Al Capp: The Masterful Cartoonist of Iconic Characters
Creating the comic strip “Li’l Abner”, and endowing American popular culture with the mythical hillbilly realm of Dogpatch, the American cartoonist, Al Capp, is celebrated as a remarkable satirist and the creator of “Li'l Abner”, one of the most popular comic strips of all time.
Famous for launching iconic American characters, Capp was born Alfred Gerald Caplin on September 28, 1909, in New Haven, Connecticut. At the age of nine, he lost his left leg in a trolley accident. Encouraged by his artistic father, young Alfred developed his own cartooning skills. His formal education didn't work out well. He attended three art schools in succession; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Designers Art School in Boston. He kicked out of the three schools, each because Capp's destitute family was unable to pay his tuition.
Nevertheless, Capp decided to become a cartoonist, and at 19, he became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America, drawing various strips for the Associated Press. In 1933, he was hired as a ghost artist by Ham Fisher for his popular strip, “Joe Palooka”. But soon Capp found the working conditions in Fisher's studio intolerable, and launched his own strip in 1934.
Capp took his hillbilly idea to United Features Syndicate and “Li’l Abner was born. The broadly humorous comic strip was set in the fictitious backwoods community of Dogpatch, U.S.A., and featured Li'l Abner, a shy and awkward rustic; Daisy Mae, a persistent damsel who finally caught Abner after a 17-year pursuit; the pipe smoking Mammy Yokum; and various social caricatures.
At first, Abner was carried by only eight newspapers, but his hapless Dogpatchers hit a nerve in Depression-era America. Within three short years it claimed to 253 newspapers, reaching over 15,000,000 readers. Besides entertaining millions, Capp permanently affected the popular culture. In 1937, he introduced the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race into his strip. In 1948 his lovable “Shmoo” characters became a national sensation, creating the largest mass merchandising phenomenon of its era.
Capp's celebrity admirers ranged from actor/director Charlie Chaplin, writer John Updike, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. It is no surprise that the iconic and colorful Li'l Abner cast inspired a long- running Broadway musical in 1957 and two film adaptations.
In addition to the popularity of his comic strip, Capp's famed stemmed from a high media profile. He was a frequent and outspoken guest on the “Tonight” show, spanning host Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. He authored his own newspaper column and radio show and was a guest lecturer at campuses nationwide.
Suffering from emphysema, Call decided to retire in 1977 and abandon the strip. Two years later, he died on November 5, 1979, in South Hampton, New Hampshire. Capp's “Li'l Abner” stands the test of time as a pinnacle of cartoon art and social satire.