Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: AL CAPP, A LIFE TO THE CONTRARY by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen (Bloomsbury, 2013)

The contentious, cantankerous creator of LI'L ABNER has deserved a major biography for quite some time.  Alexander Theroux' glorified term paper THE ENIGMA OF AL CAPP (1999) could best be described as "an outline of a rough draft of a synopsis" and was marred by obvious political partisanship besides.  Though Schumacher and Kitchen indulge in their own share of tsk-tsking at Capp's abrupt swerve to the right late in his life, they do a far better -- and, no surprise, much more thorough -- job of placing Capp in the context of his time and explaining why his cartoon brainchild became such a massive hit in the mid-20th century.  Even so, there is quite a bit left unsaid here, and I can easily imagine a more comprehensive biography emerging at some point in the future.

LI'L ABNER is fondly remembered as one of the first comic strips to specialize in social satire.  It's not hard to understand why Capp should have gone that route; starting with the famous childhood accident in which he lost a leg, his rise to fame and fortune was anything but smooth and untroubled.  At a time of socially sanctioned anti-Semitism, his Jewish roots also cast him in the role of an outsider.  The result was a man with many rough edges.  Capp, for all of his surface geniality, was not a nice person, as Schumacher and Kitchen display in ample detail.  Capp's lengthy, nasty feud with his ex-boss Ham Fisher brings to mind Henry Kissinger's comment about the Iran-Iraq War, that it was too bad that both parties couldn't lose.  Fisher paid the ultimate price, losing all of his friends and committing suicide, but Capp's reputation also took a major hit as a result of the decades-long disagreement.  Arguments with family over LI'L ABNER marketing initiatives (Capp was also a pioneer in the public exploitation of his strip), serial infidelity, and the like paint a grim picture, culminating in several sex scandals in the early 1970s that wrecked Capp's reputation for good and all.  Even Capp's frequent parodies of other creators' comic strips, the most famous example of which is the DICK TRACY parody FEARLESS FOSDICK, could be considered a passive-aggressive form of fighting back against perceived rivals, however much Capp might have argued that he admired the original creations.

The major failing here is Schumacher and Kitchen's inability to articulate why, exactly, Capp took such a dramatic turn to conservatism during the 1960s, going on campus to hector students and such.  One comics encyclopedia of note trotted out the cliched rationale that Capp turned conservative after he had gotten rich.  This conveniently ignores the fact that Capp stayed a flaming liberal for a good while after LI'L ABNER's highest circulation figures and most lucrative licensing deals had been achieved.  The "he was a nasty guy" argument doesn't work either, since Capp was what he was for many years before the 60s.  My own opinion is that Capp, like a fair number of old-fashioned New Deal-style liberals, was genuinely appalled by what was going on during that giddy time and determined to attack and parody it, but that his satirical skills had gone off the boil since the salad days of the 40s and early 50s.  (Charles Schulz always argued that Capp's decision to let Abner and his perpetual romantic pursuer Daisy Mae get married in 1952 knocked the bottom out of the strip; Capp was not pleased and did a rather cruel parody of PEANUTS some years later, leading the mild-mannered Schulz to demand that Capp cease and desist.)  Capp had always sought publicity for himself and his strip, but, in the late 60s, the somewhat cruder execution of the LI'L ABNER storylines was mirrored in Capp's partaking of such harebrained stunts as confronting John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their "bed-in for peace."  Creatively, Capp had simply lost it, and the over-the-top insults and radical-baiting made it all too easy for the intelligentsia to write him off as a lost cause.  Had Capp been, say, twenty years younger, his assault on the left might have been more successful.

A fuller treatment of Capp's life and art must wait for the future, but Schumacher and Kitchen's book is a good place to start learning about both.

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