Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Li'l Abner, Snuffy, Pogo, and Friends: The South in the American Comic Strip1

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Li'l Abner, Snuffy, Pogo, and Friends: The South in the American Comic Strip1

Article excerpt

The American comic strip has largely been an urban oriented newspaper feature in terms of setting and character, beginning with the Yellow Kid and his urchin friends in Hogan's Alley in 1 885. During the first few decades of development, only occasionally would the rural South enter the comics as coincidental or background material, as in Clare Victor Dwiggins's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in 1918 (which paid little allegiance to Mark Twain's novels) [Fig.l], or as an exotic identification for a character, like Captain Easy, who hailed from Savannah, Georgia, in Roy Crane's rollicking adventure epic Wash Tubbs, beginning in 1924 [Fig.2]. By the early 1 930s, however, American popular culture was filled with references to the South, such as the widely distributed records of the band from North Carolina and Virginia who called themselves "The Hill-Billies," or Paul Webb's panel cartoons about lazy mountain folk in Esquire magazine.

The honor of creating the first successful comic strip specifically set in the South fell not to a cartoonist from below the Mason-Dixon Line but to a young artist from New Haven, Connecticut, named Alfred Gerald Caplin, later abbreviated to Al Capp, who went to work for Ham Fisher in 1 933 to help draw the popular strip about a prizefighter named Joe Palooka [Fig.3]. While Fisher was on vacation, Capp introduced to the cast a hillbilly boxer from Kentucky named Big Leviticus and his country kin in November, 1933.

The characters captured the public's fancy, so when Capp left Fisher he carried with him the basic idea for his own strip which began as Li 7 Abner on August 13, 1934 [Fig.4]. Fisher tried to lay claim to the characters and initiated one of the most acrimonious feuds in comic strip history which, like that of the Hatfields and McCoys, took no prisoners. Nevertheless, Capp went on to enormous fame and fortune with his 43-year saga of the denizens of Dogpatch, which eventually reached 60 million readers in over 900 American newspapers and 100 foreign papers in 28 countries. Capp arguably had a profound influence on the way the world viewed the American South.

What would a young man from Connecticut, schooled mainly in the ways of city life, know about Southern character and culture? Several sources of information have been suggested. Capp himself reported:

About the time my first crop of whiskers began to come up, I took a walking trip through the Kentucky mountains ... I sketched the hillbilly people there, the prototypes of Li'l Abner and the folks of his world. In Greenwich Village later between wondering where the next meal was coming from, I tore my hair searching for a comic strip idea. I remembered my hillbilly. And I knew nobody had ever built a comic strip around one. So I did. (Capp 1:6) [Fig.5]

Al Capp's brother, Elliott Caplin, tells a slightly different version in his memoir, Al Capp Remembered (1994). According to Elliott, when Capp was sixteen, he and a friend hitched a ride to a grocery store for cigarettes in Bridgeport. When it turned out the driver was headed for Baltimore, and with a little over ten dollars in their pockets, the two boys decided to join him and ten days later ended up in Memphis, Tennessee, at the home of Al's Uncle George, an orthodox rabbi. "When 'Li'l Abner ' became a success," added Elliott, "Alfred would resolutely maintain that the trip to Memphis was but a preliminary tour of the hillbilly country so that the future cartoonist could research the characters who wound up populating his wildly successful comic strip" (6 1-63). Elliott also tactfully labeled the entire story a typical piece of Capp "mythology."

How the two hitchhikers completed a journey of over 1,100 miles, crossing several states in ten days (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee), and yet found time to absorb local color in the Appalachian mountains remains a question, especially when we must make allowances for the fact that Capp had to walk on a wooden leg as a result of an accident at age nine. …

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