I should probably stop accepting books from PR folks. The people over at Bloomsbury were nice enough to offer me a copy of Al Capp: A Life To The Contrary by Michael Shumacher and Denis Kitchen way back in January and promptly sent me the book when it was available. Here I am writing about it three months after the biography came out in late February, so I feel bad about that.
I was initially interested in this book because it covers an almost total dark spot in my historical knowledge of sequential storytelling. As a kid I loved the funnies and would gladly leaf through them in the morning and on weekends while eating breakfast, but aside from buying or borrowing a few collections here and there, my knowledge of comic strip history doesn’t go very deep. In the past 6 or so years I’ve tried to remedy that by snatching up classic collections, but my slow, sporadic reading habits have left most of them half-read. However, I felt the need to finally finish A Life To The Contrary so I made a big push recently and cleared the last 100 pages or so over the holiday weekend.
Of course, the big question then comes, what took me so long to read the book, right? I knew absolutely nothing about Capp or his most famous strip Lil’ Abner going in, but the more I read the more interested I became in this man who was not only the most successful cartoonists of his day, but also one of the first to really capitalize on his popularity in the way that someone like Walt Disney was able to (both men inspired theme parks after all). And yet, I would put this book down for long segments of time. Part of that was my own desire to not read anything without pictures, but I think there’s also something about the book I can’t quite put my finger on that doesn’t fully draw you into the character of Capp.
I was contemplating this idea while reading through those last 100 or so pages recently as things were getting pretty exciting. Capp was hugely successful and had been for a long time. He even seemed to be doing pretty well with his friends, family and colleagues and then the 60s hit and I found myself liking him less and less (as did many people of the day). He’s one of those guys who claims to have been a liberal in the 50s, but switched to conservatism in the 60s (he and Nixon became acquaintances and often wrote letters to one another). Capp took it so many steps further by going on college speaking tours where he would spend his time haranguing the peace-nicks and protestors in the audience. He did the same on television, radio and in magazine pieces to the point where his meanness was making people not want to bother talking to the once witty personality. Heck, he even traveled to John and Yoko Ono’s bed-in for peace just to give them shit. It basically sounded like he — a kid who connived his way through art schools thanks to his silver tongue — liked expressing his opinions, but wasn’t such a big fan of a younger generation coming along with their own.
And then it got so, so much worse when Schumacher and Kitchen drop the biggest bombshell in the whole book: Al Capp lured college women into his hotel room and tried to force them to perform sexual acts on or with him. He did this while on his college tours and it was apparently a pretty common occurrence with a half dozen cases mentioned in this book alone, plus instances of similar behavior with young starlets of the day like Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly. He even wound up getting punched out by Harlan Ellison after Capp tried the same thing on a photographer friend of Ellison’s. Capp wound up getting outed by a scandal columnist and eventually going to trial, but it sounded like everything pretty much got swept under the rug because this was a time where that kind of thing was apparently tolerated.
Of course, I found this behavior repugnant and was instantly disgusted by the man to the point where I almost stopped reading. The news came as a shock to me because I knew absolutely nothing about Capp going in, so this was a whammy indeed. His story doesn’t end there, though. The man suffered personal tragedies in the form of family deaths as well as the decline of his creative work and the success of his strip until he wound up retiring. Two years later he died. As much as I was turned off by him as a person at that point, I did find it interesting that by the end he had basically turned into Ham Fisher the man who gave him his break in comics, at least partially inspired Lil’ Abner and eventually became his mortal enemy (these guys pulled some serious shady business on one another). At one point, before Fisher’s suicide, Capp said something along the lines of his nemesis being an example of evil old men just getting more evil and more old without justice ever being served. Some might say that’s the same road Capp set himself down.
I realized while gathering my thoughts to write this post that Schumacher and Kitchen might have purposefully kept the reader at arm’s length from Capp. I was pretty thrown when the full extent of his sex crimes was explained, yet I would have been thrown for a total loop had this been a person I really found myself invested in. I wonder if they chose language, situations and turns of phrases that didn’t overly ingratiate the reader to the subject for fear that either, 1) the reader might not be able to take the news or 2) they wouldn’t believe the news like many of the people of the day when it broke by way of scandal column. Either way, it was a difficult road creating a book about a man who clearly thought he was owed something by the younger generation.
I think I can recommend this book, though even though I have immense reservations about Capp. It’s impeccably researched with 16 pages of notes citing everything from articles in Time and Life to correspondences written by Capp to the people in his life. It also does a great job of painting a picture for the modern reader about how large of a figure Capp was both because of his personality and his fame, the former of which clearly lead to the latter. And even though I’m disgusted by Capp’s action and how they were handled by the colleges and local governments of the time, I do think Schumacher and Kitchen present all sides of the man, from the fast talking kid who hustled his way into cartooning to the dirty old man who used cartooning to hustle women. I might be disgusted by his choices, but the book paints a round, full portrait of a man who had hutzpah, artistic talent, jealousy, greed, a keen sense of humor, rage and a need to overpower those around him in all ways. For that, Al Capp: A Life To The Contrary gets a thumbs up.