From 1934 to 1977, Al Capp wrote the most-read comic strip in North America, Li’l Abner, about hillbillies in the fictional town of Dogpatch, Kentucky. It had 60 million daily readers in more than 1000 newspapers in 28 countries. Li’l Abner Yokum, a stupid but good-natured hayseed, was the son of Mammy Yokum, the scrawniest and strongest woman in Dogpatch, and her shiftless husband, Pappy Yokum. Al Capp got the family name, “Yokum” from the Hebrew word Yehoyaqim that means “raised by God”. The story often centered on Li’l Abner’s voluptuous and virtuous girlfriend, Daisy Mae, and her many attempts to get Li’l Abner to marry her. After 20 years, on March 31, 1952, Li’l Abner finally married Daisy Mae and the wedding was featured on the cover of Life, the most-read magazine in the United States. Today, many high schools and colleges still celebrate “Sadie Hawkins Day” where the women ask the men for a date.
From 1949 through 1951 I knew Al Capp as a customer when I was a soda jerk at the Gary Drug Store in Beacon Hill in Boston. He would come in frequently for an Alka Seltzer to treat his upset stomach. After he left, everyone would look at me and say, “Do you know who that was?”
Through Li’l Abner and his other cartoon work, Al Capp was a spokesperson for all disabled and down-trodden people and a war hero who worked tirelessly to support American soldiers during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. Unfortunately, he was a life-long chain-smoker which damaged his lungs, causing emphysema that had him gasping for breath and confined to an oxygen tent. In 1979, he smothered to death from chain-smoking for more than sixty years.
Alfred Gerald Caplin was born in 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut to parents who had come to the United States to escape the persecution of Jews in Russia. They were so poor that his mother had to sift through trash cans to salvage used-coal dregs to heat their home. At age nine, Al lost a leg when he was run over by a street car. Although he was very smart, his anger about losing his leg affected his ability to get along in school. He refused to do his course work, was held back and never finished high school. He later wrote that “The secret of how to live without resentment or embarrassment in a world in which I was different from everyone else was to be indifferent to that difference.”
He went to three art schools in New England but was thrown out each time because he was not able to pay the tuition. He entered the job market in the 1930s during the time of the great depression, when it was difficult to find any kind of work. Eventually he was lucky enough to have United Feature Syndicate buy Li’l Abner and on August 13, 1934, the comic strip first appeared in eight newspapers. United Features shortened his name from Alfred G. Caplin to Al Capp so it would fit on the cartoon panel.
His Satirical Views of Famous People and Events
Li’l Abner was populated with dozens of characters who were caricatures of public figures, including.
• Hawg McCall, a spoof of Elvis Presley
• The Beasties, a spoof of the Beatles
• Hal Fascinatra, a spoof of Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra sent him a bottle of champagne
• Loverboynik, a spoof of Liberace, who threatened to sue.
• Joanie Phoanie, a spoof of Joan Baez, who also threatened to sue.
• General Bullmoose: In 1952, General Motors president Charles E. Wilson testified before Congress that “what is good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa.” Capp responded by creating General Bullmoose: “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!” Bullmoose kept his pathetically-poor “Lower Slobbovians” from having anything while he had everything.
• In September 1947, all of the Scripps-Howard newspapers dropped Lil Abner because it satirized the entire U.S. Senate, saying “We don’t think it is good editing or sound citizenship to picture the Senate as an assemblage of freaks and crooks . . . boobs and undesirables.”
Other favorite Li’l Abner characters included
• Joe Btfsplk, who always had a black cloud over his head and brought bad luck to everyone who came near him.
• The Shmoos, who multiplied endlessly, loved to be eaten and cost nothing to raise, so nobody had to work.
• Tycoon J. Roaringham Fatback, who destroyed the Shmoos because they were bad for business.
Supporter of Equal Rights
His comic strip gave him a forum to express his strong opinions, and he never hesitated to try to expose the evils of society and hypocrisy of public figures. In his comic strip and in personal appearances, he supported the oppressed and advocated equal rights for all ethnic groups, women and homosexuals. In 1950 he was responsible for women being admitted to the exclusively-male National Cartoonists Society. Stories that his grandparents told him of having to leave Russia because of religious abuse influenced him to work for racial tolerance. He had Mammy Yokum battle the “Square Eyes” family in an anti-racial intolerance comic book that was distributed by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. He wrote “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” a comic book distributed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
A War Hero with Special Empathy
His loss of a leg had prevented him from serving in the military during World War II, but he was a great patriot. He entertained wounded soldiers in hospitals and spent a lot of time with those who had lost limbs. Very few famous people could talk to permanently crippled soldiers with the empathy that he showed. In 1946, he paid for and distributed copies of a 34-page cartoon autobiography to amputee veterans, and did the same thing for amputees during the Korean War and Vietnam War. He also made many appearances for the Sister Kenny Foundation to entertain children paralyzed by polio and solicit funds for their medical expenses. In 1973, he wrote a sympathetic letter to Ted Kennedy’s son who had just had his leg amputated because of cancer.
He was tireless in his public service work. He created and gave away cartoon characters to help support the Red Cross, the U.S. Army and Navy, Red Feather, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the Civil Defense Department, the Job Corps, the Cancer Foundation, the March of Dimes, the National Heart Fund, the Sister Kenny Foundation, the Boy Scouts of America, Community Chest, the National Reading Council, Minnesota Tuberculosis and Health Association, Christmas Seals, the National Amputation Foundation, Disabled American Veterans and many others.
Capp’s chain smoking of cigarettes for more than sixty years damaged his lungs and his brain. He developed emphysema that had him gasping for breath and confined him to an oxygen tent. At age 70, he died of emphysema, a horrible death in which he gasped for breath until lack of oxygen destroyed his brain and he stopped breathing.
More than 24 million Americans suffer from permanent lung damage called emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis or smoker’s lung. It kills more than 150,000 Americans each year. There is no cure and the only treatments doctors have are to give oxygen and medications that help you to cough less and breathe better. More than 85 percent of COPD is caused by smoking. Other causes include air pollution, second-hand smoke, exposure to noxious fumes on the job such as insecticides, herbicides and other chemicals, and certain inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis or alpha-1 anti-trypsin deficiency.
Lessons from Al Capp’s Life and Work
• Childhood adversity can harm you and make you quit, or it can make you the very best because it can cause you to work harder than everyone else to try to be better than everyone else. Al Capp was originally destroyed by the loss of his leg and always did poorly in school. However, he eventually decided that he was going to be successful as an artist, worked harder than everyone else and became perhaps the best-known cartoonist of all time.
• Cartoons can help people learn without effort or pain. Some people can learn more from a good comic strip than from a lecture or a book.
• Li’l Abner was funny but it also had deep meaning, wise recommendations and philosophical gems.
• It takes many years for smoking to kill you, but eventually it will. For many years before you die, it can cause unbelievable suffering from coughing and gasping just to meet your needs for oxygen.
Al Capp (Alfred Gerald Caplin)
September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979