The ‘Sedimental’ Al Capp

You don’t expect a bro-mantic episode from Al Capp. Conventional wisdom in cartoon history characterizes the creator of Li’l Abner as a sharp-tongued and often reactionary crank at best and a mean sexual predator at worst. At Li’l Abner’s creative peak in the 1940s and 50s, he poked mercilessly at celebrities and politicians from every angle. His quick wit, and willingness to aim it at all comers, made him perfect for radio and TV talk shows, where he quickly became one of the most visible, familiar comic strip artists of his generation. While generally a populist defender of underdogs in his work and thought, Capp was repulsed by student activism in the 1970s. He did a contentious speaking tour of campuses in the late 60s and 70s, delighting in mocking and arguing with student rebels. The schtick was immortalized on film in 1969 when Capp dismissively argued with John Lennon and Yoko One during their Montreal Bed-In for Peace. And Capp is best (or worst) remembered these days as a serial sexual predator. Actresses Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly and activist Jean Kilbourne wrote of Capp’s unwelcome, aggressive advances, and he pled guilty to sexual misconduct because of exposing himself to co-eds during his college speaking tour.

Quite a piece of work, eh?

All the more surprising, then, to see in the early years of Li’l Abner a deep strain of sympathy and focus on the nature of emotional pain as well as the redeeming salve of human affection and love. The awkward and odd opening panel above (especially for 1937) depicting bro-mantic love is part of a typical sit-com plot line for Capp – a fateful melange of misunderstandings and hillbilly honor. Abner and his Dogpatch buddy Abijah have been recruited as college footballers because of their mythical backwoods brawn. Let the fish-out-of-water storylines commence. When Abijah’s unrequited love interest falls for for his best friend instead, Abner tries to spare his friend’s feelings by over-emphasizing his disinterest in the girl. But Abijah takes it as an insult to his beloved, which requires a duel, according to the code of the woods. 

And so, Capp’s usual comic labyrinth of schemes, misunderstandings and misplaced honor lead to both friends trapped by immutable tradition and this remarkable profession of their mutual affection. And as is also typical with Capp, the impossible situation resolves itself via yet another misunderstanding…Abner’s of the details of the dueling code. Who knew there was an age limit?

But there is a lot going on here as well that I am not sure other critics have noticed or wanted to admit about Capp. A lot of the interpersonal action among Li’l Abner’s heroic core cast is about affection, protecting one another’s feelings, being easily hurt. Abner wanting to spare Abijah from feeling jealous or hurt is what animates the sequence. And tending to one another’s feelings is an important theme in this sitcom family. In an earlier post, I noted how the assertive matriarch Mammy Yokum is careful to guard her clearly subordinate husband from humiliation and a hurt male ego. And for more than a dozen years, one of the primary frames for the tale of Dogpatch and the Yokums is the heartache of Daisy Mae’s unrequited love for Abner, who is less asexual (as he thinks) than staggeringly un-self-realized. For many years, Daisy is mainly portrayed teary-eyed and swooning in pain over Abner’s latest obliviousness to her love. And of course the supremely sublimated Abner can make no sense of his own feelings for her. This dynamic fuels many  Daisy Mae misfires to make Abner jealous, and Abner trying to talk himself out of his obvious love for Daisy. 

The final panel above, a Dogpatchian being hurt by an overheard remark, was emblematic of Capp’s work. His hillbillies were as sensitive as they were “ig-ner-ent.” Mammy, Pappy, Abner and Daisy are forever overhearing, mis-hearing and misinterpreting comments through windows, behind trees and around corners. In one of the weirdest sequences from the strip’s early years, Marryin’ Sam’s market seems to be drying up, so he creates a new one for processing divorces. Taking aim at the Yokums, he contrives a series of misunderstandings and false impressions to drive Mammy and Pappy to divorce court. The episode is more excruciating than funny, mainly because Capp is so effective at depicting the inner conflicts and sadness of two people being conned and manipulated towards an outcome neither wants.

Abner is comically un-self-realized, which of course is part of the point of his character and the running joke. But more than most comics creators aside from Milton Caniff at times, Capp enjoyed exploring psychological denial, the nuances of jealousy, the experience of personal hurt. Capp did not just idealize his Dogpatchians as noble savages against a modern world of con-men, materialists and snobs, although he also did just that. He liked to explore the inner lives and sensitivities of his main characters, often in visually innovative ways.

In the sequence below, Daisy thinks the missing Abner is dead and needs to work through moving her devotion to another. Capp breaks from hi usual three and four panel structure to bring us inside Daisy’s struggle in a clever set of vertically oriented panels that literally show Abner retreating in prominence as she talks herself into loving another. Capp’s himself made no secret of his fascination with exploring the emotional lives of his characters. He considered facial expressions central to the art of Li’l Abner and always insisted on drawing faces even when assistants filled in other parts of the panels. And long before the shrinkage of daily comics moved many artists of the post-WW II era into photo-realistic character close-ups, Capp was among few cartoonists of his day to use cinematic close-ups to map with any nuance the inner feelings of his characters. Nell Brinkley and Alex Raymond come to mind.

Capp thrust his heroes into moral conundrums that tested their principles. This was critical to the world view of Li’l Abner, which located villainy and evil in venal human nature and the institutions that enabled our worst tendencies. While Capp famously took aim at political pomposity and recognizable pop culture figures in the 40s and 50s, his deeper satire was of humanity itself. Outside of Dogpatch was a universe of cons, and phonies, snobs and exploiters, social climbers and self-absorbed materialists. The 1950s culture critic Reuel Denny saw in Li’l Abner “a feeling of class defensiveness.” “The Characters of L’il Abner live in a world of clear-cut class and power structure, in which the energetic neurotics run everybody else by dint of brass, guile, crime and paranoia. The strip has never lost its hurt, serious tone of concern with inequality of social opportunity… .”

Capp didn’t just caricature the Yokums as nature’s noblemen; he explored honor as a struggle. In the revealing strip below, Abner confides in Mammy that no one but himself would know if he hadn’t honored a promise to marry a dead man’s “widder.” Her simple but deep explanation of honor not only explains the Yokum moral center but the essential quality that most of the strip’s scalawags and villains lack. Denny argues that the moral center of Li’l Abner (as well as its broad, burlesque-style humor) may have appealed to a rising segment of American newspaper readers who still fell excluded from the party, whether by class, region or ethnicity. “It appeals to those elements in us that are in uneasy flight from lower-middle class cultural definitions…from any and all connections with the other side of the tracks.” Which is to say that the hurt Capp’s characters often feel is of exclusions, personal and social.

We shouldn’t miss how Capp frames the emotional intimacy of this scene in which Mammy philosophizes. It is a candlelit heart to heart between a boy and his mother as she is curled on her bed and attentive to his every word. In fact, Capp communicated the intimacy and mutual affection among his characters in this kind of background business. Like Frank King in Gasoline Alley, Capp often deliberately disconnected text and image. He used his speech balloons to advance or reiterate a storyline while the visuals were telling us something entirely different about the characters. I find this sequence below of Mammy and Pappy gently bathing each other while exchanging equally gentle marital jabs especially revealing of how Capp regarded his Yokums and explored the nature of meaningful human connections.

What is one to make of the contrast between Capp’s crusty public persona, often abusive personal behavior, and what seems to be a real sensitivity in his work to human pain and our emotional interdependence? With a character like this there is no end to the possible psychologizing. After all, he famously suffered his own childhood trauma, losing a leg to a trolly accident. He was familiar with emotional hurt, feelings of exclusion, and likely some bitterness. His public behavior, often monstrous, was at odds with a strip that so often depicted disempowered, exploited everymen struggling to assert honor against encroaching corrupt “civilization.” Or, perhaps, it is more fruitful to consider that the sentiment and satire, the sensitivity and and the acerbic, even angry, sharpness of Li’l Abner really are of a piece. Perhaps they accurately expressed the conflicted sensibilities of the very mid-century American audiences that devoured it for decades?

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