By Al Capp
L’il Abner website.
Though L’il Abner is still remembered, its been dropping in critical and public acclaim over the years. If you listed the greatest comic strips of all time in 1960 it would be among the titles, but now it gets overlooked. Partly, that’s just a numbers game: something has to drop out so you can include Calvin and Hobbes or other great modern strips. But partly it’s because the comic strip is slowly being forgotten.
L’il Abner was the creation of Al Capp. Capp (born Caplin) grew up in Bridgeport, CT* and drifted into cartooning, soon getting jobs freelancing in New York. His break came when he started working for Ham Fisher, the creator of Joe Palooka. At one point, Capp created the character of Big Leviticus, a hillbilly fighter who Joe would eventually face. Using similar characters and ideas, Capp created L’il Abner and set out on his own.**
L’il Abner was set in Dogpatch, a hillbilly village with few modern amenities. Abner Yokum was a dumb ox type – big, strong, handsome and not very bright. Daisy Mae was his love interest – only slightly smarter, but gorgeous. She was deeply in love with Abner, wanting to marry him, and Abner avoided it in every way possible (until 1952, when they married). There were dozens of vivid characters in Dogpatch, including people like Marryin’ Sam, Evil-Eye Fleagle, Moonbeam McSwine, Earthquake McGoon, Stupefyin’ Jones,Hairless Joe, Lonesome Polecat, Senator Jack S. Phogbound, and General Bullmoose, to name just a few.
L’il Abner’s longest lasting contribution to popular culture was Sadie Hawkins Day. This was a holiday invented by Capp where the single women would chase after the single men; if they caught them, they would be married. While it never appeared in that particular form outside the strip, Sadie Hawkins Day dances became popular, a time when the women could ask the men to dance. Of course, that’s no longer necessary, but the dances lasted far longer than the the last appearance in Dogpatch.
Capp also created the shmoo, a creature who reproduced like tribbles and which could be used for food, clothing, and anything its owner wanted.
The strip was massively popular, the hillbilly characters catching on immediately. By 1940, a movie was made, though it was not a success.*** It did try to be faithful to the look of the strip, with the actors made up, and sometimes wearing masks, to make sure they looked right.
A Broadway musical followed in 1956, to much greater success, running for 693 performances. That, in turn, was made into a movie in 1959.
But L’il Abner lost its luster in the 1960s. Partly it was due to politics. Capp’s politics became conservative and it showed up in his comics. The problem was it just wasn’t funny, consisting of humorless snide representations of hippies and the youth culture at the time. Another issue was that Capp – who had a tendency to beat jokes to death even in the best of times – let that get the better of him. He would take a slightly amusing idea and repeat it six days in a row so the reader would want to shout, “I get the point.”
Also, even in the best days, Capp could be a sloppy plotter of stories. L’il Abner was a pioneer of continuity in a pure humor strip, with long form stories that ran for months.**** But he clearly did not always plot things out from the beginning. One classic story (“Hammus Alabamus”) hinged on a deus ex machina that isn’t mentioned until the final few strips. In another, Lester Gooch (Fearless Fosdick’s creator) is shown to be an arrogant egotist in one strip, and a timid little man (he’s even shorter) the very next day. Capp’s storytelling abilities deserted him in the end, possibly because of his declining health. He ended the strip in 1977.
Though the last decades of the strip were weak imitations of the original, for the first 30 or so years of its run, L’il Abner was one of the classics of American comic strips.
*The same place where the great Walt Kelly grew up.
**He hated working for Fisher and let his feelings be known in an article for The Atlantic called “I Remember Monster,” where he portrayed Fisher (without mentioning his name) as being cruel and exploitative of his assistants. Fisher, who resented the fact that L’il Abner was far more successful that Joe Palooka, fought back. He added pornographic images to the backgrounds of some L’il Abner strips and tried to not only get him fired, but to also get a judge to rule that Abner was porn. It was a bizarre incident – all Capp’s lawyers had to do was show the originals – but Fisher didn’t give up, trying the same trick when Capp was trying to buy a TV station. Fisher was expelled from the National Cartoonists Society and died in obscurity soon after. Capp, though, remembered how Fisher had treated him and treated his assistants well, and, though they didn’t get a byline, Capp would praise them by name in interviews.
***Buster Keaton had a role as Lonesome Polecat.
****The Mickey Mouse comic by Floyd Gottfredson did it a few years early, but Gottfredson turned it into an adventure strip with some humor as opposed to a funny strip with continuity.