Tag Archives | Al Capp

It Takes All Kinds to Make a World …

In the text features for our LOAC titles we often quote from letters received by the cartoonist in question. Sometimes this is professional correspondence related to the business of syndicating or merchandising the strip and its characters, while other times we cite those individual readers who felt the burning urge to pen either high praise or high dudgeon and mail it to the artist.

But some letters are so far “off the beam” they would have no place inside our books. Let me share the highlights — and I use that term loosely — from one of my very favorites with you …

Postmarked from scenic Brooklyn, New York in September of 1955, the item in question arrived in an envelope bearing this address (pardon the extreme blurriness):

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Sent to, “Mr. Al Capp, Steve Canyon Cartoonist,” in care of the New York Daily Mirror, we see the first sign that something is amiss. As we know (but the writer apparently did not), Al Capp drew Li’l Abner. It was Milton Caniff who created and produced Steve Canyon!

The enclosed letter was typed all in capitals (before that approach was deemed to represent “shouting”). As you can tell from the envelope excerpt above, the copy of the letter I have is too blurred for good reproduction, but I carefully transcribed the contents of the original when I found it during one of our research trips to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, so I’m able to replicate the all-caps format and include the various typos and misspellings, as well. Believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up!

The author begins:

 

DEAR SIR:

RUSSIAS CLAIMS ON PLANETARY DISCOVERY BY COSMIC SPACE SHIPS IN AN ARTICLE OF AUG. ’55 BY REUTERS NEWS DISPATCH, IS A LITTLE PREVIOUS.  IN AUG. OF ’53, PATIENT Z-125 IN WASHINGTON, D.C. REHEARSED THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN RIGHTS OF THE WORD OF  GOD ON FAR PLANETS.

THE EVOLUTION AND PROPAGATION OF THE THREE PLANETS NEAREST THE SUN-STAR ARE IN THE ICE, STONE AND BIBLE MAKING STAGES.  WIT H EARTH THE FARTHEST ADVANCED OF ORBIT EVOLUTION IN THE SUN-STAR UNIVERSE, THE BROTHER AND SISTER PLANETS HAVE BEEN IN COMMUNION WITH THE EARTH EVOLUTION.

BEING HINDERED IN STATIONING, AND ATMOSPHERIC PLANETARY ACCEPTANCE, W  WOULD BE A HURDLE RUSSIA MAY FIND DIFFICULT TO- OVER COME.

 

The author (who shall go nameless) then shifts to a discussion of the goddesses found in “GREEK FAIRY TALES” and a tale of The Resurrection cited as being revealed by “ST MATTHEW TO THE MULTITUDE IN EPISTLE C22.” In closing, the letter’s writer offers this:

 

POEM OF PROSE

A WEDLOCK BEING WAC, MARRIED AND M.D.,

IN THE 1st CHURCH BEILEVEING 6 DAYS FOR A MONTH.

NOW THERE’S 28 DAYS IN ONE MONTH;

BEING, TOO, WELOCKED IN 2nd CHURCH BELIEVING 22 DAYS FOR A MONTH.

THE LADY OF MONTHS THAT PASS.

THAT BEING NEAR THE PHYSICIAN.

THE LADY KNOWS HER Ps AND Qs.

THAT FAR MATHEMATICIAN KNOWS Y PLUS X = ZERO.

 

Finally, by way of apology, the correspondent concluded: “P.S. SORRY I’M NOT A GOOD ODE-IST, PLEASE FOR-GIVE MY SHORT COMINGS.”

Even a wit as keen as Al Capp seemed flummoxed by what he had just read. Still, because he was a swiftie, he saw in the letter an opportunity to throw a couple gentle jabs at his good friend, Caniff. He forwarded the letter to Milton along with a note dated September 22, 1955. In it, Al wrote:

 

“Dear Milt:

“Judging from the contents of this letter … this is one of your readers. It was sent to me because everyone thinks I do all the comic strips.”

 

That humorous note provided the perfect — errr-r-r — Capper to the original letter writer’s impenetrable attempt at communication. But the missive serves as a reminder that, just as in today’s 21st Century world of high-profile stars and instantaneous contact, where stories of “celebrity stalkers” or bedeviling on-line “trolls” regularly make the news, the classic penmen of the past received plenty of letters from those who fit the description of either cranks or crackpots. Technology changes, but the range of human response does not.

And if this little exchange provided you with a smile, remind me someday to reprint the letter Ernie Bushmiller wrote about one particular piece of fan mail …!

Found in My Far-From-Junk Drawer

Last time in this space I discussed growing up with a “junk drawer” in our home, a catch-all for things that didn’t easily fit in anywhere else in the house. I mentioned having a similar catch-all in my filing cabinets today. It definitely doesn’t qualify as a junk drawer, given the many wonderful outsized or unusual items that reside within it, but it serves a similar purpose to my father and mother’s original Fibber McGee-style drawer from my boyhood days.

A recent dive into that Far-From-Junk drawer brought me to the KFS booklet commemorating Bringing Up Father‘s 20th anniversary, and that sparked thoughts that resulted in the “character evolution” piece that ran here at the end of September. It occurred to me that perhaps you might like to see a smattering of the other items I keep in my Far-From-Junk Drawer, so this week I dived back in.

Since we began by considering Bringing Up Father, and since I’m a huge fan of all things George McManus, let’s start off this look with two of almost a year’s worth of 1934 BUF newspaper strips I own, clipped from the pages of the Kansas City Star. McManus always has a great way with animals, and here you’ll see Jiggs and Maggie have received a most unusual pet, given as a gift from nobility with whom they had recently rubbed elbows:

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I always love gags about Maggie’s singing, and here the little pachyderm proves he has good taste regarding bad music!

A few years ago, Al Capp/Li’l Abner fan extraordinaire Mike Fontanelli sent me a C.A.R.E. package of all things Abnerian — some clipped daily and Sunday strips, a smattering of magazine articles, and other odds and ends, including a nice sampling of Cream of Wheat ads featuring the denizens of Dogpatch. Here’s a sample, which seemed especially appropriate since 2016, like 1944, is a leap year :

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Li’l Abner Yokum proves that Cream of Wheat not only tastes good, it’s good for you!

I also have some Ben Casey material, like this newspaper ad promoting the series, by the irrepressible Neal Adams, who continues to produce great-looking art today, *mumble-mumble* decades later:

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Neal Adams, of course, became an almost-revered figure in the comic book world for his work at both DC (on Superman, Deadman, and Green Lantern/Green Arrow) and Marvel (X-Men, Avengers, Inhumans, Thor). The superhero world’s gain was the comic strip world’s loss!

Not all the items in my catch-all drawer pertain to comic strips. I make no secret of my love for baseball, and here’s a fine copy of a photo of the young Jackie Robinson that I received as a benefit from being a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame:

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As the first African-American to play major league baseball, Robinson wore number 42. That number has now been retired from the sport, and no major leaguer will ever again wear that number without special permission from the Commissioner’s office.

Back in the comic book world, Jim Steranko moved away from doing work for Marvel Comics to publish magazines (Mediascene, Prevue) under his own company. He produced other products as well, like his bellwether History of Comics and stiff cardboard comic book “holders.” Here are the two facing sides of those holders, rendered as only Steranko can do it:

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By the way, Steranko’s brilliant Introduction to our Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles is must-reading for any student of the artform.

Finally, during the 1980s and into the early ’90s, I was devouring Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales while it was initially being published by Kitchen Sink Press. How big an XT booster was I? So big that on a trip to Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I bought one of the boxes of “Cadillacs & Dinosaurs” candy bars they were selling. The candy is long gone, of course, but here is the top of the box, plus one of its side panels, featuring series stars Jack Tenrec and Hannah Dundee amidst some heavy dinosaurian action:

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Though the core comics series was published as Xenozoic Tales, a parallel series and a short-lived animated TV series both appeared under the “Cadillacs & Dinosaurs” title.

Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed this peek inside my Far-From-Junk Drawer — and that you agree with my classification of its contents as definitely being anything but junk!

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!

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!

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