie and Slats,” drawn by cartoonist Raeburn Van Buren, that ran from 1937-1971, with Al’s brother, Elliot Caplin, taking over the writing in the mid-1940s; and “Long Sam,” drawn by Bob Lubbers, that ran from 1954-1962. *(2)

    Also making use of artistic assistants to draw Li’l Abner, Al began flourishing secondary careers as a speaker and as a newspaper columnist. He wrote numerous articles about his one-legged disability and developed a pamphlet entitled “My Well-Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg.” The pamphlet was distributed to thousands of WWII veterans who lost limbs in the war. Al visited hospitals often during and after the War to cheer and encourage amputees. *(4)

    The National Cartoonists Society recognized Al Capp’s artistic talents, awarding him the esteemed “Cartoonist of the Year” in 1947. Li’l Abner was popular with a huge number of Americans – numbering 70 million fans at its peak. When the comic strip held an event on November 13, 1937 in which the girls were permitted to chase the men in an attempt to get a husband (the men had a ten-minute head start), Sadie Hawkins Day was born. It became a celebrated annual event around the country. Words from the comic became standards, such as “Shmoo,” “Fearless Fosdick,” and “General Bullmoose.”

    A theme park based on the comic strip's Yokum family and their town was built in Jasper, Arkansas in 1968. Dogpatch USA became a success with food, cartoon sculptures, rides, games and spring-fed lakes for canoe trips. The park’s popularity dropped off and it closed in 1993. It now sits in ruins.

Al Capp 2

    Continuing as a popular speaker, Al spoke on college campuses, where he was tickled to cause political outrage among the students. The good life for the famed cartoonist took a nasty turn in 1971 when his taste for womanizing came to light. He was charged with attempted adultery at the University of Wisconsin and there were several similar allegations from other campuses. (Adultery is considered a felony in Wisconsin.) Al plead no contest to the charge and gave up speaking engagements. As a result of the allegations, newspapers began cancelling the strip. On November 13, 1977, rather than leaving his cartoon to ghost cartoonists, Al stopped production of Li’l Abner. *(4)

    Al Capp developed emphysema but did not give up his smoking habit. He died on November 5, 1979, leaving his wife Catherine and two grown daughters, Julie and Cathy. He also left a tremendous legacy of inimitable cartooning for the continuing delight of enchanted Li'l Abner fans.

Li'l Abner home website:
http://www.lil-abner.com/

Catch a daily revisiting of Li’l Abner (It’s up to the 1952 strips now):
http://www.comics.com/comics/lilabner/

An article about Al Capp's writing:
*(1) http://www.danielpublishing.com/books/suppl/capp.html

The in-depth source of information about Al Capp, but you need membership to read the article. RC Harvey is a cartoonist and a cartooning expert, writing about the art of cartooning since 1973:
*(2) http://www.rcharvey.com/hindsight/alcapp.html (Must now be an authorized member to view.)

There are many books about Al Capp's work including memoirs, Li'l Abner comic strip collections drawn by Al Capp and several
*(3) Book: Li’l Abner, Dailies Volume Two: 1936, by Al Capp, Kitchen Sink Press, Princeton, WI, 1988.

Another detailed source of Al Capp and Li’l Abner information:
*(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Capp

© Susanna McLeod 2004
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)