April 29th, 2010 at 11:36 pm

The Feuds That Were and Never Were (Pt. 1)

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(Save a couple of minor edits and a handful of lines inserted for clarity, this piece originally appeared as an introduction to Volume 23 of Kitchen Sink Press’ Li’l Abner in 1996. In deference to internet attention spans, I’ll break it into three separate posts.)

The Des Moines Tribune was in a snit, and that upright daily wasn’t going to stand for it. In early September of 1957 the journal’s guardians of the public good sprang into action, narrowly averting a situation from which the delicate sensibilities of thousands of housewives, teamsters and corn farmers might never have recovered.

It was a time when Russian missile tests were fueling Cold War paranoia, racial tensions were building to a showdown in Little Rock, and the rest of the world, as usual, seemed to be sitting on a powder keg…but what really had editors in the Hawkeye State all aflutter was a case of bad manners in the funny pages.

To be fair, the inconceivable had occurred: Mary Worth, the comics’ beloved matchmaker and dispenser of motherly advice, had launched an unexpected and vicious personal attack on Li’l Abner creator Al Capp, painting him as a bad-tempered, egocentric, lecherous creep.

It didn’t matter that only a week before, the Li’l Abner Sunday strip had evidently opened hostilities with a sequence ridiculing Mary and her writer Allen Saunders; Capp, after all, had been poking fun at stars, politicians and other cartoonists for over twenty years. If a feud had erupted between the two of them, the Des Moines editors didn’t fault Capp for doing what came naturally. With Mary Worth, however, it was another story.

Bristling with prim Corn Belt indignation, the Tribune issued a ringing declaration of principles – “The editors of the Tribune believe that readers want to be entertained by comic strips and are not interested in the jealousies and rivalries that exist between comic creators” – and abruptly suspended Mary Worth for the duration of its “thinly disguised” attack on Capp.

As an act of principle, the editors’ action was no sillier than their 1980s counterparts’ periodic suspension of the political satire strips Doonesbury and Bloom County for daring to actually contain political satire – and a case could be made, particularly in these uncivil times, for anyone who values common decency enough to take a stand in favor of civility. But while the unamused powers at the Tribune took the Capp-Saunders feud as an affront to the innocent pleasures of their comics page, many readers in Iowa and elsewhere were a bit quicker to spot it for what it truly was: a hoax.

Of course, by 1957 the public had been enjoying such events for years. In those days, most famous feuds were about as serious as TV wrestling, publicity stunts manufactured to entertain audiences and boost the popularity of celebrities. The long-running exchange of insults between comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen had drawn listeners to both men’s radio shows for years, and even fueled a motion picture (the 1940 Love Thy Neighbor), but that was merely the best known of many synthetic squabbles that were in vogue for a time in Hollywood; other show-biz personalities also took part in equally spurious feuds that hurt no one and gave their audiences a few extra knowing chuckles.

To a man as sensitive to the public mood as Al Capp, generating a feud of his own must have seemed like a natural. As a satirist, it was already in character for him to needle well-known personalities; all he required was the right willing “victim” who would be poised to return fire. And of course, once the press heard that the creator of the world’s greatest hillbilly strip was engaged in a modern-day version of the Hatfields and McCoys, the headlines would write themselves.

Only a few years before the Mary Worth affair, Capp had been drawn into a genuine feud with his former boss Ham Fisher, who was obsessed with the notion that the idea for Li’l Abner had been stolen from some hillbilly characters that had appeared in Fisher’s Joe Palooka in 1933. As Fisher’s assistant, Capp had drawn the sequence in question, and some critics have suggested that he wrote it as well. Whatever the extent of his contribution, however, there is no similarity between Palooka’s mountain dwellers and Abner’s beyond the elements they shared with virtually every other hillbilly in books, movies and plays of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

Despite provocation from Fisher, Capp kept his mouth shut on the subject and stressed the positive in his few public statements about his ex-employer. It wasn’t until Fisher went public with his claim in the panels of Joe Palooka in the late 1940s that Capp responded, and even then only in the form of a minor gag about Fisher’s recent nose job. At that point, both men could have retreated to their corners and laid the matter to rest, but Fisher insisted on pressing the point. Almost against his will, Capp was drawn further and further into the feud by a man who evidently couldn’t see the downside in getting a top satirist mad at him.

Not to mince words, Capp cut Fisher off at the knees without breaking a sweat; and each pass of his scalpel earned a laugh from his audience. He dealt Joe Palooka’s creator the old one-two in 1950 with the publication of his devastating reminiscence “I Remember Monster” in the Atlantic Monthly, followed by a Sunday Abner sequence that lampooned Fisher as a slave-driving cheapskate cartoonist named Happy Vermin.

Outclassed and furious, Fisher tried to ruin Capp by spreading rumors that the Abner artist was deliberately slipping  hidden images into his strip that were unfit for family newspapers. Over the next five years, those charges were followed by a stream of Abner clippings anonymously sent to various legislators, pornographic drawings that obviously had been distorted by some outside party with an ax to grind.

Some of the clippings revealed no more than Capp’s frequent insertion of the number 69 into the strip, examples of nudge-nudge smoker humor that were relatively edgy for those days but hardly obscene. Those were accompanied by authentic Abner clippings with additional linework added here and there to suggest male and female genitalia concealed in background details and scenery. The overall effect was similar to the “pictures within pictures” that were being showcased in Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent around the same time…

but, where the naughty pics in that book were largely a matter of wishful thinking on Doc Wertham’s part, the Abner samples were outright fakes – and clumsy ones, at that.

A study of the indecent forgeries by members of the National Cartoonists Society determined that Fisher himself was responsible. He was suspended from the NCS membership in February of 1955; in December of that year, he killed himself, bringing to an end a series of events which had ended in his own disgrace, brought Capp grief he’d never earned, and created an unsavory situation which editors like those in Des Moines had no stomach to relive.

(When we pick up the story next time, Will Eisner gets into the, uh, spirit of the Capp cartoon feud.)

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