Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Booksteve Reviews: Al Capp-A Life to the Contrary

As a child, I adored Al Capp's LI'L ABNER. It was a favorite from my earliest memories of it when I looked at the colorful silly drawings and my mother read me aloud the mostly dialect dialogue.

That said, when Denis Kitchen's wonderful series of reprints began in the 1980s, I was never really able to get into the strip. I gave up after the first few volumes but then jumped back in for a couple more as it hit the more classic years of the strip. I did relish the two FEARLESS FOSDICK collections and the later Frazetta collections were gorgeous to peruse.

But what it all comes down to is that, as an adult, I'm more fascinated by Al Capp and the phenomenon that was LI'L ABNER than I am by LI'L ABNER itself!

Which brings us to the recent book, AL CAPP-A LIFE TO THE CONTRARY by Michael Schumacher and, appropriately enough, Denis Kitchen. By this point, I don't think I had any misconceptions about Capp but if I had, this book certainly would have dispelled them.

Capp was, to put it mildly, a real piece of work. The authors offer up his story in a most readable manner, based on endless years of research and presented without much undue editorial comment or judgement. Ambitious and idealistic from the beginning, we see the artist's ego build and build as he stops at nothing for success, stepping over his friends, his family, his assistants and his original mentor, Ham Fisher, in ways that led to a long-running nasty feud and arguably even Fishers suicide.

All the while, he cultivated celebrity and fame and, while maintaining a  public family man image, began to be seduced by same. ABNER translated early to cartoons, then a motion picture, much merchandising, a hit Broadway play, a big screen musical, a TV pilot, a theme park and more! All the while, Capp appeared on radio, in movies, on television and even the covers of LIFE, TIME and NEWSWEEK! Even in an age where cartoonists got much more respect than they do today, this kind of fame was unprecedented.

Meanwhile, having spread himself a little too thin over the years, his strip was handled largely by unheralded and uncredited assistants, with Capp providing the ideas and allegedly always drawing or at least inking the characters' faces.

The authors cover this great rise to fame and fortune in some detail and manage to keep Al a somewhat sympathetic character...until the sixties. Capp's political and social leanings had always surfaced in his strip, resulting in some biting satire over the years. After 3 decades or so, though, the political climate changed in the real world and Capp seemed to be left behind and unable to catch up. By the end of the decade, he was lecturing on college campuses regularly, even putting out an album of one such lecture, and yet he was majorly against the counter-culture, against youth movements and in favor of the Vietnam War!

By this point, though, he had become a bit of a dirty old man and got into big-time trouble in his attempts at non-consensual "seduction" of campus co-eds! This is the section where the book colors in the details of the portrait so that we can see he was NEVER really the benign, upwardly mobile creative genius he appeared to the public to be. Schumacher and Kitchen, although clearly fascinated by their subject, perhaps reluctantly give us a "warts and all" look at the man we thought we knew and it isn't pretty.

AL CAPP-A LIFE TO THE CONTRARY, is an honest, riveting look at a man who was once one of the most famous men in America but whose light faded quickly when he couldn't control his dark side. It could be seen as a lesson...or simply a portrait. Either way, BOOKSTEVE RECOMMENDS!

You can grab a copy at Amazon at quite inexpensive prices now that it's more than a year old.

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