In 1959 Al Capp was still at the top of his game. Li’l Abner wasn’t just one of the most popular comic strips around, it was also one of the most celebrated. In the words of Jimmy Durante, Capp was “duh toast of duh intellectuals.” Although Peanuts was closing in fast and Pogo had its fans, no cartoonist had quite the same cachet as Capp. An extrovert in a profession saturated by shy guys, Capp was the public face of comics, the cartoonist who showed up most often in newspaper and magazine columns, on radio and television and the lecture circuit. The National Cartoonist Society was a great old boys network and Capp was at the center of that clique (along with Caniff and Walt Kelly).
Yet Capp wasn’t quite satisfied with his station in life. Despite all the praise and money he received he bridled at the low status of comics compared to the fine arts. And perhaps also, he was getting a bit tired of Abner: at that point he had done all he could with the strip and was increasingly leaving all the grunt work of cartooning to his army of ghosts.
In his 1959 book Comic Art in America, Stephen Becker penned a brief but highly perceptive portrait of Capp. In Becker’s account, you can see all the discontent that was eating away at Capp:
It is hard to say where Capp will go from here. A low rumble of discontent was heard a couple of years after Abner’s wedding, and certainly (as Capp knew it would be) an element of suspense and satire had to be abandoned when he married. Capp’s circulation – he is carried by United Feature Syndicate – remains enormous, and he has other strings to his bow. He is a good writer, and has appeared in national magazines, both egghead and meathead; for years he did the continuity for Roeburn Van Buren’s Abbie ‘n’ Slats, and he now does it for Bob Lubbers’ Long Sam. He is a good public speaker, and a public critic of public affairs. Somewhere in that cluttered, explosive mind more surprises are germinating. Somewhere in the darkness, an outrage lies in wait for some cherished American idiocy. Capp is bitterly resentful of the fact that Americans have become afraid to laugh at each other, and at their leaders, and at their own pretensions, and at their national icons. When that resentment comes to a head, he will strike back. Watch out.
We all know how the story ends: the explosion that was ready to explode was political. In the 1960s, Capp moved to the hard right, becoming one of the most vocal fans of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. As a glib Archie Bunker like pundit, Capp not only lost many of his old fans, he also disgraced himself by the persistent meanness he displayed (as in his famous run-in with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, where he went out of his way to insult Yoko). All this topped off by a squalid sex scandal.
Becker’s account of Capp is extremely valuable because it allows us to see what he was like at the cusp, going through a mid-life crisis and wondering how he would re-invent himself. The fact that Capp made all the wrong choices in response to his identity crisis doesn’t negate the fact that he was smart enough and creative enough to know in 1959 that something was wrong, that he needed to take a new tack on life.
We don’t yet have a good, solid account of Capp’s life, one that would answer the question of what went wrong, why did this smart and lively man destroy his own career and reputation? But anyone who wants to crack the Capp puzzle might want to take a look at the year 1959.