I’m a sucker for a good mad scientist, and the 1930s were brimming with them. We find them in pulp magazines, film and comic strips. Often bald, bespectacled, puny, deeply alienated and resentful, they were the prototypes of nerds-gone-wrong. The power-mad doctors, professors and other masters of technology were cautionary tales for a modernizing America about the risks of science without moral guardrails. In 1936, Al Capp put his unique satirical spin on the tropes when Mammy and Pappy Yokum briefly encounter Dr. Lopez, who is doing the old brain-transplant scheme. And Capp goes against type, making his laboratory fiend an elegant Spaniard in a tux and well-coiffed goatee.
This is a brief episode from the early years of Li’l Abner, and it finds Capp lurching towards the pop culture parody and signature visual stylings that would propel the strip into its greatest period in the 1940s and 50s. In its first stages, Capp felt constrained trying to satisfy the two dominant strains of mid-century comics – adventure and domestic sit-com. Capp leaned heavily on country vs. city culture clashes in the early years. Con men and thieves drop into Dogpatch, only to be defeated by the “rubes,” and hillbillies come to the city to send up the pretentions of sophisticates and expose the shallow selfishness of city folk. But after a few years, Capp starts turning to pop culture as his enduring source for send-ups and social commentary.
Capp’s wit, comic timing and visual style are also maturing here. He focused on faces, taking pride in facial expression as the center of the strip. Despite a crew of assistants often inking bodies and drawing backgrounds, Capp always insisted on doing the faces himself. According to one biographer, he kept a mirror near the drawing board so he could act out the facial expressions of his characters. And this comes through if you track these panels just via the faces. He loves putting eyebrows, eyes and mouth in extreme poses. You can almost see Capp mugging for his mirror in order to capture just the right pose. Few cartoonists of the 30s relied so fully on facial expression as Capp. Alex Raymond comes to mind. In fact it wasn’t until the 1950s when Raymond’s brand of realism became standard, and the comics panels shrunk, that we see cartoonists use close-ups and facial drama in the ways Capp is doing in the 1930s and 40s.
But I especially like the pacing, humor and pathos in the strip above. When Dr. Lopez aborts his plan to trade Pappy’s brain for a gorilla’s (because Pappy’s is too small), Mammy soothes her shamed husband with the assurance, “mebbe it were an unusual smart gorilla.” It is both a great punch line, timed and framed perfectly as a kicker in the back ground, but it is tender. The Yokums are a matriarchy that Capp had claimed was based on the relationship between his own assertive mother and retiring father. Capp’s burlesque of that dynamic in the Yokums turns Mammy into an assertive Mom with a killer punch. At one point Pappy recalls their elopement, when it was Mammy who brought the ladder and whisked her man off. But Capp crafts Mammy carefully, and perhaps informed by emotional notes of his own family history. She is always careful never to diminish her husband and minister to his ego as mindfully as she does to his body.