It was a weird year all around, the year antiwar protesters filled the Capitol Mall one week and shut down the capital the next, when the Nixonites designed concentration camps for rioters and Spiro Agnew set the terms of the national conversation. It was especially weird if you happened to go to a scruffy little liberal arts college a few dozen miles from DC and across the street from the US Naval Academy. But the weirdest thing I saw in 1971 was an embittered old cartoonist, glowering, in a wheelchair.
The Enigma of Al Capp by Alexander Theroux (Fantagraphics Books, $6.95)
How it happened: One night El Ferrero, a particularly dissolute member of the college community, snagged me to catch a free lecture at the Naval Academy. We were the only attendees with hair long enough to pinch, standing amidst a sea of 5,000 midshipmen watching the guy in the wheelchair fume, snarl, rant, and riff uproariously at hippies, students, radicals, and liberals—people like us. This was Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner, in its prime America’s most outrageous, pointed, and popular comic strip. Once the scourge of the rich and mighty, by the early 1970s Capp had become the self-appointed nemesis of the left. Ferrero sat rapt. I half-worried that the man onstage would point at us and shout, “There they are! Get them!”
Afterward, El Ferrero hurried down to get an autograph and shake Capp’s hand. Capp scowled, then glanced up warily as he signed El Ferrero’s flyer. No need to worry. Not only was El Ferrere sincere, he might have had an epiphany that night; last I heard, he’d become a lawyer, a gun nut, and a rock-ribbed conservative.
I shook my head in wonderment, and I’ve shaken it many times since. How could this sour old reactionary have emerged out of the most fiercely populist satirist and most irrepressible high spirit ever to grace the funny pages? Capp insisted, that night in Annapolis, that his targets had nothing to do with ideology; he merely upheld the humorist’s obligation to puncture pomposity and hypocrisy where he saw it. But he didn’t puncture Hoover or Nixon or Agnew (who were friends and fans). His favorite target became Joan Baez (“Joannie Phony”)—truly a menace to democracy. How could his sense of proportion have become so skewed? And how could the same man pave the way for Garry Trudeau and Rush Limbaugh? Behind all the mirth and bile, who was Al Capp?
This is the question Alexander Theroux wrestles with in this curious, illuminating, and finally unsatisfying little book. (Full disclosure obliges me to note that I sometimes deal with its publisher, Fantagraphics Books, over printing some of its comics in the Weekly.) Theroux looks deep and wide into Capp’s life and cartoons for the source of his reactionary bitterness and finds many roots: the pain, and shame, of being crippled since age 9 (when he lost a leg under a streetcar); ferocious, boyish sexual preoccupations, which literally burst out in his cartoons, packed with more buxom babes (their scant hillbilly rags always on the verge of total decomposition) than a Playboy of the same period; and a broad sympathy for the underdog and scorn for elites, which often turned to what Theroux calls “an almost roosterish defensiveness.” Capp craved to show up the fancy-pants “artists” with his more popular art.
There was also, of course, Capp’s urge to be outrageous, to shock and delight at once, the urge that draws boys to the bad-boy medium of comics in the first place—and, Theroux argues, that fired up Capp the aging sexist, racist, and right-wing provocateur. All these motives and many more were given form by a madcap, goofball inventiveness that made Li’l Abner seem anachronistic even when I was a kid lost in the funny pages. All the other strips seemed to derive from newer entertainment media: movies (Steve Canyon), radio and movie serials (Little Orphan Annie and Mandrake and other wooden adventure heroes), soap operas (Rex Morgan, Mary Worth), stand-up shtick (B.C.), and sitcoms (even Peanuts and Doonesbury). But Li’l Abner harked back to the comic strip’s beginnings, to The Yellow Kid and Krazy Kat—right down to its corny dialect and elaborate wordplay. Perhaps Capp, who revered the old strips, both savored and resented being a living link to the past. All the more reason to resent coolly calibrated pinko upstarts like Doonesbury.
Don’t blame Theroux for that last graph’s worth of speculation, which is purely mine. The Enigma of Al Capp left me filling in many interpretive blanks where Theroux seems to shirk from venturing. That reticence is one of two main faults that keeps this from being a wonderful book. (The other is a text that reads too often like an unedited draft, as in, “It was the comic strip alone that gave Al Capp his sole identity.” Blue pencil, please.) Still, Theroux delivers a load of telling anecdote and useful context. Perhaps better than bringing his subject to ground, he gives us the net to do it. And the slim format—62 pages, handsomely designed with ample panels from Li’l Abner—suits the topic well. Here’s hoping for more such monographs on . . . George Herriman and the immigrant’s fate? Milt Caniff and the Cold War? But please, no Garry Trudeau.
Eric Scigliano is a senior editor at ‘Seattle Weekly.’