Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary
By Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
Bloomsbury, 305pages, $30
No vernacular artist, and possibly no American humorist, had a bigger following during the 1940s and ‘50s than Al Capp did. That Capp had to be banned from campuses in the late 1960s after repeated sexual assault charges — and that he shifted from New Dealer to anti-peacenik rightwing Republican — almost obliterated the memory of the older satirist. This comprehensive biography recaptures the real thing.
The fiercely competitive Jewish artist was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in 1909, grew up poor, and worse, lost a leg in a streetcar accident at age 9. A quick study with a thirst for self-advancement, he faked credentials to get into art school, dropped out, and eventually headed to Manhattan with nothing but six dollars and a portfolio of drawings. Through talent and persistence he got into the comic strip racket as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the very quietly Jewish artist of “Joe Palooka.” Within a few years, Fisher and Caplin (by 1935, “Capp”) would become lifelong enemies.
But what an artist! Capp’s “Li’l Abner” was intended for a sophisticated adult audience that could appreciate social satire far beyond the mental level of “Blondie” and art less stylized and repetitive than “The Phantom” or “The Little King.” (The biographers do not say so, but those early years of “Li’l Abner” bring to mind the work of other Jewish comic strip artists like Milt Gross and Harry Hershfeld, not to mention Rube Goldberg.)