Biography for Al Capp
Al Capp, creator of the "Li'l Abner" comic strip, was one of the most influential American cartoonists of the 20th century. His hillbilly family of characters struck a chord with the Great Depression-era public when it first came out in 1934. Within a few years, the "Li'l Abner" strip appeared in 253 newspapers nationwide and ultimately reached more than 60 million readers. Capp's work started news trends and left a profound mark on American popular culture. Capp was born Alfred Gerard Caplin on September 28, 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut. He was the son of Otto Caplin, a salesman, and Matilda Davidson. With limited income, the family lived in near poverty for much of the time. They moved to Bridgeport and then to Boston, Massachusetts. Capp showed a talent for drawing at an early age. When he was nine years old, he lost his left leg in a streetcar accident, which made him even more involved in reading and drawing. After he finished high school, Capp attended several art schools, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and the Designers Art School. By 1932, after going through several art courses, Capp (who had taken the pen name Al Capp) decided to go to New York and start a career. At first, he made a living by selling advertising cartoons, but he was soon hired by Associated Press and became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America. After six months of drawing "Colonel Gilfeather," Capp became discouraged by both his lack of experience and his dislike for the character on which he was working. He quit his job at Associated Press and returned to Boston. There, he married Catherine Wingate Cameron, whom he had met at the Designers Art School before he went to New York. They had three children. In Boston, Capp once again took art classes but was back in New York in the spring of 1933. Then he was hired by Ham Fisher to help in the production of "Joe Palooka," a popular boxing strip. That employment also proved to be a short-time job, as Capp was unhappy with the working conditions at Fisher's studio. While working on a story sequence involving some backwoods mountain people—which may have been inspired by a trip he had taken as a child through the Cumberland Mountains or by a show he and his wife had seen, or a combination of both—Capp came up with the idea of developing his own comic strip. He quit his job with Fisher in 1934 and took his idea to the United Features Syndicate, a move that created a lifelong feud with his previous employer. Within a few months, Capp and his "Li'l Abner" characters had achieved nationwide fame. In 1937, within three years of the first date of publication, "Li'l Abner" was featured in 253 newspapers nationwide and reached a total viewing audience of more than 60 million readers. The strip also made Capp rich, for he was able to retain the copyrights from United Features, an almost unprecedented move at a time when syndicates owned copyrights, trademarks, and merchandising rights to comic strips. "Li'l Abner" struck a chord with Depression-era audiences across the country. The main character, Li'l Abner Yokum, is a red-blooded, 19-year-old young man with the physique of a bodybuilder and the mind of a child. He lives happily with his mother Mammy, the pipe-smoking matriarch of the family, along with Pappy, his simple-minded father. They live in Dogpatch, a poverty-stricken, backwoods community, with which much of America, hit by hard times, could identify. Li'l Abner's idyllic backwoods paradise is only disturbed by the incessant efforts of Daisy Mae to marry him. Too stupid to know what is going on and afraid that marriage would be an unmanly thing, Li'l Abner avoids matrimony for some 20 years. Capp finally had them marry in 1952—an event that shocked the country and made front-page news in all the major newspapers. With "Li'l Abner," Capp had a device that allowed him to probe and poke fun at society; he constantly contrasted the character's innocence with the corruption in the world. Capp used all of mankind's weaknesses as a target for his satire and pitted Li'l Abner against the foes of the world, to whom he was both a champion and the butt of their jokes. His world was black and white. One of the characters, a heartless capitalist by the name of General Bullmoose, exemplifies the type of man Capp attacked in his strip—those people in the establishment, the wealthy and the powerful. That view made Capp very popular among liberals, since the people in power in America at the time were mostly conservative. Capp left his mark on American popular culture in several ways. "Sadie Hawkins Day," a day on which an unmarried woman in Dogpatch goes out on a hunt-like spree to find anyone she can marry, became a national institution as girl-asks-boy-day dances across America. He also invented the Shmoos—lovable, pear-shaped creatures who became a national sensation and spurred the largest merchandise craze of the era. Capp even had admirers among the rich and famous, among them Charlie Chaplin and John Steinbeck, who said Capp was "the best writer in the world." Capp was a popular speaker and a frequent guest of "The Tonight Show," which he saw go through three consecutive hosts. He also had a newspaper and radio column. Suffering from poor health, Capp stopped drawing "Li'l Abner" in 1977. He died two years later on November 5, 1979 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.