Al Capp

Al Capp was a celebrity-cartoonist and creator of Lil Abner.  The strip began in 1934, and the sardonic, pugnacious Capp masterminded it until its end in 1977. During the long life span of the satirical hillbilly saga, he swung from liberal to conservative politically, earned a great deal of money and publicity, appeared on radio, television, and in any other medium that would give him an opportunity to hold forth. He carried on some impressive feuds, and gave the outward impression he was having an enormously good time living his life.

He was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut. "My mother and father had been brought to this country when they were infants," he once said. "Their fathers had found that the great promise of America was true, -it was no crime to be a Jew." No crime, but not as advantageous, Capp felt, as being a gentile. He remembered his early years as a period of struggle and lack of enough to eat. "In my real childhood the hunger was painful," he recalled near the end of his life. "In Lil Abner it was hilarious."

When he was nine, he was run over by a trolley car and lost his leg. The youthful Capp vowed the accident would make no difference, but it obviously did. It curtailed his participation in sports, meant he couldnt dance, things seemed vitally important in his teenage years. "I looked for other diversions," he said. "I wonder if it wasnt because of the wooden leg, slowing me down, that I had patience to study art." He also had time to read, favoring such humorous novelists as Dickens, Smollett, Mark Twain, and Booth Tarkington.

After dropping out of a couple of art schools, Capp managed to land a job with the Associated Press in New York City.  That was in 1932, and he drew a daily panel entitled Mister Gilfeather.  Gilfeather was a pale imitation of the much more successful Major Hoople of Our Boarding House, and young Capps less than first-rate artwork did little to enhance the feature. He left the job after a few months, agreeing with one of the client editors who had complained to the AP, that the panel was "by far the worst in the country."  Some months later he met Ham Fisher, which changed Capps life for good. The panel, meantime, was taken over by Milton Caniff.

Both men recounted the story of how Capp and Fisher met several times over the years.  Initially, Capp said he had been walking along a Manhattan street when an expensive auto pulled up beside him and a prosperous gentleman in the back seat inquired if the portfolio under Capp's arm contained drawings.  When Capp replied in the affirmative, Fisher invited him over to his studio to help him finish an overdue Joe Palooka Sunday page.  Liking the way Capp handled the emergency chore, Fisher hired him as an assistant.  Before a bitter and long-lasting feud developed, Capp had said, "I owe most of my success to him, for I learned many tricks of the trade while working alongside him." In later years, Capp modified his views. "I regard him as a leper," he said when alluding to his former boss in a 1950 article in The Atlantic Monthly, "a veritable goldmine of swineishness." He even implied that Fisher's fancy car, at their initial meeting, had almost run him over.

It was while working Joe Palooka that Capp first began experimenting with the possibilities of using hillbilly characters in a comic strip.  Being Fisher's assistant meant that Capp actually did all the drawing and some of the writing.  In 1933, he introduced an uncouth hillbilly boxer named Big Leviticus and his uncouth kin to the strip.  The character caught on, and Fisher continued to use him after Capp departed.  Capp claimed he had been thinking about some sort of rural characters ever since he had made a trip to the South years before.  Dreaming of a larger salary and less "swineish" working conditions, Capp began doing samples of a strip of his own, one devoted entirely to rural characters.

Capp initially took his samples of Lil Abner to King Features, but they procrastinated and kept making suggestions for changes.  The impatient Capp took his strip to United Features where it was purchased "just as it was."  The starting salary did not approach what King might have offered, but "I was able to do my strip exactly as I wanted to."  The first daily appeared in August 1934, and Capp, who had changed his name from Caplin when the new strip was launched, was on his way to fame and fortune.  Although Lil Abner started slowly, it picked up papers throughout the 1930s at an impressive rate.  In the 1940s, the strip continued to forge ahead toward its eventual peak circulation of 900 newspapers around the world.  Capp found himself being hailed as not only a brilliant artist, but also the greatest satirist since Swift, Voltaire, and Mark Twain.  There were Lil Abner comic books, a Lil Abner movie, and lucrative Lil Abner advertising strips.

Capp remained in the limelight for the rest of his life.  He has been written about in Life, Time, Newsweek, and dozens of other magazines.  He contributed articles to prestigious periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly, wrote a newspaper column of his own, and consulted on the Broadway musical based on his strip.  He was frequently interviewed on radio and television, conducted a radio show of his own, and was one of the founding fathers of the cartoon division of the Famous Artists School.  In order to follow all these extra activities, Capp hired assistants and ghosts to take care of Lil Abner early in his career.

By the 1960s, Capp had grown increasingly conservative.  Many of the targets of his satire were perceived by his younger readers as liberal and therefore above kidding.  Capp took to quoting with approval the advice fellow cartoonist Harold Gray had given him: "Buy a farm with a big stone wall around it because they are coming: the bums and the Russians." His strip started losing papers in the 1970s, and Capp started losing enthusiasm. "The heart had gone out of me," he admitted, "maybe a year or so before there were any great cancellations."

Source: Ron Goulart, The Encyclopedia of American Comics

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