Archive | Li’l Abner

A Few of My Favorite Things (Part I of II)

After several years and well over a hundred releases, I sometimes get asked about my favorite stories from the LOAC family of books. Sometimes the question is just that straightforward — “Which ones do you like best?” — and sometimes I provide that answer within the context of a larger inquiry, something along the lines of, “What stories would you recommend to get a new reader hooked on classic comic strips?”

Of course, there are certain stories that belong in the Comic Strip Hall Of Fame — “The Death of Raven Sherman” from Terry and the Pirates, for example, or Dick Tracy’s encounters with The Brow or Flattop. And certainly our friendly competitors have released their share of Must-Read sequences in several of their fine series. But I have other, perhaps less obvious favorites, and this seemed like a good time to share ten of them with you. In no particular order, here are the first five that have burned a warm place in my comics-fannish heart:

10. Scorchy Smith in Northern Africa. Our big Noel Sickles retrospective/Scorchy Smith reprint remains one of my very favorite books. I like to think we brought well-deserved new attention to the major and important talent that was “Bud” Sickles, and the wealth of artwork we were privileged to see and publish (more of the former than the latter!) was a rare treat. Thanks to this book, Sickles’s virtuoso efforts on Scorchy are now also preserved for future generations to savor, and while there are several delightful moments throughout the run, I’m especially partial to the 1936 sequence that sees “Scorcher,” his sidekick Heinie Himmelstoss, and their charge/employer Mickey LaFarge touring Northern Africa and the Middle East. In this lovely strip from March 25, 1936, set in Algiers, Mickey’s foreboding is well-founded, since she and her aviator pals will soon run afoul of the evil Ali Hamman in the Syrian desert …

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9. The King Aroo Seal of Approval. Something else within the LOAC oeuvre I’m especially proud of is our two-volume set of King Aroo. I’ve loved Jack Kent’s winsome style and smart, snappy writing since my first encounter with the King and his Myopean subjects in the Nemo magazines of the 1980s; it was both a delight and an honor to offer over ten thousand words of biography devoted to the man, and to help get hundreds of his King Aroo comics back into print (I’ve also been fortunate enough to acquire an Aroo original from 1960, which proudly hangs on a wall in my home!). There are many, many King Aroo sequences I’d eagerly point to as a favorite, a big grin on my face as I do so, but I have special fondness for the October-to-December, 1951 storyline in which Professor Yorgle drinks Wanda Witch’s magic potions by mistake and turns into a seal. Great sight gags ensue, series regulars serve up all variety of amusing reactions to the change in their friend, and new characters are introduced such as “Rube,” the flea who is now a theatrical agent. Rube has all the contacts Professor Yorgle needs once he decides to embark on a new career — as a trained circus seal! King Aroo is a singular accomplishment within the comics firmament, and I can’t give this storyline, and the strip in its entirety, enough praise.

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8. The Rocky Road to Motherhood. Within the past year mainstream and comics media have reported on Marvel Comics’s decision to feature first a pregnant Spider-Woman, then that character as a new mother. Taking nothing away from this turn of events (how many mothers get whisked off Earth by the Skrulls, after all?), yet let’s not forget that Marla Drake, AKA Miss Fury, was a superhero who became a parent about seven decades before Marvel’s Jessica Drew gave birth. Yes, Marla went the adoption route, but that still put her ahead of heroes like Bruce Wayne, who was content simply to serve as guardian to his youthful ward, Dick Grayson. This Sunday page from February, 1945 is an excerpt from the story that puts Marla on the path to adopting a young son. The diabolical Doctor Diman has perfected an acid as clear as water, but capable of destroying every trace of the organic matter it touches. At least, he thinks it is — it’s passed all the preliminaries and is now ready to be tested on a human subject — in this case, a curly-headed toddler in the doctor’s care. Miss Fury intervenes and saves the boy from an horrific fate. Shortly afterward, she adopts the lad as her son, Darron Drake, never suspecting the boy’s mother is one of her greatest enemies, and his father is the man she once almost married! Cartoonist Tarpe Mills’s unique mix of intrigue, soap opera emotion, high fashion, and derring-do make this Miss Fury escapade a fun and frothy reading experience!

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7. Li’l Abner‘s Attacks on Ham Fisher. This is a selection from Li’l Abner Volume 8, on sale soon and a book I personally feel no serious comic-strip collector can do without. In it we take a long look at the Al (Abner) Capp/Ham (Joe Palooka) Fisher Feud and the Sunday continuities in its pages feature a pair of stories, spanning three consecutive months, in which Capp went for his nemesis’s jugular. The longer of the two plots involves Sam the centaur, a horse race, and an old plug named “Ham’s Nose Bob” — which was Capp’s way of letting the world know that the vain Fisher had recently had plastic surgery on the ol’ schnozzola. After Sam returns to Olympus, Abner runs afoul of “Happy Vermin, the World’s Smartest Cartoonist,” in a savage satire that set off waves of controversy through whole segments of the newspaper industry, receiving coverage in Walter Winchell’s popular syndicated column and elsewhere. Li’l Abner is one of comics’s bonafide masterpieces, and these anti-Fisher Sunday pages — plus the information on the Feud upon which we focus, information spotlighted nowhere else that we have seen in our research — plus the other fun and fanciful tales from 1949 and 1950 make Li’l Abner Volume 8 a book I most heartily recommend. These anti-Fisher screeds are some of the most arresting, significant, and (on a few levels, at least) fun comics I’ve read in a handful of years.

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6. Call Him Dexter, Though His Name is Corrigan. Mix one of my all-time favorite writers (Dashiell Hammett) with one of my all-time favorite artists (Alex Raymond) and the result is, for a number of reasons, less than the sum of the talents involved. Still, the original Secret Agent X-9 is anything but dogmeat. Their long inaugural tale is filled with bits of business that would have been right at home in Black Mask and the Street & Smith hero pulp magazines. The young Raymond, still deep in his Matt Clark Period, displays bravura flashes, especially in his eye-catching single-panel panoramas. “The Martyn Case” gives X-9 hints of an origin that other creators would borrow, flesh out, and make good use of throughout the ensuing years as they created adventure heroes of their own, everyone from The Avenger to The Punisher. Still, I’m perpetually fascinated by “The Torch Car Case,” from 1935. This represents Hammett’s last work on Secret Agent X-9, and while some scholars have claimed he never contributed to the story at all, I submit this March 13, 1935 strip gives X-9 the sort of sarcastic, wryly-humorous quip that was a Hammett hallmark — and reflects a skill with dialogue that few of King Features’s writers of the day demonstrated (and that Alex Raymond, who would do uncredited scripting on the series until The Saint‘s Leslie Charteris was brought in, was likely not yet capable of). “The Torch Car Case” is a creditable swan song for the superstar Hammett/Raymond team.

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Having reached the halfway point in this unscientific, purely subjective countdown, I’ll wrap up here for now. Please watch this space in coming days for Part II, and five more of my favorite LOAC stories!

Abnerian Artifacts

Seems to me as if it was only yesterday when Li’l Abner Volume 6 hit the stands, bringing us the “wonder” that was Lena the Hyena, but here I am, deep in the writing of introductory text for Volume 7, which I immodestly claim will be the high water mark of our Abner series—and not just because Al Capp has such entertaining stuff waiting for you. He does have those great stories coming, headlined by the arrival of the Shmoo, but we’ve unearthed some nifty information I’ll be folding into my essay. It’s always great fun to write these features when we get to shine the spotlight on juicy, fun tidbits, some which have not been discussed in prior Abner reprint efforts, others that may have been mentioned, but now get presented in a somewhat different context.

Sometimes we find things that, for one reason or another, won’t be included in our actual printed volumes. That’s OK, because we get to present several of those pieces here!

Case in point…

Li’l Abner‘s 1948 Shmoo storyline was, in many ways, the biggest hit in comics history up to that time. In Volume 7 we’ll discuss the magnitude of that hit and how it was also a financial and promotional bonanza for Al Capp. One indication of the magnitude of the Shmoo Saga’s popularity: Simon and Shuster rushed to get this story between two covers in time for 1948’s Christmas shopping season. Priced at a whopping one dollar, it was assumed the book would fly off bookstore shelves (you remember bookstores, right?), which is exactly what it did.

In San Mateo, California, the Peninsula Bookshop knew the Shmoo collection was going to be big—they took out this ad in the local newspaper, the Times:

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Sometimes we discover something we absolutely love, but the condition of the artifact is such it may never be restored to a visual quality deemed worthy of printing. Check out this 1947 ad, run on October 7th in the Winnipeg Tribune, advertising the comics lineup in the Trib‘s weekend companion, the Standard.

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There are a lot of things I like about this ad. First, note the sheer number of strips in this lineup that would eventually make their way into Library of American Comics editions. The ad gives its keynote position to Milton Caniff and Steve Canyon (ol’ Steverino was less than a year old on this date, in the midst of his tussle with Herr Splitz and Madame Lynx), but the Standard kept the old even while it embraced the new—both Canyon and George Wunder’s Terry and the Pirates were in its lineup! But of most interest for our purposes here, check out how Capp and Li’l Abner are positioned immediately beneath Ham Fisher and Joe Palooka. As we’ve discussed—and will continue to discuss in upcoming LOAC Abner volumes – Capp and Fisher engaged in a long and increasingly bitter feud, so think of Capp’s reaction if he saw this ad! The roof must have blown off the artist’s Boston studio and flipped 360 degrees in mid-air before settling back into place…

Capp’s story is a reminder that for some celebrities (and Al was a celebrity, make no mistake about it), no matter how much success accrues, there are always mountains to climb and enemies to combat—but despite the dark linings in his silvery cloud, this singular talent had an ability to entertain that was unmatched among comic strip creators, then or now. That’s part of what makes his story so fascinating, and part of what makes Li’l Abner a must-read for anyone interested in comic strip history.

 

The Fontan(elli) of Youth

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What does Stimpy have to do with LOAC? Read on…!

Dean, Lorraine, and I have appeared in this space many a time reporting on our research trips to university libraries on both coasts and in the great American heartland. The treasures held in places like UCLA and the Mugar Archives at Boston University have enhanced LOAC’s Bringing Up Father and Little Orphan Annie releases; as they supply material that helps make possible books like Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles and Steve Canyon, we always enjoy visiting and catching up with Jenny Robb, Susan Liberator, Marilyn Scott, and the other dedicated staff members at OSU’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, as we do with old pal Randy Scott at Michigan State University for Rip Kirby and other series.

The schools provide us invaluable assistance. We equate the finding of rarely-seen George McManus or Harold Gray artifacts to the feeling Indiana Jones gets when he finds those lost antiquities (though we miss out on all the murderous Nazis and pits of deadly snakes, thank goodness)—yet LOAC does not subsist through academia alone.

Another resource that helps add luster to our line of books is the readers who have been true to their favorite classic cartoonists for years, often for decades. These staunch fans have amassed an amazing variety of clipped strips, newspaper and magazine articles, merchandise, and sometimes actual correspondence; moreover, they have been unstintingly kind in their willingness to loan prized pieces from their collections so we can publish them and share them with all of you.

And sometimes, they give us certain artifacts outright…

A time or two in past features, we’ve mentioned the name Mike Fontanelli. Mike is an Emmy Award-nominated animator, designer, writer, and layout man who has been involved with familiar programs such as Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Simpsons, and Ren & Stimpy. (See? We tol’ja you’d find out what Stimpy had to do with LOAC. Keep reading for the full story…) Mike is also a major Al Capp/Li’l Abner fan, and when he recently e-mailed me to say, “I’m cleaning out some extras and duplicates from my files of Cappiana-just let me know if you’d like ’em and they’re yours,” you can bet I burned up a few electrons getting my “Yes, yes, oh please Please PLEEZ yes!” reply back to him.

Mike, true to his word, quickly sent this big ol’ envelope full of goodies winging its way to my doorstep. We’ll save some of the material Mike provided for inclusion in future Li’l Abner volumes, but there’s too much nifty stuff for us not to give you a sneak-peek at a handful of items right now.

Mike sent along a handful of 1970s clipped dailies. This first one, dated January 1, 1973, shows a familiar Abnerian gag, the basic premise of which we’ve already seen him use several times over (take a look at the New Year’s entries in some of our prior volumes).

 

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Al Capp always knew a good thing when he found it…

And check out this little sampler from late April/early May of 1973: years before Evan Dorkin’s inspired characters saw print, Pappy Yokum was leading a parade of Li’l Abner characters who would have fit right into Dorkin’s Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, & Role-Playing Club!

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Like so many of us, Pappy dreamed his comic books taught him all he needed to learn about scrappin’!

Merchandising and advertising work was an increasingly important part of Al Capp’s portfolio-one can claim Capp was not the artist his friends Milt Caniff and Walt Kelly were, and one can perhaps argue that he wasn’t their equal in the writing department (although that’s a much more difficult argument to make), but he left them both in the dust when it came to maximizing the value of his characters and his own value as a celebrity cartoonist through licensing and commercial contracts.

Take Cream of Wheat, for example. Capp had a long-running contract with the cereal to produce ads featuring Li’l Abner and his Dogpatch pals. The majority of series installments begin with a panicked Daisy Mae, rushing into frame in classic damsel in distress manner; a steaming, hearty bowl of Cream of Wheat invariably figures into the solution to the problem at hand, as in this example:

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Cream of Wheat —it even prevents your hide from being blasted off when it’s being battered by a high-pressure fire hose!

 

A rarer example of the artist’s advertising work is the series of newspaper ads he produced touting Nestlé’s Hot Cocoa Mix, titled Al Capp’s Corner. “Reddy” is the recurring character in the campaign, though of course the typical (and widely admired) Capp Cuties were also prominently displayed. I get a kick thinking that surely there were kids haranguing reluctant mothers in grocery stores across America, wheedling to get Nestlé’s Hot Cocoa added to their shopping basket—until the fathers (recalling the pulchritudinous females in Capp’s ads) chimed in something like, “Oh f’crineoutloud, Edna-let the kid get his cocoa!”

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Though not as famous as his Wildroot Cream Oil or Cream of Wheat ad campaigns, Capp’s ads for hot cocoa have a certain…undeniable charm.

So, both our caps and our Capps are off to Mike Fontanelli for providing such a CARE package of joy amidst a snowy month of February that was dismal in many ways…and just to complete theRen & Stimpy connection, Mike personalized the mailing envelope with his renderings of those two beloved (is that the right word?) characters.

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Mike Fontanelli was lobbing Capp creations cross-country to me; Stimpy was lobbing – well – something else across the envelope to Ren!

The Golden Age of Li’l Abner is upon us again! Volume 6 in our series is now on sale, and just ahead in Volume 7, it’s the first coming of (*gasp!* *choke!*) the Shmoos! Just ask Mike Fontanelli-he’ll tell you it’s great stuff!

 

Remember When…

Al Capp was such a good writer that even his throwaway gags were brilliant. Here’s the opening to a 1946 Sunday series in which the 1933 newspapers FINALLY make it to Dogpatch—thirteen years after the fact. Capp uses the “news” to skewer the 1930s isolationist Republicans and Democracts as represented by the Yokum’s own official blowhard, Senator Fogbound.

Click on the Sunday for a larger, more readable version.

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Recommended on the Shelves

We occasionally pause to recommend books that should be of special interest to Library of American Comics readers. This is one of those occasions.

In February Bloomsbury published Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen; as both a Capp devotee since Denis’s 1980s series of Li’l Abner reprints and the current co-editor and writer of text features for LOAC’s current Abner hardcovers, this is a book I eagerly looked forward to reading.

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Having finished reading it this week, I can tell you I was not disappointed and if you’re a Capp/Abner fan, I suspect you won’t be disappointed, either. There is a whole lot to like between these two covers.

Capp’s life is a story worth the telling, the sort of story that often makes one ask, “If this is the price of fame, is it a price worth the paying?” Michael and Denis take an unflinching look at that life, touching upon the highs and the lows, the times when Capp was to be lauded for his actions and his creativity as well as the times he operated in a deplorable manner and perhaps was less devoted to his comic strip duties than to his celebrity and his political connections.

Any story is only as good as the talent telling it, and the authors do yeoman work throughout. They kept this reader turning the pages—even when I knew what was about to happen, I was interested to see how they were going to frame and describe the events in question. Newcomers to Capp will find several surprises along the way as they read this book (some of them pleasant, some not).

Perhaps the best tribute I can offer Michael and Denis for their work: I wish there was more of it. Certainly, given the amount of research that went into the writing, the authors had to choose what to leave in and what to omit, what to emphasize and what to treat in summary — kudos for making me wish they’d been able to include the omissions and expand on the summarized incidents. More artwork would also have been welcome, though certainly the included material forms a nice representative sampling of Capp’s output across the years, and there are many excellent photos. There’s nothing wrong with living up to the wise old adage: “Always leave ’em wanting more.”

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This fine book is a definitive word on the talented creator of Li’l Abner, though it won’t be the lastword, since I’ll continue to write about Al Capp and his Dogpatch cast of characters in our Li’l Abner reprint series (and others Cappian scholars will, I hope, follow these authors and me in the years to come). Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have definitely set me a high bar to clear if my work is to be on a par with Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary. Bravo to them!

The Flowering of Talent

I’ve been spending time of late in Dogpatch, preparing material for Li’l Abner Volume 3, where 1939 and 1940 bring us what I consider to be the first truly great storylines of Al Capp’s comedic masterwork. Does that mean the stories that came before, say, The Grapes of Wrath parody are somehow second-stringers?

Hardly. That first Gat Garson continuity in April ’36 or the Sunday trip into Africa two years later, with Sir Cecil Cesspool leading an expedition to the land of the Mukoy (“eht dnal fo eht Mukoy,” in their primitive tongue) can provide a lift on almost any down day. Funny is funny, after all.

A cartoonist’s earliest efforts are seeds planted in the fertile soil of the nation’s newspapers, sprouting into more daring and audacious future material, and ultimately being harvested into collected editions. Part of the fun of working on (and reading) Library of American Comics material is watching Al Capp’s talent and confidence grow from the straightforward “City Mouse/Country Mouse” content of Abner’s earliest visit to New York to Fearless Fosdick’s increasingly-sophisticated strip-within-a-strip or the layered spoofery of Abner’s first trip to Lower Slobbovia in 1946. Long before superhero “universes” were de rigueur, creators like Al Capp were building complex, self-contained worlds of their own, four panels at a time, day by day by day.

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Al Capp loved to introduce catchphrases into Li’l Abner. Here he uses the return of that Dogpatch Don Juan,
Adam Lazonga, to try out “Yo’ big fat sloppy beast!!”

Nor, of course, is Capp the only talent we’ve seen bloom as we look across LOAC’s editions. Neither Poppy Joe nor The Skull cracks anyone’s top ten list of great Terry and the Pirates villains but they serve an important purpose, allowing the youthful Caniff to determine what worked and what didn’t, to refine his level of melodrama, to fine-tune the mixture of comedy to adventure. By the end of his first year on the job Caniff has Pat Ryan embroiled in his romance with Normandie Drake in the dailies, while introducing the wonderful Captain Blaze to give the increasingly-sophisticated Dragon Lady a run for her money in his Sunday sequences. The rest, to borrow the cliché, is history.

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And later this year, when our first Flash Gordon/Jungle Jim volume debuts, it will be great fun to contrast the efforts of the fledgling Alex Raymond to the work of the fully-polished professional who launched Rip Kirby in 1946.

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Compare the composition and figure work on display in these two examples
from Alex Raymond’s
Jungle Jim and Rip Kirby.

It can be argued that the explosion of modern media and the intense competition for the public’s entertainment dollar has raised the median talent line in the marketplace and lifted the overall level of craftsmanship on display. Yet reading series like Li’l Abner, Terry, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and Rip Kirby in collected editions shows us that we lost something when the heyday of comic strips disappeared, while reminding us that the material being plucked from that long ago garden of newspapers stands the test of time and repays reading, so many decades after its initial publication.

 

Check…and re-check

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Although all restoration and design for our books are done digitally using Macs and Cintiq interactive pen displays, we still receive hard-copy proofs for every book from the printer. Mornings seem to be when the ol’ eyeballs work best, so with coffee and pen in hand, we check the proofs and make corrections the old-fashioned way. There’s nothing like seeing the pages on paper in order to make those final corrections. Here are the proofs for Li’l Abner volume 2, which is being approved for print today. It will be on sale in stores in November.

Dogpatch by Way of Amesbury

From the highway, Amesbury’s major distinguishing characteristic is a family sports center visible at the foot on an enormous hill. In the wintertime that snow-covered slope is home to what looks like the finest sledding in all of New England. One drives past on a sunny January day and sees a steady stream of brightly-colored plastic saucer-sleds blasting down multiple paths at top speed; one can practically hear the laughter and shrieks and squeals of delight, even from the highway, even through the closed car windows. On this weekend, however, snow was a distant memory. This was the first weekend of summer, pleasantly warm and sunny, and personal business put me on the highway, driving north for the pleasure of seeing my brother and his family before the sadness of a Sunday that required the saying of a final goodbye.

And on this sunny summery Saturday, I was about to do something I had never done before – I was taking Exit 54 off Interstate 495 in order to pay a visit to Amesbury, one of the towns Li’l Abner‘s creator, Al Capp, called home. From the highway one follows Route 150 through a few miles of nondescript residences before reaching the outskirts of the downtown area, where Route 150 gives way to Main Street.

To two of them, actually.

As I waited at the intersection for the light to change, I did a double-take. No, my eyes were not deceiving me – the two perpendicular streets were both named Main Street! The road sign marked the corner of Main and Main. I shook my head: only in New England . . .

Following Mapquest directions to a lot on Water Street, I parked and prepared to explore the downtown area. At one end of the parking lot: a pub known (for obvious reasons) as The Barn, its façade showcasing quintessential New England kitsch. The building certainly appeared old enough to have been around during Al Capp’s day, though I wondered back then if “The Barn” was simply “a barn.”

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On the town’s major thoroughfares, another New England staple – a street fair – was in full swing. Pastel-topped tents dotted both sides of the street. Some offered for sale a variety of crafts – hand-made clothes, jewelry, puzzle boxes, woodwork, and more – while others served up a variety of snacks and drinks designed to help beat the summer heat. Buskers inhabited every second or third street corner, playing a guitar or a banjo, softly singing their tunes. Wandering from display to display were new parents pushing prams – teenagers in t-shirts and jeans, clutching skateboards beneath their arms – young lovers strolling arm in arm – senior citizens, out to enjoy the splendor of an early-summer day.

Making a turn off Market Street, passing under an extended brick archway, I found the item that had sparked this trip, something originally reported in the Boston Globe and also covered here in this space as “Favored Son”.

Anchored to the wall of the archway was the four-panel painting that serves as Amesbury’s new tribute to Al Capp. Created by local artist Jon Mooers, the work was inspired by the autobiographical feature from the June 24, 1946 issue of Life Magazine. You can see the Lifepiece on pages 21 – 24 of our Li’l Abner Volume 1; you can see the Mooers version right here:

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I stepped in to examine the work up close, mentally comparing and contrasting it to Capp’s Lifefeature. I heard other voices behind me, but paid no attention to them – until I turned around and saw a couple, perhaps mid-to-late fifties, telling their teenaged grandson about how funny Li’l Abner was, how it was once one of the most popular comics in the world.

“And best of all, it’s back again,” I said, stepping in and offering the man one of my business cards. He could see The Library of American Comics logo on my card as I explained how we are reprinting Abner in a series of hardcovered books, with the first one now available and the second coming later on this year. Not a hard sell … rather, a random encounter that might give the family something extra to talk about and perhaps help increase everyone’s level of interest. That’s the hope, anyway …

Back on Main Street I continued my walkabout, snapping pictures, trying to capture more of the Amesbury ambiance. Al Capp is not the town’s only literary luminary; Li’l Abner is not its only claim to fame. Amesbury was also home to 19th Century poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, who returned to the town after 1845, when ill health ended his involvement in the anti-slavery movement.

The Boston Globe article on Capp included a rather snooty-sounding quote from a member of the J.G. Whittier Home Association that makes it sound as if the Greenleafers are not entirely comfortable with the town’s attempt to attract Cappites. (The exact line was, “My son or anybody younger wouldn’t really know about him [Capp]. A lot of people don’t make the connection at all” – why do I hear that being said with a Lovey Howell-style intonation?)

One side of a prominent multi-storey building is given over to a mural honoring Whittier. The artwork is clearly visible as one drives or strolls down Main Street, and as I looked at it, I found myself hoping there is room in Amesbury to honor two contributors to the arts.

Amesbury’s chief industry was not poetry or comic strips, of course – not long after Whittier settled in town, a thriving carriage-manufacturing business developed and is remembered in yet another mural on yet another Main Street building.

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Capp’s wife’s maiden name was Catherine Cameron; her father, Colin Cameron, came from old money earned in the carriage trade. In the early 20th Century, the carriage business morphed into the construction of automobile bodies before the Great Depression wiped out this particular industry.

My trip up Main Street brought me to the town’s public library, which featured well-maintained grounds and an inviting atmosphere. New Englanders love their statues and in Amesbury, a statue of Josiah Bartlett sits on the edge of the library’s grounds. Bartlett was born in the town and went on to sign the Declaration of Independence, though he lived much of his life (and had most of his successes) as a resident of New Hampshire.

As I retraced my steps, making my way back to my car, I spotted the storefront of the town’s bookstore, Bertram & Oliver Booksellers. I am decidedly cool to everything “chain” – chain department stores, chain restaurants, chain home improvement stores, chain bookstores – so I was delighted to step inside and be greeted by the soothing sight of shelf upon shelf of books, a simple employee station and single cash register, and preparations being made for a kids’ reading session slated for later that day.

 

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I spoke with B&O’s owner, the delightful Joanne Wimberly, who gave me some of her valuable time even though she was in the midst of preparing for the special children’s event. I explained why I was in town and about LOAC’s Li’l Abner reprints and she was interested to hear we weren’t reprinting the strips as comic books, but rather as hardcovers. “Ah! A graphic novel!” Joanne said. “See, I’m learning the lingo!” At her request, I promised to send her the book specs and ordering details about Abner.

By the time I left Bertram & Oliver’s it was approaching noontime, my camera’s memory was nearly full, and I had hours of driving still ahead of me. It was time to say goodbye to Amesbury – but my detour off the highway lightened the somber circumstances awaiting me on Sunday, as several friends and I gathered to pay our due respects. It rather lightened things for my oldest, closest friends as well – as the day began to wane, I summarized my visit to Amesbury, my encounter with the family near the Capp mural, my exchange with Joanne Wimberly, my surprise at seeing the intersection of Main and Main. One of my friends shook his head. “You have about the greatest job on earth,” he said.

And you know – I’d be hard-pressed to disagree!

 

Favored Son

LilAbner1_medOne of the catalysts that helped create Li’l Abner was the hitchhiking trip undertaken by teenaged Al Capp and his friend, Gus Lee. Determination and a youthful zest for adventure overcame the obstacles created by Capp’s wooden leg as the duo traveled from New England to Memphis, Tennessee via Virginia and Kentucky, meeting a variety of “hill folk” along the way.

Later milestones in Abner’s genesis occurred in New York City: Capp hired on as Ham Fisher’s assistant on Joe Palooka, where he created that strip’s “Big Leviticus” Sunday sequence – during a night out at a theatre in Columbus Circle, a comedic “mountain music” performance made a huge impression on Capp and his wife, Catherine – counseled by artist Paul Fung, Capp worked up his samples and hit the Syndicate trail, ultimately selling Li’l Abner to United Features in 1934.

Yet neither New York nor the Ozarks figured into Capp’s life while his brainchild was in full flower – instead, Capp and his family (Catherine, two daughters, and an adopted son) spent much of each year occupying a sizeable farmhouse in Catherine’s hometown of Amesbury, on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Today, more than three decades after Capp’s passing, Amesbury is remembering its adopted son.

As reported in the Saturday, May 18, 2010 Boston Globe, this quiet town has renamed its amphitheater in the artist’s honor and is looking to develop a Capp Museum. As part of its annual “Amesbury First” festival, four 4′ x 8′ paintings recreating scenes from Capp’s June 24, 1946 Life autobiography-in-comics-form were unveiled (the entire feature appeared on pages 21 to 24 of our first Li’l Abner volume). The jumbo-sized reproductions were created by local artist Jon Mooers under the watchful eye of Capp’s heirs, including his surviving daughter, Julie.

Capp was not the town’s only famed citizen – 19th Century poet John Greenleaf Whittier also resided in Amesbury. The Globe article hints that modern-day Whittier fans may look down their noses at Capp and his rambunctious comic strip; one paragraph in reporter James Sullivan’s piece reads:

“My son or anybody younger wouldn’t really know about [Capp],” says Diane Cole, 56, who is a member of the John Greenleaf Whittier Home Association. “A lot of people don’t make the connection at all.”

The Amesbury Improvement Committee is more bullish on Capp and the tourism potential associated with his name, and artist Mooers expressed this wish for the newly-rechristened amphitheater: “I’d love to find somebody who could donate a bronze statue of Al. I’m a dreamer.”
Only time will tell if dreams can come true. Mooers’s cause may be aided later this year, when PBS devotes a segment of its American Masters series to Al Capp.

And who knows? Perhaps a segment of our readership might find ways to help Amesbury remember one of its favorite sons.

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