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?
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.
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.
were very humble, but his talent took him far.
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,
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.
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
How did Li’l
Abner (and Capp himself) influence the culture?
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.
How did Capp’s
conservative political views seep into the strip itself, especially
during the Sixties?
claimed he didn’t change [politically]. He was for most of his life
what you would call a Roosevelt Democrat, but his core social views
didn’t change. He took offense at the hippies who were protesting
the Viet Nam war. He didn’t appreciate the way they dressed. He
thought they were wasting their parents’ money. I think that was in
large part because when he was young, his parents were very poor.
His parents couldn’t send him to college. He had to become
confrontation between he and John Lennon was captured on film in
1969. He, Lennon and Yoko Ono traded barbs. Capp was less than
reserved, would you say?
Capp was making
some really valid points here. But he was xenophobic and went really
over the top. He said to Lennon, “You want peace? God knows you
can’t be getting any with [Yoko].” Or “how can you live with this
[Yoko]?” The point he was making with Lennon is “you write your
songs for money.” Of course he did. He always did. We think of him
as a peace freak, but he was a businessman like everybody else. He
was much wealthier than the other Beatles because he was so strong
with Yoko in how they invested their money. Lennon deserved to be
called out. This is something Capp did throughout his career.
In the end,
Abner was discontinued due to increasingly unfavorable newspaper
articles about his attacks on women, including charges of rape.
the newspapers dropped him around the time that the [rape
accusation] incident broke. A lot of newspaper editors and readers
were kind of fed up with him. The scandal headlines gave them the
excuse to drop the strip. The last of his papers were in small to
mid-size towns that were by nature more conservative. It was
devastating to him economically and of course to his ego. He finally
hung it up in ’77. In his last interview, he admitted that the strip
hadn’t been funny for years, which for him was a pretty startling
He deserved to
lose the newspapers. He deserved the outrage that was against him.
What he did was wrong and it was reported as wrong and it should be
remembered as wrong.
came down to a love/hate relationship for us, which makes somebody
To watch the cringe-inducing confrontation with the hypocritical
John Lennon, click
us Let us know what you