May 7th, 2010 at 12:55 am

The Feuds That Were and Never Were (Pt. 3)

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(This is the conclusion of an article that originally appeared as the introduction to Li’l Abner Volume 23, in 1996. Latecomers can find Part One here and Part Two here.

(Part Three picks up where the piece began, with a funny-papers feud between Al Capp’s in-your-face satirical strip Li’l Abner and that pillar of syndicated rectitude, Mary Worth…)

By the time Mary Worth and Li’l Abner squared off in 1957, Al Capp’s career was at its apex. The marriage of Abner and Daisy Mae five years earlier had taken the strip’s popularity to new heights, the new Broadway musical was packing them in, and Capp himself had become a familiar presence to radio and television audiences. He certainly wasn’t lacking for publicity…but on August 18 of that year, he got plenty of it when he appeared to start a war on the comics page with Allen Saunders.

Mary Worth had been around even longer than Li’l Abner. Created by Martha Orr in 1932 as Apple Mary, its heroine was originally a plump, peppery, but saintly old lady who survived the Great Depression by selling apples on the street. The title was later changed to Mary Worth’s Family and the street vendor angle dropped, but by that time Orr had stepped down in favor of her art assistant Dale Conner – who brought in a new writer, the first man to work on the strip.

That man was Allen Saunders, a former pulp writer, actor, playwright and journalist, who’d broken into comics as writer of the Big Chief Wahoo feature in 1936. He would go on to become one of the most prolific writers in the business, transforming Wahoo into Steve Roper in the early ‘40s and ghostwriting both Dan Dunn and its replacement Kerry Drake. He would continue putting Kerry, Steve and Mary through their paces for more than thirty years.

(Incidentally, King Features disagrees with this chronology, asserting that Apple Mary and Mary Worth were unrelated strips. Saunders’ memoirs, among other sources, have it otherwise. Apparently, no one has ever produced absolute proof one way or the other…largely because it’s Mary Worth, and the people who research such things don’t much give a damn. Maybe we’ll look into that burning question in this space one of these days.)

It was Saunders who effected the transformation of Mary Worth from its original hand-wringing continuity into something far less conventional. Years later, he recalled the process: “Laboring over the continuity, I chanced upon a happy idea one day. Instead of treacly melodrama, why not try to do stories of the sort that were used in popular magazines for women? No current story strip dealt with romance and psychological drama instead of action.” With that goal, Saunders and Conner created the model for the modern soap opera comic strip, and the revolutionary Mary saw her circulation begin to climb.

When Conner departed for other projects, young Ken Ernst came aboard as artist, put Mary on a diet, and drew her some decent clothes. The strip took off like a rocket, the title was streamlined even further, and Mary’s career as the fount of common-sense wisdom and ultimate mender of broken hearts was secure. In other words, she was a prime target for Al Capp.

Over a period of three Sundays, Capp introduced us to Daisy Mae’s new favorite strip, “Mary Worm, America’s Most Beloved Old Busybody.” While Abner was eternally devoted to “Fearless Fosdick,” his wife’s taste in fine art changed from time to time – but this time, she had become so entranced with the sad and “ed-joo-cay-shun-al” newspaper soap opera that her household duties were suffering.

Outraged over the prospect of shoveling down cold trashbean chowder, Abner issues an ultimatum: “Either ‘Mary Worm’ leaves this house or Ah do!” Seconds later, he’s bouncing out the door on his skull, and a tearful Daisy Mae is writing a letter to Mary Worm, begging the old harridan to come to Dogpatch and save her marriage.

Spouting the kind of aphorisms only a Capp character could mouth – “Before you feed a snake or a husband, make him crawl,” “A husband that suffers is a husband that appreciates” – Mary shows up at the Yokum shack and proceeds to drive the miserable couple further apart. By the time Mammy Yokum steps in to send Mary packing, Daisy Mae’s cooking pork chops for strangers against her will, and Abner’s wallowing in the pig pen with a blanker expression on his face than usual.

As a satire of Mary Worth it was pretty good if not exceptional; but as a satire of Mary’s writer, it was outrageous. While Fosdick’s “Lester Gooch” bore no physical resemblance to Chester Gould, Mary Worm’s “Allen Flounder” was a dead-on, if unflattering, caricature of Allen Saunders, whom Capp portrayed as a scrawny, timid, henpecked little man utterly under the domination of a sharp-tongued old bat who was not only his model for la Worm, but his mother-in-law, to boot.

A week later, Saunders returned fire when he introduced a new character into the Mary Worth continuity. As a box office volunteer at the local summer playhouse – where she’s up to her nose in the romantic problems of a pair of young actors – Mary is assigned to deliver a block of tickets to “Hal Rapp,” a cartoonist summering in the area.

Rapp, creator of the popular strip “Big Abe,” turns out to be a first-class jerk. Drawn by Ernst as a leering, bloated cad, and written by Saunders as an overbearing creep who complains that Mary is too old to make a pass at (not to mention, a phony who employs so many assistants that he doesn’t actually do any work himself), “Hal Rapp” was such a venomous libel that ambulance chasers around the country must have flooded Capp’s office with their business cards.

Smelling blood, the journalistic community reacted in a variety of ways. While the Des Moines Tribune was yanking Mary Worth off the funny pages (as we saw in Part One), a writer at the New Republic was knocking out an unsigned piece called “Mary Worm and Mr. Rapp.” In that short snooty commentary, the writer expressed surprise at Mary’s comment to Rapp that she was “not greatly interested in cartoons,” a revelation so shocking to that anonymous scribe that it was “as if Helen Trent or Ma Perkins were suddenly to announce her dislike for soap-opera.” Having established the magazine’s cutting-edge pop credentials by invoking radio characters who’d been on the air since 1933, the piece went on to express the hope that the Capp-Saunders feud would start a trend that would result in all the funnies wiping each other out.

Other journalists actually went to the source. Speaking from Boston, Capp called the Mary Worth sequence “Unpardonable slander. Something disgraceful, humiliating,” and added, “Mary Worth is a nasty, blackhearted, nosy old hag.” In Toledo, Saunders came to his character’s defense, claiming that Capp “thinks everybody is one of those monsters that he loves to create,” and adding, “It is impossible for him to understand a fine character like Mary Worth.”

After a week of unrelieved character assassination, Saunders moved Rapp to the background while he continued to snarl up the young actors’ love life. As the story churned on, it became clear that sweet Bobbie McBurns was far too good for the likes of handsome but weak-willed Phil Harvay, who ditches her and marries aging star Leatrice Banks in hopes of getting his name up in lights. In fact, compared to Phil, Rapp begins to seem like a minor-league rat indeed…and in the story’s final episode, it’s Rapp who supplies the surprise ending when he chooses Bobbie over Leatrice for a career-making role in his new Broadway show. For all his bluster, it seems that Hal Rapp isn’t such a bad guy at heart.

By the time that denouement saw print, though, the cat was already out of the bag. As astute readers had suspected all along, the whole thing was a put-up job.

Not that it had taken a genius to figure that out, for the statements of the outraged parties had taken on an increasingly tongue-in-cheek tone as the Fourth Estate plied them for comments. The balding Saunders described himself as “an extremely handsome fellow with a fine head of hair,” and declared that Capp’s portrait of him had fallen so far from the mark “because he’s such a lousy artist.” Capp countered by complaining that Ken Ernst had libeled him by using a recent snapshot as the model for Hal Rapp instead of the 1927 photo customarily used for publicity purposes.

Coming clean, Capp announced that the feud had been cooked up a year before at a Washington, D.C. meeting of President Eisenhower’s People to People program, whose cartoonists’ committee – composed, he said, of “intelligent, good-looking, charming guys like myself” – was chaired by none other than the creator of Li’l Abner.

At that meeting, he continued, “We cartoonists decided that ours was a pretty damned dull profession, since we all liked each other. We decided it might add some interest to the entire profession if a couple of us murdered each other.”

At this late date, it’s all but impossible to know with certainty which of the assembled cartoonists put that motion on the floor (though it isn’t hard to guess). Both Capp and Saunders are gone, and Saunders’ son John, who inherited the Mary Worth scripting job, had never heard of the incident until interviewed for this article.

“I know that Dad and Al were close friends,” said John Saunders, “but I wasn’t aware that my father had ever stooped to carrying on a battle royal in the comic strip. He had a lot of respect for Capp and what Capp had done. But,” Saunders laughed, “given an opportunity like that, I can just see the invective flowing from Allen’s typewriter at that time.”

But even as his Mary Worth incarnation was proving that he had a heart of gold, Al Capp was already off and running with his most accomplished Sunday parody of all: a knockoff of Milton Caniff’s Cold War adventure strip Steve Canyon.

“Steve Cantor” by (appropriately, this time) “Milton Goniff,” was Capp’s ultimate comic strip satire, capturing Caniff’s art style, derring-do action and voluptuous offbeat villainesses with a precision the readers of Li’l Abner had never seen before. But though Caniff’s work was parodied, and Caniff himself appeared in one installment, the only cartoonist to take it on the chin here was Capp himself, who delighted in having Abner and Daisy Mae describe their creator as a greedy, abusive boss who kept the characters in his employ ragged and hungry. Capp had returned to what he did best, and he was doing it better than ever.

The time of the great feuds was over, but Capp’s assault on complacency was far from finished…and it’s unlikely that the Des Moines Tribune would take the innocence of their comics page at face value again for a long time to come.

Capp, of course, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

(After all these years, I remain grateful to the late Will Eisner and John Saunders for agreeing to speak to me during the writing of this article. The images here, as always, are the property of their individual copyright holders. Special thanks to King Features’ North American Syndicate for permission to use the 1957 Mary Worth panels that accompanied this piece in its original publication.)

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