Friday, November 5, 2010

Al Capp & Charles Schulz: Clash of the Titans

Capp Self-Portrait, mid 1940's
 In October of 1968, the American cartoonist Alfred G. Caplin, better known as Al Capp (1909-1979), brutally parodied Charles Schulz's (1922–2000) Peanuts over 3 consecutive Sundays in his own Li'l Abner strip.  Capp, perhaps the best-known satirist of his era, loved to parody fellow cartoonists. Milton Caniff enjoyed it when he and his characters were roasted, as did Allan Saunders (Mary Worth). But Ham Fisher (Joe Palooka) was an uncomfortable target. It was inevitable that Peanuts was subject to Capp’s lampooning. Denis Kitchen & I, while researching another project, started thinking about the interactions between these two superstar cartoonists, who were total opposites in style and personality.  

 Al Capp, the older of the two, was the traditionalist. Li’l Abner, the title he was best known for, debuted in 1934. His influences were the American comic strip cartoonists Tad Dorgan, Cliff Sterrett, Rube Goldberg, Rudolph Dirks, Fred Opper, Billy DeBeck, George McManus and Milt Gross and the Punch cartoonist–illustrator Phil May.  He was also well read, and devoured most of the literary classics while still a teenager.  Once Abner was established, he kept a traditional shop, with many assistants working on the strip.  At its height, Abner was a masterpiece of cultural and political satire.  Capp was a larger than life personality that enjoyed fame and seemed to have a psychological need to stay in the public eye.

At the end of the 1940’s and into the 50’s, Capp was at the height of his popularity. In 1947, he was awarded the Ruben by the National Cartoonist Society, the subject of a long 2-issue profile in The New Yorker and featured on the cover of Newsweek. In 1948 the Shmoo craze erupted, with the orgy of merchandising that followed. In 1950, he was also cover profiled in Time. In 1952, the wedding of Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae made national news, including the cover of Life Magazine.

Building in momentum around this time, several social and cultural events happened that seemed to knock him off course:
  • After the WWII era, there were physical changes in the format of comic strips themselves, forcing Capp to reduce the number of panels in his stories, and the amount of cross-hatching and detail customarily shown within the panels.
     
  • There was the movement away from figurative work in the arts. Contrast the WPA social realist style of illustration, which would have been happening around the time Capp was beginning his career, with the Modernist movement of the Abstract Expressionists, such as the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko, or the minimalist paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella.

    In the Li’l Abner strip Kissin’ Cousins, which ran on June 30, 1957, Capp spoofed modern art by having his character Tiny Yokum win a French art competition with a blank canvas. Tiny’s “prize-winner” references conceptual paintings like Kasimir Malevich’s White on White (1915) which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art (his related Black Square on White sold in 2000 for $1 million). American artist Robert Rauschenberg created his White Painting in 1951, comprising seven monochromatic white panels. Capp regarded such notorious works of “art” as intellectual fraud. His oft-quoted observation of abstract art was that it was "the product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”
     
  • There was the generational change from the post-war and Eisenhower era into the social turmoil of the 1960’s.  Capp was able to satirize political monsters like McCarthy, yet found the attitude of the 60’s generation unfathomable, even treasonous.
It is our feeling that Charles Schulz (1922-2000), whose Peanuts strip was first syndicated in 1950 (and had a meteoric rise thereafter), may have indirectly become a living symbol of some of these changes for Capp. It was Schulz’s perception, mentioned in several interviews, that Capp was jealous of Schulz’s success, replacing him as the top cartoonist, and the bitter tone of Capp’s 1968 Peanuts parody seems to bear this out.

Schulz personally drew the Peanuts strip himself, and liked the routine of it. He was an introspective man, who enjoyed approval, but was uncomfortable with being famous. Although he struggled with it in the beginning, Schulz settled into a very spare, modern, minimalist style of drawing. The interest in the collective unconscious, pop psychology, and the self-help fad (“stop smoking through self-hypnosis,” etc) that bloomed in 1950’s manifested in the militant self-empowerment of the 60’s, and the self-aware children of Peanuts were ideally suited to the era.

Schulz was introduced to Al Capp sometime in the early 1950’s, in conjunction with the National Cartoonist Society (possibly by Mort Walker, who was president at that time). Schulz won the Ruben himself not long after, in 1955.  It seems that in this period, a critical dialog developed between Schulz and Capp, arguably the two most visible American cartoonists. Schulz, for example criticized the marriage of the Abner characters as "the worst mistake Al Capp made" because it altered the fundamental dynamic of the strip. In 1965, Capp opined that the Peanuts characters were "good, mean little bastards. Eager to hurt each other."

In the 60’s, Capp’s star was fading, and he took a few swipes at his “successor.” In his 1968 parody, he pointedly made fun of the psychological elements of Peanuts, even going so far as to suggest that Schulz was one of those modern artists that didn’t know how to draw (“my kid could do that,” he implies through Abner’s sketch). “Well, it’s just about run its course, you know," Capp said at the time, "Little kids talking like adults. It’s just about run its course.”  It seems ironic that Capp began his attack with comments about licensing and corporate sponsorship, considering the prodigious amount of merchandising and endorsements Capp had himself (although that time had largely passed for Li’l Abner by the late ‘60s). Apparently the two artists had a falling out over these strips, but by 1995, in an interview with Gary Groth, Schulz characterized it as "an unfortunate misunderstanding."

In 1974 Capp attempted to cash in on the pop art craze by selling limited edition serigraph prints, apparently figuring that if people would pay Warhol and Lichtenstein millions for “rip-offs” of comics characters, they would jump at the chance to buy the “real thing,” ignoring the theoretical underpinnings of this kind of work. The general public snapped them up, but he did not win the critical acclaim he was reaching for. At this point, Peanuts has become a worldwide phenomenon, and Capp, beset by personal scandal, is spiraling toward the end of his life and career.

Summary

Al Capp and Charles Schulz, who dominated the world of comic strips in their respective overlapping eras, are a study in remarkable contrasts. Each experienced a quick meteoric rise to fame from humble beginnings, Capp during the Great Depression and Schulz in the postwar boom, but their cartooning styles are virtual mirror opposites: Capp’s brushwork is dark, spotted heavily with black ink and cross-hatched. Even his lettering is bold. Schulz’s pen lines are light and spare but heavy with expression. Capp, a social creature, worked on his strip with several assistants; Schulz labored solo. Capp’s Dogpatch, almost devoid of children, was populated with scheming and power-hungry men, and with women who were either grotesque or voluptuous. Schulz’s asexual cartoon universe was virtually devoid of adults, yet its characters were often wise and world weary. Capp was a brash, outspoken East Coast Jew who craved the limelight and success, while Schulz was an introspective Midwesterner not especially comfortable with the limelight. Commercial success and television and Broadway adaptations aside, what they had in common was that each, in his own distinct way, captured the imagination and loyalty of tens of millions of readers daily while providing insights —both profound and funny— into the human condition.

Kim Munson & Denis Kitchen. Images © Capp Enterprises, Inc.

8 comments:

  1. 'Bedly Damp' is a genius name. You have opened my eyes; thanks for posting this.

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  2. Al's problem was he just didn't "get it". But he wasn't smart enough to keep that to himself.

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  3. Thanks for posting this, Denis and Kim. this is some solid work. I'm fascinated by late-period Capp and was lucky enough to be on a panel with Trina Robbins and Capp's granddaughter discussing some of these issues. Her take was that the times changed but he didn't, while he contended that he called out hypocrisy wherever he saw it, and the place where he saw it simply moved.
    I haven't heard word on her documentary on Capp for a while now, but I hope it proceeds apace. With documentaries on Crumb, Eisner, Jeff Smith, David Mack, V.T. Hamlin, and Tezuka already out there, this is an exciting time for comics scholars and fans!

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  4. Denis tells me that Capp's daughter is in the final stages of finishing the documentary about Capp, and that it's planned to air on the PBS "Masters" series. I don't know when but now that I know you are interested I will keep you posted. Denis is also working on a book project that should be published in a couple years.

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  5. Beyond his credentials as a cartoonist, Capp was also an important literary figure - one of the widest-read satirists of the 20th century. Despite this, his work has been deliberately maligned by ideological morons on both sides of the aisle for decades. Today he remains the most “controversial” newspaper strip cartoonist, but nothing more. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that he was also, arguably, the greatest.

    Capp’s family have shown no real interest or talent in correcting this unfair situation. His granddaughter’s PBS documentary has devolved into a self-serving vanity piece about her own left-wing reawakening and political agenda, if recent promotional material is any indication. In a recent interview (on SF360.org), she describes Capp as a “bastard” and herself as a “rebel”. (Are we supposed to believe that being a liberal professor at a San Francisco university is analogous to being a rebel? What the hell is rebellious about that??)

    Schulz's reputation is secure, but Capp's is another story - though it shouldn't be. He dared to blast both sides, an unwritten taboo in comics, apparently. Personally, I couldn't care less about his politics or his personal life; I just would like to see him one day given his due as a brilliant satirist and creative artist.

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  6. Great stuff, thanks so much for posting this- both your thoughts and the material itself. A couple stray thoughts:

    * This wasn't really a fair fight, since Schulz wasn't a satirist or a parodist. Their verbal exchanges were more of a level field.

    * That being said, I don't think Capp quite found the handle on this one. I think he did his greatest work parodying things he liked and respected more- "Tracy", "Steve Canyon", "Mary Worth"- although that last one might have been the easiest target in comics history.

    * As a certified genius, Capp deserves a pass for not getting "Peanuts". Walt Kelly loved Milt Caniff as a close friend, but possibly didn't get his work. In an interview, Caniff revealed that he had once been very hurt by a supposed Kelly comment relayed to him, presumably by a reliable source, referring to Caniff's work condescendingly- something like "He can really draw those rivets." Harvey Kurtzman also said he got a brush-off from Kelly early in his career.

    So geniuses don't always understand each other.

    * For all the differences delineated very well above, Capp and Schulz had some similarities, too. Both became pretty grouchy late in my life- just my opinion, of course. But read a late interview with Schulz and see if you agree. Both had considerable egos- Schulz apparently used to go into bookstores in the nineties and berate the managers for not having "Peanuts" books on hand.

    * Maybe their biggest artistic difference that comes to mind: Schulz' work was much better when he was angrier. In the nineties, Schulz was shown one of his great earlier strips with Lucy at her most acid. He said "I'd never draw that now....I'm not that angry anymore." So Lucy slowly lost her mojo.

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  7. Thanks for posting this. As a huge fan both of Lil Abner and Peanuts, this was of much interest. I`d like to add that according to the Schulz-biography by Rheta Grimsley Johnson of the late 80s, Capp did actually notify Schulz on beforehand that a parody on Peanuts was in the works, and wanted him not to take it to the heart, or something like that. When it appeared, Schulz`s response was simply that he didn`t find it that funny, which reportedly infuriated Capp.

    About the upcoming documentary on Capp, I`m looking forward to it, although I don`t think its apparent major subject is as mysterious as many make it out to be, concerning Capp`s political "switch" in the 60s. As I see it, Capp was always a liberal in the sense that he supported well-fare to the poor and so on, but he loathed the drugs and baby-boom (and possibly the long hair) that took place from the late 60s on. The problem was that he let his anger at these things affect his views on other issues, such as the Vietnam war; he began to see it as "either us or you." This, I think, is reflected quite well in Lil Abner throughout its run; although outrageously funny and sometimes even thought-provoking, Capp`s satire was never particularly nuanced.

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  8. A Capp documentary would be welcome but so would one on Chester Gould. Gould worked another area of popular comics and became much stronger version of himself as he aged, ending up an arch conservative who blew his life savings on the construction of a massive house that was an extension of his own ego. Gould's was a unique kind of graphic and storytelling genius, which deserves rediscovery.

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