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.
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.
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.
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.