Al Capp – Exploring A Most Contrary Life
by Ronald Sklar
Comic strip legend and deeply complicated man, Al Capp channeled his talents but lost to his demons.
At the height of cartoonist Al Capp’s success, his satiric, adult-themed comic strip Li’l Abner was featured in 900 newspapers with 90 million dedicated readers. From 1934-1977, hillbilly Abner and his family faced the best and worst of pop culture and hilariously confronted hypocrisy. Capp earned a fortune with Abner merchandise and a hit Broadway musical, and his fame went supernova from numerous radio and TV appearances. His compulsion to rib targets in the media and in the pop culture landed him on the covers of Time, Life and Newsweek.
However, beneath the success was a dark and complicated man. He became infamous for sexual misconduct. His increasingly conservative politics became his ultimate downfall in an era when his views fell out of favor with the general public.
Authors Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have presented the first Al Capp biography, Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary [Bloomsbury Books]. Their study tracks the incredible highs and lows of a man who had brought great joy as well as great misery to many.
As difficult as it may be, can you sum up Al Capp in just a few words?
Michael Schumacher: He was by nature a very unpleasant person. Even as a little boy. But he was remarkably consistent in some respects. He wasn’t as politically astute as he would like to think he was. I think it’s very important to understand just how awful his behavior was. It certainly would not be tolerated today.
Denis Kitchen: Throughout his entire life, he was what used to be called a womanizer. So much of it comes from secondary sources or hearsay, so we have to be careful. We limit it to the cases where there was hard evidence. But this guy really was a mess as far as his relationship with women was concerned.
His beginnings were very humble, but his talent took him far.
Michael Schumacher: Jewish cartoonists were the root of comic strips as well as comic books. Anti-Semitism was so prevalent in the early days of commercial art. They wouldn’t hire Jews. So [Jewish commercial artists] took comics, because it was a way to make a living. Al Caplan changed his name to Al Capp, so it wouldn’t be as Jewish sounding.
What was the appeal of his comic strip, Li’l Abner?
Denis Kitchen: Li’l Abner represents the best in terms of honesty and loyalty and core ethics. Capp’s characters tend to be universal, or extremes. They were either drop-dead gorgeous or hideous. I think that’s what the appeal was. We knew these people.
Michael Schumacher: At the heart of it, Li’l Abner was pure. He was the all-American boy. The Beverly Hillbillies was an absolute rip-off of Li’l Abner. These were people who were so unbelievably innocent and funny. They were decent people.
How did Li’l Abner (and Capp himself) influence the culture?
Harvey Kurtzman, who was a co-founder of MAD magazine, was a huge fan of Al Capp. He admitted openly that when he started MAD, it was Al Capp’s parodies of movies and books that inspired him. So there is kind of a strange, weird lineage there. And Gary Trudeau has been very forthright about Li’l Abner’s influence on Doonesbury.