Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Shown here is a signed photograph of Al Capp at his board drawing two of his most beloved characters, Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae.

Best known as the creator of Li’l Abner, one of most popular comic strips of all time, Capp (1909 – 1979) was a brash, outspoken, and contrarian satirist who work brought unprecedented relevance to comic strips, which previously had been the domain of adolescents and children.Singer 092217 Caplan

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Capp, born Alfred Gerald Caplan, was a tireless public crusader who exposed greed, corruption and social injustice, he injected politics and social commentary into his strips, thereby providing a wholly new and unique template for contemporary satire and personal expression in the comics. Li’l Abner, which introduced a host of treasured characters – including the hillbilly Abner, Daisy Mae, Joe Btfsblk, Evil Eye Fleegle, General Bullmoose, Fearless Fosdick, Sadie Hawkins, Ma and Pa Yokum, Jubilation T. Cornpone, and the Shmoo – ran for 43 years, reaching a peak circulation of over 900 newspapers worldwide and a readership of more than 70 million.

Both sets of Capp’s grandparents were Orthodox Jews who fled anti-Semitic persecution in Riga. His maternal grandfather became the chief rabbi of Newark. His paternal grandfather, who founded an Orthodox synagogue in New Haven, was keenly disappointed by Capp’s lack of Jewish scholarship. Capp’s mother, having failed to transmit her reverence for Jewish traditional practice to her children, observed those traditions herself, including strict kashrut and lighting Shabbat candles every week.

In a moment of melancholy one Friday night before his death, an ailing Capp asked his wife to light his mother’s treasured silver candlesticks. His attitude toward his Judaism can perhaps best be summed up by his statement that “It may not have been a crime to be a Jew in America, but it was no great compliment either.”

As one comics historian put it, “Capp was a non-practicing Jew who spoke a little Yiddish, but he expressed his background by giving a structure of Jewish family values to his cartoon characters.”

Capp was undeniably influenced by Jewish humor and he often gave expression to his Jewish background through his various cartoon creations. For example, Capp once had Fearless Fosdick (his popular parody of comic strip detective Dick Tracy) track down a thief who had stolen Moshe Dayan’s ham sandwich, and it has been suggested he got the idea for “Sadie Hawkins Day” from the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance before the men in the vineyards.

Capp often used Jewish or Yiddish terms for his characters including, for example, a king named Nogoodnick; a body of water called the Gulf of Pincus; and the unforgettable and lovable “Shmoo,” who commentators suggest was Capp’s metaphor for the Jewish people. The family name “Yokum” was, according to Capp “phonetic Hebrew” (for Yehoyakim, which means “raised by God”), and he drew on his grandparents in creating Mammy and Pappy Yokum.

Capp’s portrayal of the almost naïve friendliness of Li’l Abner and the Southern rural folks of Dogpatch had its genesis in a trip he took as a teen hitching through Appalachia, when he was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and warm-hearted the natives were to a “Jewish Yankee” like himself.

Capp dropped out of several art schools before landing a job with the Associated Press where, at 19, he became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America. Soon after, he was hired by Ham Fisher to assist in drawing and writing the Joe Palooka comic strip. In 1933, Capp introduced to Fisher’s strip an uncouth hillbilly boxer named “Big Leviticus” – note the biblical reference – who became the forerunner of Li’l Abner.

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Capp and Charles Schulz, creator of the legendary Peanuts comic strip, met in the early 1950s, and friction soon developed between the two great cartoonists. When Capp finally married off his strip’s two principal protagonists, Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae (March 31, 1952) – an event of historical import memorialized on the cover of Life magazine – Schulz publicly characterized it as “the worst mistake Al Capp made” because, he said, it distorted the strip’s vital underlying dynamic.

Capp, who characterized the marriage of his characters as “throwing a bone” to Congress and psychologists, who had been blaming comics for corrupting American youth, subsequently admitted that his surrender had been both cowardly and a serious artistic error. Later, with Capp’s popularity waning, he commented that Peanuts characters were “mean” and “eager to hurt each other.”

Capp, who was broadly recognized as one of the great satirists of his era, could not resist using his strip to spoof fellow cartoonists. For example, Milton Caniff (creator of the strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon) and Allan Saunders (Mary Worth) were delighted when he roasted their characters, but Joe Palooka creator Ham Fisher, whom Capp satirized as “Happy Vermin” – was not. Given the state of affairs between Capp and Schulz, it was to be expected that Peanuts would become subject to Capp’s satirizing and for three Sundays in October 1968 he used his Li’l Abner strip to brutally parody Peanuts.

In his spoof, Capp pointedly made fun of the essential Peanuts consciousness, even suggesting that Schulz was an amateur artist: “My kid could do that…. Little kids talking like adults. It’s just about run its course.” Capp further laced his comments with criticism of Schulz’s endorsements and sponsorships, which was particularly ironic given Capp’s own licensing and merchandising juggernaut.Singer 092217 Letter 1

Displayed here are both a September 11, 1968 letter from Capp to Schulz and Schulz’s less-than-enthusiastic response. Capp writes:

A lot of people have noticed an atmosphere of bitterness in Li’l Abner lately and the theory is that I have become rich, reactionary and senile. All that is true of course, but it is not the whole story. What really embittered me was that I couldn’t find a way of giving Peanuts the Fosdick treatment. You have long since achieved the love and eminence that deserves a massacre by Al Capp. But – you will note a change in Li’l Abner soon. Its gay! Its lighthearted! And all because I did find a way to do you in, starting Sunday, October 13.

It is, of course, my way of saying that I continue to admire and wonder at your stuff and, best of all, I frequently laugh at it.

Singer 092217 Letter 2In his September 27, 1968 response, an uncharacteristically sharp Schulz is not amused:

…I was actually quite surprised to hear what you were planning to do. I have seen proofs of three of the Sunday pages, and, if you will pardon my frankness, find them not very funny. Naturally, I am flattered that you should think the whole Peanuts thing is worthy of your attention, but I sometimes wonder just how much newspaper readers are interested in this sort of thing.

Though the evidence clearly suggests there was bad blood over Capp’s Peanuts strips, Schulz later brushed it off as a mere “unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Famous for having his characters debate theology and quote scripture extensively, Schulz, who was familiar with the Bible and religious doctrine, once commented: “Sometimes I feel almost like the Jews, when God became so holy you couldn’t speak his name.” Although Schulz wasn’t Jewish, it’s interesting that at least two of his characters were.

First, Frieda Rich, curly-haired like her Peanuts namesake, made a crucial contribution to the very gestalt of the Peanuts strip. A member of the Art Instruction faculty in 1948 who taught freehand drawing and layout just across the aisle from Schulz, she admired his work and they became great friends.

A proud Jew, Frieda was also a dwarf, whose physical characteristics, including the relative size of her head and body and the way she stood, sat, and moved, were reflected in the strip. Frieda, an erudite adult in a child’s body, set up Schulz’s dominant and then-unique theme of having his characters speak like adults (which, as noted above, Capp did not find amusing).

Second, Schulz’s best friend growing up, the Jewish Shermy Plepler, son of a refugee father from Czarist Russia, became the “Shermy” character in the Peanuts strip. Moreover, Schulz used to sit for hours and listen to Shermy’s mother play piano, particularly Beethoven, which likely served as the basis for Schroeder’s love of Beethoven in the Peanuts strip.

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Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every week. Mr. Singer welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.