Wednesday, November 07, 2012

BOOK REVIEW! AL CAPP (a Life to the Contrary) by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen (Bloomsbury, 2013 [it ain't in stores yet!])

When I heard that a biography of LI'L ABNER creator, political/social satirist and blustery personality/shameless self-promoter Al Capp was about to hit the book racks you can bet that I was more or less shuddering at the mere thought of it. After all we are living in the 'teens when the "tell all" biography and overt "anti-establishment" (for wont of a better term) bias rule the publishing and broadcast world, and even the inkling that all the inside dirt regarding Capp's once private and eventually public life was going to be bandied about like overstuffed jock straps at a gay pride parade just didn't settle well with my stomach. True, just about everyone by now knows about the back-stabs, peccadilloes and other disturbing facts surrounding the Capp legend, but with all of the heretofore unknown nauseating embellishments and in-depth bunghole-diving that was going to be dished out I didn't know if I was going to walk away from this one an abject loather of the man, or if I was going to feel sorry for him despite even more of the disturbing revelations that are finally been aired in public. You better believe me when I tell you that I thought this 'un was gonna give me more creeps than an entire bound collection of SWELLSVILLE magazines with a few TOO FUN TOO HUGE issues tossed in for good measure!

After all, the infamous cartoonist and satirist of everything that moved Al Capp still looms as a controversial figure even though the guy has been planted in the ground a good thirtysome years. And, although Capp's certainly no threat to anybody these days, you can't say that he didn't make more'n a few enemies on his way up and down the fabled ladder of success to warrant a whole lotta hatred and "get back" directed at the memory. Dunno if it's obvious (at least to you), but I sure get the feeling that there are many still willing to drag his corpse about the same way that Nixon's and Agnew's have been if only as a warning to similar-minded miscreants who dare cross the (post-hippie) powers that be, and nothing can be worse than watching members of the baby boomer generation who've been running things for the past quarter century re-fighting the battles of the sainted sixties with their smug, self-important credos firmly in place! It's particulary painful especially when the same people who made excuses for the disturbing behavior of the likes of, say, Bill Clinton go about ruining the reputation of some Older Generation icon (or political/social/religious figure) who gets in their way just so's they can go about popping off about the "hypocrisy" of their elders, in between patting themselves on the back for all of those wondrous world-saving deeds of theirs that seem all the more hollow as the years roll on. I do generalize a tad, but the overabundant sanctimony of the anti-war generation (despite their misguided if good intentions) is enough to irritate me to no end.

Not that Capp wasn't responsible for his own early-seventies decline into the dungheap, but hearing about it from the likes of some extremely partisan and embittered (ex)-hippies setting him up as an example of the inherent evil of the older generation sure isn't something to cherish. And yeah, I still remember Capp the controversialist from my own tattered youth and how he used to harangue on the entire younger generation whether they be the hippies or spoiled TV-bred brats my own age (although this spoiled kid surely did not get the heaping amount of toys and games the other brats were getting from all quarters, and perhaps turned out the worse for it!). I also remember the guy being all over the durn place whether it be on the boob tube or in magazines as if he were a star the status of a Tiny Tim or Tommy Smothers to the point where you wonder where he ever got the time to draw his comic strip. Heck, the way Capp was getting around you would have thought he was a big name politician 'stead of a guy who'd been doing ABNER since the depression era (which, judging from the way the old folks talked, might as well have happened only yesterday!), and the amount of feathers this guy rankled was something that I'm positive made his name verboten in more'n a few circles that wouldn't give a second thought to praising the efforts of the likes of...Che Guevara???

And although the following memories are rather sketchy (perhaps because I wasn't reading the rest of the newspaper the same way I did the comics) I vaguely recall Capp's fast fall from grace when his womanizing (or shall we say attempted rapes) finally caught up with him and pretty much knocked the beloved cartoonist from his lofty perch as Ameriga's loudest comic strip voice. A guy who was one of the most popular cartoonists for almost four decades yet who by the early-seventies had seen ABNER dropped by newspaper after newspaper as his popularity plummeted, ending up as another shamed older generation relic to be held up for ridicule just like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. A whipping boy for the New Left, absolute proof of the downright evil of those who dared take on the strong arm of what was once called the Youth Movement who ended up getting yanked down mighty hard for his efforts.

I'm sure it was hard for many to witness...after all, here was a man whose strip was the one to guffaw over and discuss with your acquaintances but which by the mid-seventies had turned into such a pale shadow of its former self that when Capp announced his retirement and ABNER's imminent demise back '77 way the general response was akin to hearing crickets on an Autumn evening. (The book begs to differ regarding this point but I sure remember the many funny page fans who regarded the strip's eventual end as a mercy killing!) And what was really sad about it all was that here was a guy who rose from nothing and created a tsunami of a phenomenon, a strip that was once read by the likes of everyone from Hugh Hefner to Queen Elizabeth and if somebody was the subject of Capp's acerbic wit you knew they had arrived! Of course by the early-seventies I'm sure ABNER was the last place any upward-spiraling figure would want to be lampooned, not that the same smart set was still reading the thing since Capp's perhaps unavoidable turn into neo-conservatism some time in the mid-sixties.

Well, after reading this all the way through twice I've come to the conclusion that AL CAPP (a Life to the Contrary) is a well-researched and thorough enough book despite quite a few shall we say "reservations" that I harbor about the thing. Yeah, the authors' (which include underground comix pioneer and former ABNER publisher Denis Kitchen, a friend of the strip but no friend of the right) prejudices do seep in, especially during the parts dealing with Capp's 180 degree switch on politics and the late-sixties antiwar movement*...OK, it's their book after all and they're certainly entitled to push their various point of views 'n peeves...but for the most part this bio's about as well-written and complimentary to Capp as the artist (though not the left-baiter) as a read such as this should be. Authors Schumacher and Kitchen pretty much give you the facts and, although they can get grating when they do slip into their hippoid ways jumping to conclusions and uttering such inanities as to how ABNER paved the way for the likes of DOONESBURY (which is akin to saying that the Velvet Underground should at least be honored for influencing X-Tal) I'm sure you can easily brush them aside as typical pseudo-intellectual duds that were fired by people who, despite their love of the subject matter, just can't get beyond the whole sickening altruistic demeanor of their general upbringing and sociopolitical formation.

And yeah, it's pretty much all here unless there was even more dirt that didn't get scraped up which is hiding out there somewhere in the bushes. The feud with cartoonist Ham Fisher is detailed with both Capp and the famed JOE PALOOKA creator coming off as if they were having a contest to see who could be the bigger asshole, while the sexual assaults are presented in such detail (with a few more incidents I never knew about tossed in) that I hadda take a bath after reading about how an aroused Capp once forced the head of a married coed between his legs. It's not like I wanted to know about all of the bad things that Capp did throughout his sexual lifespan but of course I had to, and although the image of a naked, one-legged Capp hopping around after some unsuspecting student or aspiring actress wasn't exactly one I'd like burned into my grey matter for all eternity shielding us from such distasteful subject matter would have only made this book a fannish puffjob of which we've had way too many over the past few years.

But despite the fact that Capp was a horny womanizer and that his political beliefs cost him friends and painted a bulls-eye on his back, the message that the man was a fantastic artist who created one of the better strips to have come out during the boffo pre-war era of funnies is undeniable. Sometimes I wonder if even the authors realize it, but only the most hidebound Capp-hater would deny that Capp via LI'L ABNER brought a style and verve to the comics page that hasn't been seen since the days of the early HAPPY HOOLIGANs and LITTLE NEMO. Nor would they doubt that, at least until his personal life caught up with him, Capp was putting out a high quality comic that couldn't get past the starting gate in an era such as ours where strips have been shrunken to the size of postage stamps and the artwork looks so infantile that even Capp's criticism of PEANUTS in the late-sixties seems unfair next to some of the newer offerings which make that much-loved creation look like...well. LI'L ABNER. (Not that I thought Capp's critique of Schulz's talents was correct any more than I think that NANCY was created using a series of rubber stamps, but what passes for standard comic artwork in the here and now is so dismal that even the most slapdash comic of the past comes off like PRINCE VALIANT, a notable if boring exception to today's rule. With comic strips like these no wonder newspapers are losing readers!)

Anyway, it's all here from Capp as a nine-year-old Alfred Caplin and the tragedy he encountered losing his left leg in a trolley car accident, up through the years of bitter struggle and of course his hitting the jackpot, riding high and falling fast into a bitter and depressing conclusion. And it's enveloping reading even when the sneaky editorializing and personal comments which don't always jibe with my own personal ideals do get slipped into the mix**. It's a must for any Capp fan whether he's an old Silent Majority survivor or a hippoid who grew up with ABNER and begrudgingly championed Capp even when he was laying into the great unwashed, and though I get the feeling that more than a few readers will do some wincing when reading about Capp's sexual antics (not to mention some of the conclusions drawn by the authors) I think they can handle it at least in small doses.

If I have any qualms it is probably regarding the illustrations, or lack thereof, of some items that deserved to enhance the already juicy text. Like f'rinstance where are the legendary drawings of Capp's old teacher Miss Mandelbaum, a hot potato who Capp drew nudes of (for the slim sum of 25 cents) for fellow classmates? Maybe none of those survive but the Ham Fisher doctored ABNER panels which purported to show erect penises where mushrooms shoulda been are probably stashed away somewhere. Or for that matter the drawings of various ABNER characters gettin' in on in the all together that Fisher anonymously sent to the FCC when Capp was applying for joint ownership of a television station. Things like these would've not only been indispensable in enhancing the story but might even give some of you more lonely BLOG TO COMM reader an excuse for an extended bathroom visit! Maybe they'll pop up in the next edition, but don't let that stop you from reading AL CAPP (a Life to the Contrary) even if it will cut into your usual, uh, "free time."

*a point which I believe I must sneak in some additional commentary that I so wanted to avoid in this already saturated review if only to counter some of the personal opines that were relayed here. One case in point is the authors' contention that nobody won the Al Capp/John Lennon and Yoko Ono go 'round at the Montreal Bed In, a conclusion that I fear could only have been drawn by people who still harbor hard feelings about the generation gap battles of the day and refuse to admit the major fallacies of many of its adherents who were involved. It isn't only my contention but that of others that I've spoken to that Capp was clearly the winner of that bout, making Lennon and Ono look positively foolish in their Fluxus-inspired plan to bring attention to world peace. As you know, I like not only Capp but Lennon and Ono (in varying degrees I might add) but can impartially see that Capp lambasted the couple in front of the entire world with Lennon looking like a whipped dog who could only resort to angry mewls when confronted with some hard truth about his and Ono's rather fainthearted antics that seemed rather misguided and silly not only then but years later.

Schumacher and Kitchen also downplay Capp's popularity during these years which naturally shows a strong bias, especially when you consider how Capp was still popping on all cylinders during the late-sixties and early-seventies with his various lampoons of not only the peace movement but Johnny Carson and Twiggy amongst other big names of the day. A brief dismissal was also given to Capp's various writings which appeared in THE HARDHAT'S BEDTIME STORY BOOK stating that this volume had little to offer anyone, a strange opinion as you can tell by my review where I mentioned that the book was just bursting with Capp's acerbic witticisms that would be enough to drive any tweed jacket with patches on elbows-type college professor type to suicide. I frankly find it hard for anybody to deny that Capp was perhaps at his best when writing about everything from Jane Fonda to Elliot Gould nude scenes (complete with an illustration!), but if the authors actually consider DOONESBURY a powerful, important socio-political statement especially these days well...

I'm sure the throngs of Capp fans who somehow thought that things were getting out of hand when protesters began shitting on the American flag felt the same way as Capp did (and presumably the authors didn't). Maybe Schumacher and Kitchen just can't realize that Capp, like (I shall reluctanly say) Archie Bunker, was a hero to many of the same heartland types who believed in what he was saying despite being set up as figures of mockery, something which bewildered Norman Lear for ages and which might perplex the authors for a longer time than any of them could imagine. But like I ultimately said, it's their book.

**I know that attention has to be made towards what goes into and is left out of reads such as this, but the authors really expurgated a lotta the explanations outta statements that were made by Capp which, when presented prima facie, only tended to make him look idiotic and foolish on purpose. Take the mention of an article entitled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" which ran in the January 1973 issue of none other than PENTHOUSE, where Capp was given the opportunity to spout some admirable views regarding various establishment figures of the day both conservative, neo-conservative and fellow travelers. One of those Capp championed amongst the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan included George Wallace, a man who Capp wrote was "more of a friend to blacks than John Lindsay or LeRoi Jones." True these sentiments seem odd considering Wallace's pre-wheelchair days of segregation, but I'm sure the very text that the authors lifted this quote from would explain to us just what Capp meant. Of course presenting this line and leaving us with an obvious Wallace was no friend of African-Americans comment was an easy way to push their own agenda, but wouldn't the pair be doing us a service as to presenting the entire quote or at least trying to figure out what Capp was trying to say rather than dismiss him offhand? I guess in these days when the judge, jury and executioner is a billion dollar industry manned by the most politically pious snoots extant the answer to that 'un's a firm 'n steady "nein!"

1 comment:

Bill S. said...

I'll be getting this as soon as it's available.
Capp was a giant--his best work is as funny and relevant today as it was then. In fact, with time it's clearly been shown to have been prophetic.
Capp's later period is a bit confusing, but it's part of the big picture and we can't wish it away. Hey, in a way, his badgering of John and Yoko was a very PUNK thing to do, as much as I admire John and Yoko. I can imagine Johnny Rotten asking them the same kind of questions. Their silly behavior with the peace-bed thing was not really questioned by anyone else.
Someone needed to point out that such stunts probably did not save one life or have any impact on war.
The sexual harassment and such is not a pretty picture, but now that he's gone and not capable of harassing your sister or my wife, we can play Monday morning quarterback and say that losing a leg early in life surely took its toll on his psyche. Whatever unwise things he may have done, he DID leave us DECADES of brilliant work. And his war against hypocrisy and pretentiousness is needed now more than ever.
I'm glad you are keeping Al Capp's name alive.
I will eventually work my way through all the years of LI'L ABNER as I stumble into my golden years (I've probably read about 1/3 of it, and much of that decades ago), and I'm looking forward to it. BILL