Encore

'Lil' Abner' Draws to a Close

Al Capp said farewell to the denizens of Dogpatch 17 years ago

Having depicted himself receiving a goodbye kiss from his heroine Daisy Mae just days earlier, cartoonist Al Capp, on Nov. 13, 1977, ended what may be the greatest newspaper comic strip of all time. Li'l Abner had been a national institution since its Depression birth in 1934, spinning off a Broadway musical, a 1959 movie, and an Arkansas theme park. Dogpatch, Abner's hovel- filled hillbilly home, had poured forth such a wealth of outsize, Dickensian characters that novelist John Steinbeck once called Capp ''possibly ... the best writer in the world today'' and deserving of the Nobel Prize.

Born into poverty in New Haven, Conn., in 1909, Capp himself had a Dickensian childhood, losing a leg in a streetcar accident at 9. The penniless kid with the wooden leg would soon pour his wounded feelings into drawings of poor heroes like hunky, naive Abner; poor losers like Joe Btfsplk, who literally lived beneath a rain cloud; and rich boors like General Bullmoose. No one had ever done such all-out satire in the funnies.

In the '60s, as the nation veered left, Capp's bitter side got the better of his warm wit and he became a sour reactionary, likening campus protesters to Adolph Eichmann. His syndication shrank from about 900 papers to fewer than 400; though suffering from emphysema, he refused to stop smoking; and in September 1977 his daughter Catherine was found dead in her parked car, the ignition key turned on. ''My stuff didn't have the joy it used to have,'' Capp mourned, so he quit at 68. He died two years later.

''The public is like a piano,'' Capp once observed. ''You've just got to know what keys to poke.'' And for 43 years, he daily poked us in the funny bone. *

Time Capsule / Nov. 13, 1977

Diane Keaton went Looking For Mr. Goodbar in theaters, while Debby Boone struck No. 1 with ''You Light Up My Life.'' James Herriot's All Things Wise and Wonderful trotted to the top, and on TV The Six Million Dollar Man ran strong.

Originally posted Nov 11, 1994 Published in issue #248 Nov 11, 1994 Order article reprints
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