Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy 100th Birthday, Al Capp

Above: a vintage photo of Al Capp from Caitlin Manning's Al Capp documentary (video clip below).

Al Capp deserves a tribute so writes the editor of the The Daily News (Newburyport, MA). I agree. LI'L ABNER was one of the most popular strips of the 20th century and nearby Amesbury, MA was (and this was news to me) Al Capp's adopted home.

He died in 1979 and is buried in Amesbury, his adopted home. There are a handful of specific locations directly connected to his life in Amesbury and neighboring South Hampton, but nowhere is there any sort of public acknowledgement [sic] to his life. That ought to change.
Smart, sarcastic, caustic, witty — Capp was a complicated man who tried to reflect the world around him through his comic strip. In the midst of the Great Depression, the young and talented cartoonist struggled to find his footing in the cartoon business before finally launching L'il Abner in 1934. The cartoon was an immediate hit. At its height, some 900 newspapers carried it, and it's estimated that the peak audience was somewhere around 60 million — at a time when the nation's population was a little over twice that number. Even today it is considered by critics to be one of the greatest comic strips ever drawn.
Capp had lost a leg at the age of nine due to a trolley accident. (MY WELL-BALANCED LIFE ON ONE WOODEN LEG was the title of his autobiography.) This did not impede his ambition.

Above: Al Capp's grave in Amesbury, MA via Photo by bosguy.
Al Capp was, to put it mildly, a polarizing personality. There was, during that time, a TV special (THIS IS AL CAPP) as well as a long playing record -- all about Al Capp the right-wing crusader.
The editor goes on to quote Frank Frazetta:
Frank Frazetta, a friend and famed science fiction artist whose works included many of the most iconic movie posters of our time, described Capp as "exasperating, infuriating, domineering, obnoxious, loud, lots of fun, acidic and lovable."
What the editor does not reveal (or simply is unaware) is that Frazetta was an employee of Capp's; a ghost on LI'L ABNER, producing perhaps the sexiest comic strip women ever from 1954 to 1961. According to FRAZETTA: PAINTING WITH FIRE, when Capp moved his studio to the coast, he insisted Frazetta uproot his family from their New York home and follow him -- at a reduced pay rate, no less. Frazetta refused.
Life was on Capp's terms. When he was just starting out, Capp assisted cartoonist Ham Fisher on his popular JOE PALOOKA strip. When Capp left Fisher's studio to go it alone, creating the LI'L ABNER strip, Fisher accused Capp of stealing the idea from the PALOOKA strip. The feud went on for 19 years, reaching great heights of hysteria, and went public in the 1950s.
From the ASIFA Capp bio:
JOE PALOOKA creator Ham Fisher and Al Capp waged a famous feud for years. It finally came to a head when Fisher "doctored" photostats of LI'L ABNER in order to make its panels appear pornographic. Fisher promptly accused Capp of indecency, and attempted to have him expelled from the National Cartoonists Society. An ensuing lawsuit revealed Fisher's duplicity, and culminated in Fisher's expulsion from the NCS instead. (Fisher subsequently committed suicide in 1955.)
Here's some video of Al Capp:

If you have never seen it, here's Al Capp with John Lennon and Yoko Ono from their 1969 "bed-in" for peace from the CBC archives:

Al Capp's granddaughter Caitlin Manning shares her documentary work in progress (which is a great introduction to the influence of LI'L ABNER and includes some old film of him drawing):

"He doesn't put his best foot forward, always, but what foot he does put forward is one of his own," says his friend Walt Kelly in the opening for the THIS IS AL CAPP TV special. And maybe that's the beast way to leave things for today, the 100th birthday of the one-of-a-kind creator of the Schmoo, Fearless Fosdick and Kickapoo Joy Juice, to name a few.

Hat tip to Journalista! for The Daily News link.


Jim Ryan said...

Was it really 100 years? Sometimes it feels longer, considering what's happened to the medium since his passing...

I have to hand it to you, Mike, you were able to point out why he should be remembered without ignoring much of what made him difficult to deal with. He could be exasperating and a bit much to stomach when he got full of himself (his usual buoyancy point), but what he did when he got down to writing and drawing can be neither ignored nor denied.

This was a great tribute; thanks for posting it.

mike fontanelli said...

I love Li'l Abner! Part of what made Capp so "difficult" is also what made him so good. (I'm sure Ambrose Bierce and Jonathon Swift were considered "difficult" in their day as well.)

Recently, I helped to research and rewrite the Wikipedia entries on Capp, Li'l Abner, Fearless Fosdick and the Shmoo. Revisiting his work was a blast.

I think Capp is shamefully underrated. It's unconscionable that there's no public acknowledgement of his work in his home town of New Haven, CT., or his familiar stomping grounds in Cambridge and Amesbury, MA.

Thanks for posting this well-deserved tribute.

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