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Al Capp (Caplin), the cartoonist who created “Li’l Abner” in 1934 and continued to write and draw the hugely popular comic strip for forty-three years, died at 70 on this date in 1979. Capp, a son of poverty, lost a leg to a streetcar accident at the age of 9. He was an autodidact who never graduated from high school and was thrown out of three successive art schools for lack of tuition. At 22 he hitchhiked from Connecticut to New York, lived in Greenwich Village, and landed a job drawing comics for the Associated Press. When “Li’l Abner” appeared and caught on, Capp “turned that world upside-down by routinely injecting politics and social commentary,” writes historian Rick Marschall. “The strip was the first to regularly introduce characters and story lines having nothing to do with the nominal stars of the strip. The technique — as invigorating as it was unorthodox — was later adopted by cartoonists like Walt Kelly [Pogo] and Garry Trudeau [Doonesbury].” John Updike once compared the strip to Voltaire’s Candide — and when Capp finally permitted Li’l Abner to marry his girlfriend Daisy Mae in 1952, Life magazine put them on the cover. A lifelong contrarian, Capp was fairly liberal in the conservative 1950s, and turned a hard right during the Sixties, while living in the “liberated zone” of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His life ended with disease (emphysema) and unhappiness, including sexual scandal, the death of a daughter and a granddaughter, and declining quality in his work. Since his death, Al Capp has been the subject of more than forty books, including three biographies, and received the Will Eisner Award in 2004.
Capp “was an unabashed womanizer and eventually a sexual predator, but he resigned from the National Cartoonist Society when male colleagues wouldn’t admit a female member. And while he had a lifelong intolerance for racism, there were virtually no black characters during the four-decade run of ‘Li’l Abner.... Readers prone to dislike Capp’s politics might be surprised to learn that he once took a flamboyantly gay man to a White House banquet... He was generally self-aggrandizing and a penny pincher, yet he very quietly gave money to widows of slain policemen and even to struggling students.” —Steven Heller, The Atlantic