Li'l Abner

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Li'l Abner

The Li'l Abner comic strip was a child of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a period when kidding country bumpkins, poverty, and rural lifestyles were perfectly acceptable subjects for a comic strip. Its creator, Al Capp, was a raucous and audacious humorist, capable of mixing barnyard humor with, increasingly perceptive social satire. He and his assorted assistants were also very good at drawing pretty young women. Launched by the United Feature Syndicate in 1934, the newspaper strip was an immediate success and by the 1940s Capp and Abner Yokum were nationally famous and being written up in Life, Time, and various other popular publications. By that time the strip was appearing in about 900 newspapers. The strip lasted until 1977 and gave America an unofficial national holiday and quite a few catch phrases and memorable characters.

Abner Yokum, who dwelled in the benighted rural community of Dogpatch, remained steadfastly naïve and obtuse, a sort of bucolic Candide, throughout the long run of the feature. He lived in a cabin with his Mammy, who was the boss of the family and possessed assorted mystical powers, and Pappy and their pig Salomey. Clueless when it came to romance, it took him a long time even to realize that he was being pursued by the lovely, blonde, and sparsely clad Daisy Mae. In order to give the maiden ladies of Dogpatch a chance with the other obtuse, or just downright reluctant, bachelors, Capp introduced Sadie Hawkins Day in the late 1930s. During this annual ritual, the eligible bachelors got a running start and then the unmarried women took off in pursuit. Any woman who caught a man was allowed to keep him and drag him immediately to the local preacher, Marryin' Sam. This festivity caught on with the public and high schools and colleges all across the country staged similar events.

Among the many odd and eccentric characters that Capp concocted were Moonbeam McSwine, Earthquake McGoon, Evil Eye Fleagle, Hairless Joe and Lonesome Polecat (brewers of Kickapoo Joy Juice), Lena the Hyena (who lived in the country of Lower Slobbovia, somewhat of an icebound Dogpatch, "where the favorite dish of the natives is raw polar bear and vice versa"), General Bullmoose (the epitome of ruthless and swinish business tycoons), Senator Jack S. Phogbound, the Schmoos and the Kigmies. These last two creatures he used to kid, respectively, consumer greed and prejudice. The strip made fun of a wide range of contemporary fads and foibles, including Frank Sinatra, zoot suits, beauty contests and superheroes. Capp spoofed Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, too, by making Abner a dedicated fan of an even more brutal and invulnerable sleuth named Fearless Fosdick. Both Fosdick and his creator Lester Gooch were Li'l Abner's "ideels."

Although Abner steadfastly refused to become any brighter, he did give in and marry Daisy Mae in 1952. The nuptials, commemorated with a Life cover featuring Abner, Daisy Mae, and Marryin' Sam, garnered Capp a good deal of publicity. But he eventually came to regret the move, blaming the strip's decline from the 1950s to the 1970s on the fact that a married Li'l Abner didn't seem as interesting as a single one. Equally important, though, to the strip's loss of popularity was Capp's perceived shift from liberal to conservative. "My politics didn't change," he insisted. "I had always been for those who were despised, disgraced and denounced by other people." He also asserted that conservatives hated him right to the end. Be that as it may, readers, especially younger ones, weren't especially amused by the attacks on campus demonstrations and the antiwar movement. Caricaturing activist folk singer Joan Baez as Joanie Phonie didn't inspire sufficient laughter. An ailing Capp finally decided to shut down the whole operation in November of 1977. The circulation of Li'l Abner had by then dropped to about 300 papers.

In its prime the strip had branched out into several areas. First came Li'l Abner Big Little Books, then the strip was regularly reprinted in Tip Top Comics and Comics On Parade. There was a short-lived radio show, starring John Hodiak, a movie that featured Buster Keaton as Lonesome Polecat in 1940 (and another movie in 1959), and a lackluster series of five animated cartoons out of Columbia Pictures in the middle 1940s. In November, 1956, a Li'l Abner musical opened at the St. James Theatre on Broadway with Peter Palmer as Abner, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae, Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam, and Tina Louise as Appassionata Von Climax. It ran for just under 700 performances and later became a successful movie musical. Capp died in 1979.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Berger, Arthur Asa. Li'l Abner: A Study in American Satire. New York, Twayne, 1969.

Capp, Al. The Best of Li'l Abner. New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978.

——. The World of Li'l Abner. New York, Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953.

Goulart, Ron. The Funnies. Holbrook, Adams Publishing, 1995.

Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic Strip Artists. New York, Abbeville Press, 1989.

Sheridan, Martin. Comics and Their Creators. Boston, Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1942.