May 3rd, 2010 at 11:06 am

The Feuds That Were and Never Were (Pt. 2)

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(Part one of this 1996 article offered a look at a pair of feuds involving Li’l Abner cartoonist Al Capp – his long-running real-life rivalry with Joe Palooka creator Ham Fisher, and a headline-grabbing exchange of mock insults between Abner and Mary Worth. This time around, we’ll check out some curious not-quite-feuds from Capp’s career – including one with the legendary Will Eisner, who relived the experience in an entertaining phone conversation.

(Note: This piece was written for a general readership, not the inside-baseball comics crowd. If you already know who Harvey Kurtzman and Milton Caniff were, good for you.)

Many of Capp’s fans would state that the most famous feud of his career was his long-running take on Dick Tracy, “Fearless Fosdick” – but in truth, it was never a feud at all. Though the adventures of Abner’s “ideel” ran periodically in the strip from 1942-1977, Tracy creator Chester Gould never retaliated, even when Capp began depicting Fosdick’s creator, “Lester Gooch,” as a raving lunatic who spun his violent crime fantasies from the comfort of his padded cell.

To his credit, Gould took the decades of kidding his bread and butter with good humor, noting publicly that he was the only man in the business who had another cartoonist doing publicity work for him. In later years, he would complain privately to intimates that the joke had become tiresome, but despite the dubious honor of becoming Al Capp’s most parodied subject, he never aired the grievance in public.

It was “Fosdick’s” relentless attack on the stolid characterizations, bizarre villains and bloody mayhem of Gould’s strip that confirmed Capp as a satirist in the minds of many casual readers, but those who had been paying attention knew that he’d been playing the same game with social trends and real-life personalities from the very beginning…and so it was easy to conclude that the tables had been turned when readers opened their Sunday papers in July 1947 to find a sharp and funny satire of Capp himself.

The vehicle for that satire was an episode of The Spirit, the innovative weekly comic book-style insert that cartoonist Will Eisner had introduced to a handful of newspapers in 1940. Though in later years he would come to be recognized as the dean of comic book artists and the driving force behind the modern graphic novel, in 1947 Eisner’s tongue-in-cheek adventure strip, though brilliant, had by no means made him a household name.

And so it must have seemed a major act of chutzpah when the relative unknown took on the superstar in a seven-page romp that cast Abner’s creator as “Al Slapp,” the dangerously powerful creator of “Li’l Adam, the Stupid Mountain Boy” – a feature so popular that being satirized in it was the kiss of death for any competitor’s feature.

Newsweek took notice and devoted half a page of its July 21 edition to the subject, writing with obvious fondness for Capp while citing Eisner’s plucky burlesque as “a take-off like those with which Capp himself has made millions of his fans laugh.” Though Capp’s fans might have expected him to return fire, he did not. The following week, The Spirit moved on to other concerns, and as far as the average reader could tell, that curious episode was over.

Nearly fifty years later, Eisner recalled the events behind his uncharacteristic lampooning of another professional.

“Somewhere in 1947,” said Eisner, “I got a phone call from Al, whom I’d known professionally. ‘Will,’ he said, ‘you know I’ve been doing a satire of Dick Tracy, and I thought it would be a good idea if we did a satire of each other’s characters.’

“Of course I was quite flattered, because Al was big time, the big man on the block, and I was just a little newcomer. So I said yes indeed, I’d be glad to do that, and I went ahead and did a story. I remember calling the syndicate, and they were quite excited, because in those days, the idea of a crossover – which is quite common in comic books today – was virtually unheard of, especially in the syndicated strips.

“So I published the story and I waited, watching Abner in the newspapers, and the same week my story came out, Newsweek called and asked to do an interview with me. And they printed this whole story about Al, and the satire I’d done on him…but it was mostly on Li’l Abner, and Al’s problems with his syndicate. I found out later that Al had called Newsweek and told them I would be doing the satire, so they could do a story about him.

“He never did satirize The Spirit in his strip,” said Eisner. “Of course, looking at it in hindsight, I had no real right to expect him to reciprocate at all. He was a big man and I was a little fellow; everyone knew Dick Tracy and comparatively few knew The Spirit, so he had nothing to gain from that. But,” Eisner laughed, “I’ve got to admit that my lower lip trembled for a few days.”

What Eisner didn’t realize at the time was that he’d been enlisted as an unwitting ally in a very real feud of a different kind. Chafing under United Features’ strict editorial policies, Capp had recently filed a lawsuit against his syndicate, charging that U.F.S. had underpromoted and undersold Abner. The suit asked for $14,000,000 in damages, termination of his contract, and the return of all rights in Li’l Abner to its creator.

Though Eisner didn’t suspect the facts of his own role in publicizing it, even the most cursory reading of his Spirit story makes it clear that he was fully aware of the lawsuit. Beneath the good-natured swipes taken at Capp’s Voltairean proclivities, the admiration Eisner felt for his supposed “target” is evident, as is his sympathy for Capp the plaintiff. Indeed, the attempted murder of “Al Slapp” on which the plot revolves turns out to have been committed by the manager of the cartoonist’s own syndicate in a desperate attempt to keep the star from taking his hugely popular strip to a thinly disguised King Features. At the story’s end, Slapp proves to have been too tough to kill, and scampers out of the emergency room to make his next deadline while the masked Spirit hauls his former boss off to the pokey.

“It was a very exciting suit for everyone in the business,” Eisner recalled, “and a very imaginative legal action. Even today, it’s very, very difficult to tear your work loose from a syndicate, let alone sue them.

“Al’s stratagem was to check the sales records of what were called the ‘blanket services,’ a package of features like recipe columns, horoscopes, advice to the lovelorn, and comic strips. And he claimed that since they had lumped Li’l Abner in with that package, they had cut him off from income he should have earned as a result of his high circulation. He claimed that the package resulted in fraudulent bookkeeping, and he used that as a wedge to eventually wrest his property from them. It was really quite revolutionary at that time.

“At that time,” Eisner concluded with a chuckle, “I was young and didn’t realize, of course, that if something’s too good to be true, it ain’t true. But if the way things worked out hurt my feelings briefly, Al didn’t actually hurt me. The fact that we appeared in Newsweek was very helpful, and I’m sure the publicity did me some good. I’m sure that if Al were alive today, he’d say that he did me a favor. And if you look at it that way, you’d have to agree that it got me exposure in a national magazine that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.”

In retrospect, the real loser in the feud that never was, is posterity. The intervening years saw Eisner establish himself as another giant of the field, and we can only speculate on the amusement value such an ongoing mock feud could have provided. Eisner’s rare stint as a parodist was witty and accomplished (especially his take on the styles of Harold Gray and Chester Gould), and one can only shrug in resignation at the loss of what Capp might have produced had he turned his rapier wit on the dynamic storytelling style that had made The Spirit a cult classic.

In an odd little footnote to comics history, there was a response to Eisner’s parody of Capp, but it came from yet another cartoonist. Tucked away in a 1948 issue of an obscure comic book called Lana was a one-page filler strip which offered a neat, if bizarre, comment on the whole affair. The strip was part of the groundbreaking Hey Look series by Harvey Kurtzman, who would himself go on to become the ultimate parodist of American comic books when he created the original Mad.

Using just five panels, Kurtzman managed to squeeze in sharp takes on both Eisner and Capp before spinning off in customary Hey Look fashion into parodies of Dick Tracy and Blondie, finally spiraling into the loony self-destruction that was his hallmark in early years.

As Abner himself might have remarked, Kurtzman’s take on the event was both amoozin’ and confoozin’ – and serves today as a further reminder that in the late 1940s, Al Capp was a man worthy of mention…even when he chose not to feud with someone.

The misfire with Eisner, though regrettable, didn’t stop Capp from tossing out the occasional parody of other strips. By this time, “Fearless Fosdick” had become an intermittent fixture, on its way to gaining such popularity that advertising agencies would soon recruit the trigger-happy detective as a spokesman for their clients’ products. The exact time when the whole thing finally got on Chester Gould’s nerves has not been recorded, but seeing Fosdick pitching “Wildroot Cream Oil” everywhere he turned during the 1950s couldn’t have been a heartwarming experience.

Of course, as Eisner had shown in The Spirit, Capp’s satiric jabs at his funny-paper colleagues weren’t confined to lampooning the shoot-em-ups of Dick Tracy. Though he never launched a full-scale assault to mirror “Al Slapp’s” campaign against “Little Homeless Brenda,” the real-life Capp – something of a liberal at that time – couldn’t resist taking a shot at Harold Gray’s paean to arch-conservatism, Little Orphan Annie.

In a wickedly effective sequence spanning the first two Sundays of January 1953, Capp gave us a look over Daisy Mae’s shoulder at her favorite comic strip, “Sweet Fanny Gooney.” Though no effort was made to emulate Gray’s bizarre and distinctive art style (and the parody was curiously signed “Milton Goniff,” a play on the name of Capp’s friend Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, rather than with a variation on Gray’s name), there was no doubt who Fanny and her rich, bald Uncle Sawbuck were meant to represent.

As Daisy Mae learned to her horror, ultrapatriotic Uncle Sawbuck had been replaced by a godless Communist spy bent on siphoning the nation’s wealth into the hands of Joe Stalin and sending every millionaire in the U.S.A. to slave in the Russian salt mines. Fortunately, the hideous plot to take the filhy rich to the cleaners went awry when a bullet fired at Fanny’s heart bounced off the Alf Landon campaign button she always wore pinned to her underwear, and the plucky little orphan rescued the real Sawbuck in time to save the day.

The near-religious worship of capitalism, the casting of Russians as pulp-style villains, and the exquisite touch of Fanny still carrying a torch for a Republican defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt 17 years earlier, were dead on target. As with Eisner, it’s a pity that Capp neither continued the satire a la “Fosdick,” nor engaged Gray (whose talent and professionalism he professed to admire) in an actual running feud.

(Next: Mary Worth and Li’l Abner’s creators duke it out, and we wrap up our look at Al Capp’s funnypaper feuds.)

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