LIL ABNEROriginal Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: United Feature Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creator: Al Capp
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Starting in 1932, Alfred Gerald Caplin worked as assistant to cartoonist Ham Fisher, the author of record of the popular comic strip about a boxer, Joe Palooka. In this case, the "assistant" job seems
at times to have consisted of ghosting the strip from start to finish, and letting Fisher sign it. In 1933, Caplin did a story about Joe's clash with an uncouth hillbilly boxer named Big Leviticus, and Leviticus's equally uncouth hillbilly relatives. A year later, Caplin, changing his name to Al Capp, struck out on his own and created an entire strip about hillbillies for United Feature Syndicate (Broncho Bill, Terr'ble Thompson). His Li'l Abner was an instant success, quickly leaving Palooka in the dust. Capp even launched two more strips, Abbie & Slats and Long Sam, also successful tho not nearly as much so.
Fisher repeatedly brought Leviticus and his clan back, claiming their primacy as comics' first hillbilly family — but he was missing the point. It wasn't the setting that made Capp's strip such a huge success. It was Capp's finely tuned sense of the absurd, his ability to milk an outrageous situation for every laugh in it and then, impossibly, to squeeze even more laughs from it, that found such favor with the public. His use of language was both unique and universally appealing; and his clean, bold cartooning style provided a perfect vehicle for his creations. For these reasons, and more, in 1947, he became the second cartoonist to win a Reuben Award.
Capp's contributions to American culture transcend the newspaper page. Words like "druthers" and "irregardless" were first seen in Li'l Abner, as were the world's most potent beverage, Kickapoo Joy Juice; the world's coldest and poorest country, Lower Slobbovia; and the world's most hideous woman, Lena the Hyena (the last in collaboration with Basil Wolverton). Capp's strip within a strip, "Fearless Fosdick", a parody of Dick Tracy, is known by millions. But his most universally recognized cultural artifact is Sadie Hawkins Day, an annual event in which Dogpatch's women are allowed to marry any bachelor unfortunate enough to be caught, by fair means or foul, and dragged across the finish line.
The first Li'l Abner movie was made in 1940. Four years later, the Charles Mintz animation studio, whose earlier attempts at comic strip adaptation included Krazy Kat and Barney Google, tried its hand at Abner (and, as with those other attempts at comics adaptation, failed to capture anything of the strip's wit and charm). In 1956, Abner and his compatriots became the subject of a Broadway musical; and a second movie, in 1959, brought that musical to the big screen with Peter Palmer in the title role. Both as a movie and as a stage play, the Li'l Abner musical has remained popular for decades — its most recent Broadway revival was in 1998.
Abner's first foray into comic books occurred in 1936, when, along with such other United Feature stalwarts as Nancy and Tarzan, he debuted in Tip Top Comics. From 1947-55, he starred in a regularly-published comic of his own, first from Harvey Comics and later Toby Press, which rearranged the strip's artwork into comic book pages. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, sequences of the strip were collected in trade paperbacks with such titles as Life and Times of the Shmoo, Bald Iggle, and From Dogpatch to Slobbovia.
Many have commented on the shift in Capp's political viewpoint, from as liberal as Pogo in his early years to as conservative as Little Orphan Annie when he reached middle age. At one extreme, he displayed consistently devastating humor, while at the other, his mean-spiritedness came to the fore — but which was which seems to depend on the commentator's own point of view. From beginning to end, Capp was acid-tongued toward the targets of his wit, intolerant of hypocrisy, and always wickedly funny.
After about 40 years, however, Capp's interest in Abner waned, and this showed in the the strip itself. Growing dull, it began to lose papers. In 1977, Capp yielded to the inevitable and retired, letting the strip end. He died two years later.
But neither the strip's shifting political leanings nor the slide of its final few years had any bearing on its status as a classic; and in 1995, it was recognized as such by the U.S. Postal Service. Along with Toonerville Folks, Bringing Up Father, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and 16 other strips, it was part of the "Comic Strip Classics" series of commemorative stamps.
In 1988, Kitchen Sink Press, which had gone from publishing underground comix in its early years to reprinting The Spirit and Steve Canyon later on, embarked on an ambitious program of reprinting the Li'l Abner strip from beginning to end. The company succumbed to the vicissitudes of the marketplace and folded in 1998, but before it did, managed to carry the daily strip portion of the Abner project well into the 1960s.
Li'l Abner is no more, and we shall not see its like again. But in its time, it earned a permanent place in American cultural history — and in the hearts of its millions of devoted followers.