It seems like a story from long, long ago, but it really wasn't really all that long ago that newspaper cartoonists were like rock stars. People like Milton Canniff, Harold Gray, Chester Gould and Al Capp were enormous celebrities during their lifetimes, earning millions of dollars per year — in a time when a million dollars per year was an unbelievable amount of money — and receiving enormous fame. Most everyone in America knew who Al Capp was — or they did if their household received their local newspaper which ran the daily adventures of the ever-popular Li'l Abner, one of the most legendary of all the daily strips.
I can tell that many of you younger readers are tuning this review out already, straining desperately to think of a time when the daily newspaper was something that people actually read, let alone something that was a vital part of everyday life. Newspapers seem like a quaint relic of a long-lost period, a time when men wore fedoras, watched black-and-white TV, worried about the Commies conquering America and drove giant cars with fins on them.
And while that may be a bit of an oversimplification — I think many of us still remember the golden era of the last two really transcendent newspaper cartoonists, Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz — it really is hard to resurrect a vision of the incredible influence that the daily paper had over everyday life, of the way that the newspaper was often almost inescapable and all-pervasive at the time that communications wasn't as inescapable as it is today.
Comic strips had a special, exalted place in that hierarchy of communications, as a major aspect of what sold papers and at the same time made stars of their creators. The new Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen does a great job of resurrecting those lost times and presenting the life story of a thoroughly unique, idiosyncratic, fascinating and ultimately incredibly frustrating man.
Al Capp was a brilliant cartoonist — strong with his art, strong with his layouts and extremely strong with his eye for women and his ear for hilarious dialogue. He was also an incredibly difficult man — a womanizer, a man who was difficult to his friends and family — particularly his brother – and a man who engaged in long and vicious feuds — one of which eventually led to the suicide of famous cartoonist Ham Fisher.
Capp got around. There's a wonderful story in this book about Capp visiting John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their (in)famous bed-in in Montreal in 1970. Another fascinating set of stories tell of Al's complex and conflicted relationship with his brother Bence, full of range and anger and betrayal. The section about Bence and Al provides a fascinating core of the book, showing that Capp's all-consuming drive for success and obsessive totaling of injustices made in his name was almost incalculable.
If he wasn't such an asshole, Al Capp might even be seen as a tragic figure because the very things that made him popular ended up sowing the seeds of his destruction. Long a popular speaker on college campuses for his extremely outspoken conservatism — much out of step with his times — Capp ended up destroying the last real vestiges of his popularity with a series of sex scandals. The most fascinating chapters in this book contain passages like "Capp's behavior was becoming delusional. He wrote excoriating letters, some to friends and family…" because there are few more things more pleasing than watching a bully bring about his own comeuppance.
This new biography of Capp comes at a bit of a strange time. Yes, the good people at the Library of American Comics have been producing reprints of Li'l Abner for some time, and volume five of their authoritative collection was released in January. But Al Capp passed away in 1977 and his name has passed away from the consciousness of all but the most dedicated comics historians. I had trouble resurrecting the image of Al Capp the man in my mind, though the stories about him make Capp bring his life to a vivid and fascinating sharpness.
Al Capp's life was long and complex, and 35 years after the death of this master cartoonist, this worthy warts-and-all biography has been released. I flew through this book, fascinated by all its details and by how Capp was both larger than life and smaller than life. He may be nearly forgotten now, but in his day Al Capp was a big man in almost every way that you might use that term.