Thursday, November 25, 2004

BOOK REVIEW: THE BEST OF LI'L ABNER by Al Capp (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1978)

There used to be these ads cluttering up a lotta newspaper and magazine space back when I was a kid, and they were for (I believe...we're talking well over thirty years of memory loss here!) Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias and what made 'em so special to me was that they featured an endorsement, complete with a glamourous photo, from none other than Lucille Ball! It would have been fitting to get Ball to move your wares at the time, especially since she was riding pretty high as the queen of CBS Monday Night Comedy with her still-enjoyable series THE LUCY SHOW and later on fizzed-out HERE'S LUCY which also featured real-life children Lucy and Desi Jr. as a bunch of spoiled hippie brat-types who were more irritating than entertaining...even the special guests on the show couldn't save it for me! Anyhow, the banner for the ad (which I as a kiddie actually thought was written by Miss Ball herself with her own two hands, me bein' so altruistic and all about such things as eight-year-olds sometimes are) read something along the lines of "I never thought I'd fall in love with an encyclopedia," and of course I felt all warm and toasty inside thinking that this woman, who along with Jerry Lewis woulda made the perfect parent for me, was a book nut even with all her talent and millions and adoring fans. But hey, if yer a kid and you think that these big people are so cool and all and you find out that they read encyclopedias just like I did, well it does do a certain somethin' to you inside!

I don't know if I fell in love with THE BEST OF LI'L ABNER yet, but I've been reading it constantly since getting it into my hands yesterday. And even thought I'm not quite ready to take it down the aisle yet I gotta admit that this book at least got me so enthralled that whilst reading it I flashed back to those 12-year-old days when comic strip collections and various comic book titles made for an enriching, educational and ultimately enjoyable time especially for a pimply tub o' lard who hadda struggle to get a "C" average in school and was the butt of jokes from not only fellow students but teachers and parents alike. I'm not talking about myself, but I'm sure there was more'n a few kids out there who would fit this description.

For those of you who are totally in the dark, let me explain a bit about LI'L ABNER (which would be a shame because I thought just about everyone out there would still be aware of this 20th Century highmark which unfortunately seems to have gone the way of other forgotten stellar moments of them times such as the Edsel, Dog House drive-ins and OZZIE AND HARRIET---maybe I'm wrong). It was a comic strip that began in 1934 drawn by the shamelessly self-promoting and soon-to-be controversial Al Capp about a poor ignorant hillbilly, namely the title character himself Abner Yokum (a strapping muscle-bound youth with an IQ somewhere around that of the Hulk's) who lived with his folks (mother Pansy "Mammy" Yokum a verifiable superheroine who more or less came off like Popeye in drag while the other half Lucifer "Pappy" Yokum seemed satisfied with his role as the gentler, lazier of the two) in a run down shack in Dogpatch USA, which was eventually revealed to have been located smack dab in the state of Arkansas. From this Black Oak of squalor came over forty years of what I would call some of the finer humor to emerge from the funny pages...funnier than POGO (which I always took as a simpy, lackluster comic custom-made for the 120+ IQ crowd, that is, if they're as boring as they are smart) or DOONESBURY which still seems to echo the state of affairs concerning the youth revolt generation now snuggling comfortably into retirement age (meaning these people are STILL in shock that Ronald Reagan got elected back in 1980!). However, whereas both of these comic strips took on the political landscape from a leftish point of view (POGO from a comfortable Democratic standpoint and DOONESBURY from a son-of-privilege Ivy League New Leftism now snuggled further into the Ronald Dellums wing of the Democratic Party), LI'L ABNER took an interesting trip through the New Deal-vision on through the cold war and up through what can only be called an early take on Neoconservatism (but we won't hold that against Capp!) that shocked all of the Galbreaths and Lippman types who once hailed the strip for its regime support only a few decades earlier. But more on that later.

Anyway, I like this ABNER collection for one good reason, and that's because this book showcases NONE of the earlier, famous episodes I've read time and time again (y'know, the first Schmoo saga et. al.). Well, not quite, since the collection starts off with the famous marriage to Daisy Mae sequence continuing from there on to the strips from the late-sixties and seventies that comic historians would most like to forget. Y'know, the ones where Capp goes out of his way to TEAR DOWN a lotta the same things he was championing only a few years earlier depicting a new world that was being run by downright hoodlums and ruthless millionaires while authority looked on benignly, smiling all the time. Unfortunately some of his better youth-baiting stories are absent such as his on-target skewering of folk singer Joan Baez as "Joanie Phoanie" (which got him sued by the songstress who reportedly won, which I find hard to believe because if this is so then howcum MAD is still in business?) and the "Patrioats" episode where a new strain of oats is found which, when consumed by long-haired, smelly radical hippie types, turns them into clean-cut well-polished flag-salutin' specimens of young adulthood! Yeah, the Great Society cheerleaders as well as the Berkeley crowd weren't exactly going for this sorta rant (and neither were some of the classic liberal [read: libertarian] types...just read this interesting critique which makes a few valid points about DOONESBURY in relation to Capp and his strip by pressing here), but even as a kid in the single-digits I was following LI'L ABNER faithfully laughing my head off at the well-done spearing of a lotta the leftist sacred cows of the day, and this was long before I knew anything about politics other'n watching William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal tear each other's hair out as Howard K. Smith tried to moderate/intervene without much success.

But what does appear here sure makes me happy enough. After all, this was the stuff I was readin' during my formative years at least until the quality of the strip seemed to go downhill along with its creator (Capp, not exactly a man known to keep his pants up at the right time, was at the center of a couple sex scandals involving the same kind of college co-eds Capp was lambasting in his own strip...reports say that Capp's libido often got the best of him to the point where he would draw obscene pictures on the back of his strips in order to "flirt" with the women in the United Features Syndicate mailroom, and believe-it-or-not but Capp even made a move on none other than the sexless Goldie Haun, which I guess proves he'd bonk anything!). But that wasn't always the case...before Capp's personal life began catching up with his strip, he was at his peak, perhaps the best self-promoter and spokesman for a generation in the tradition of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Of course, the opening story from 1952 about how Li'l Abner was forced to marry longtime girlfriend (more or less) Daisy Mae after he took the Fearless Fosdick solemn oath to do anything Abner's "ideel" does including marriage (Fosdick's own hitch-up to longtime fiancee Prudence Pimpleton turned out to be a dream, but alas, Abner's wasn't!) is a classic which proved that Capp was the master of free publicity considering all of the headlines (and a LIFE magazine cover) this stunt earned him. (An aside, in the sixties Capp did a cunning spoof of PEANUTS which got Charles Schulz rather uptight...these Sunday pages unfortunately aren't reprinted here but I remember them as being a hoot, shamelessly lampooning how Schulz's creation went from a simple, funny kids strip to an intellectually-bent and perhaps pretentious comic with children quoting Shakespeare and Snoopy as a ham actor playing a World War I pilot! Of course this was all sarcastic and perhaps anger-laden sour grapes from a man who wanted to get back not only at a strip that stole a lotta ABNER's publicity and thunder, but at his old syndicate as well!) The various fifties/sixties spoofs of Liberace and Elvis work out swell (OK, maybe mensa/mensa since a lotta the Elvis spoofs of the times seem to have been born not out of satire, but of utter disdain), though for me it's the late-sixties/early-seventies comics that make this one of the top "book o' the year" contenders for my 12/31 year-end wrap-it-all-up which'll give you the TRUE lowdown on all the slam that's fit to print!

Included amongst these gems are such greats as the Johnny Carson satire done at the height of TONIGHT SHOW mania in the early-seventies (Abner gets a job as the schmuck who hides under "Tommy Wholesome"'s desk and hands him products to plug), not to mention a still-timely one where Dogpatch Indian Lonesome Polecat is admitted to Harvard solely on the basis of there being no Indians in the student body (and yes, there's a pun about American Indians and Asian Indians here---I'm not saying that Capp wasn't obvious!). In a brilliant move of Cappian satire, Polecat ends up owning the university after S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything) gives it to him in a fit of liberal righteousness, with Polecat in turn giving the entire shebang to the Mafia in exchange for his life, who end up running it their way!

My favorite of the late-sixties anti-nabob sagas reprinted here has to be "Fearless Fosdick Meets Dr. Doolittlegood," which is about the time Fosdick, along with the rest of the police force, get "sensitivity training" from a bleeding heart sociologist ("REMEMBER-A CROOK ISN'T NECESSARILY A BAD CHAP!! HE IS MERELY SOMEBODY WHO NEEDS SOMETHING SOMEONE ELSE OWNS!!") which turns him into the exact opposite of his former self, mainly a soft-hearted goody-two-shoes who allows criminals to escape (and shoot him after he ditches his gun in order to prove he's a nice guy!) thanks to the Doc's enlightened ways. (Naturally the Doctor changes his mind and wants bloody revenge after being mugged in Central Park while Fosdick finally reverts to his old, violent self after a bunch of looters attempt to swipe his steak dinner!) I tell ya, this, contrary to what the author of the above-linked "Doonesburied" piece may think, remains not only funny but pertinent even to this fact, the commentary on compassion run amok is so powerful here that I'm surprised that Steve Ditko didn't write it!

(Though I have to say that there was a soft, human side to Capp I don't think his critics ever would dare acknowledge. Missing a leg himself, Capp did a special comic for amputee soldiers returning from World War II where he not only tells about his accident and eventually overcoming his problems adjusting to a new life, but of his travels down South which inspired the ABNER comic strip. I hate phony sentiment and modern day heart-bleeding over people who I wouldn't pee on if they were on fire, but Capp's heart-felt story about his own problems and how he got over them was pretty powerful and emotional, and I don't mean in today's phony, plastic way where it seems that compassion is limited to only groups approved by THE VILLAGE VOICE (sorry J-y!), if you know what I mean. Call me a cornball, but I really feel for Capp when he not only loses his leg but gets frustrated over life, pulls himself together then heads for Dixie and meets up with a kind family who turn out to be the Yokums!)

I must admit that the rest of this book varies, not in quality but in its ability to capture my imagination like most of the other stories do. But these things usually take time, and I'm sure that I'll have more'n enough of it this winter season to osmose THE BEST OF LI'L ABNER to its fullest. Still, when ABNER gets brilliant, the strip can soar with the best like it does in the Sunday strip spoof of STEVE CANYON (here titled STEVE CANTOR!)...Abner, tired of being in his own comic, gets a job with Milton Goniff (sic!) for a change of scenery so to speak, making a shambles of a secret mission in communist China where he and Cantor deal with the bald female spy Jewell Brynner! The artwork is an almost-impeccable swipe of the dark Caniff style and in many ways not only reminds me of something the classic-period MAD might have cooked up (in fact, there was a BLONDIE spoof where Dagwood gets the exact same wish!), but better yet what the young turks who worked for the early NATIONAL LAMPOON and the underground cartoonists the likes of Bill Griffith and Jay Kinney around the time of ARCADE could have done with a lotta bad taste thrown in as well! True, STEVE CANTOR may not be as loose-cannon outrageous as anything that those people could have whipped up, but on its own merit (that being of Capp existing merely for Capp's sake!) it sure does fine by me!

It's funny reading the later strips after all these years and man-oh-man how they dredge up old memories...I still remember how Capp gave Abner this swept-down Joe Nameth-esque hair that I thought looked ridiculous at the time but today seems rather innocuous. I also remember Capp's ascerbic attacks on ALL youth (which got Don Fellman mad because he was all for Capp and didn't like getting rounded up with a buncha longhairs!) and how Capp made John and Yoko look foolish at the bed-in (plus that NBC "Experiments in Television" program which pitted Capp against Kim Deitch and Trina Robbins!), not to mention the sex scandals and the local paper ultimately dropping ABNER some time after I quit reading it. I can clearly recall looking at it on and off via the Youngstown paper which carried it to the end, shuddering at the obvious loss of quality with strips consisting of nothing but one long panel of Dogpatch residents running to or from something like they had been for years, only day after day with little movement in the story plot or much dialogue for that matter. Even at that time when, frankly, I had all but abandoned the comics page save for BEETLE BAILEY, FERD'NAND and of course NANCY, I felt sorry for Capp and the sad fact that he wasn't going out in style. Finally, I recall hearing about his death in 1979, only two years after he retired from ABNER. At the time it only made a blip on the cultural radar, but I naturally picked up on it perhaps for old time's sake. Of course, the sad thing about it all is that when ABNER was on the way out strips like GARFIELD and CATHY were on the way in. They were comics that may have said something to an audience that hadn't been reached out to via the comics page, and they may have become successes that inspired a lot more in the way of new and hip comicdom, but frankly they weren't funny. At least ABNER in and even out of its prime was of some interest and contained plenty in the way of not only hard laughs but interesting storylines and plot-twists that still hold the attention years after. The fact that the ABNER era of comicdom is dead while today's strips reflect a culture either of "blue" latte liberal upper-crust snobs or "red" yammering baboon local yokels more than anxious to blow up the world in order to facilitate their own sainted vision of Armageddon is only proof as to how much good ol' Amerigan gulcher has devolved over the past forty years. And you know, I'm more than willing to forgive a sex maniac like Capp because he at least seemed to deserve redemption despite his unfounded claims of persecution...I'm NOT about to do any forgiving when it comes to the vast majority of hip-lefties and self-absorbed mind-numbed rightoids (who are not really right-wingers, but don't tell them!) who BOTH hate me for what I am even though they want it to look as if they're just oozing love all over the entire stinking world as we know it!

One final note: if you need more "resensifying" and those MC5 albums aren't quite enough...try LI'L ABNER...they do a mighty fine job!

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