, Newburyport, MA

September 28, 2009

Al Capp deserves a tribute

Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the nation's most famous cartoonists, a man whose name was once widely recognized throughout the nation but unfortunately gets little recognition here on his home turf.

His name is Alfred G. Caplin, known by his assumed name Al Capp. His comic strip, L'il Abner, was a mainstay in American newspapers for decades. It resonated on the two levels that all great comics work — it was an entertaining comic strip that also served as a perceptive reflection on the public's mood.

He died in 1979 and is buried in Amesbury, his adopted home. There are a handful of specific locations directly connected to his life in Amesbury and neighboring South Hampton, but nowhere is there any sort of public acknowledgement to his life. That ought to change.

Smart, sarcastic, caustic, witty — Capp was a complicated man who tried to reflect the world around him through his comic strip. In the midst of the Great Depression, the young and talented cartoonist struggled to find his footing in the cartoon business before finally launching L'il Abner in 1934. The cartoon was an immediate hit. At its height, some 900 newspapers carried it, and it's estimated that the peak audience was somewhere around 60 million — at a time when the nation's population was a little over twice that number. Even today it is considered by critics to be one of the greatest comic strips ever drawn.

Why? Because the podunkish characters from the backwoods fictional town of Dogpatch, Kentucky, caught the heartstrings of his readers. People laughed at their foolish hillbilly ways, were drawn in by the cliffhangers and drama, and smiled at the ways in which their simple folk sense often overcame the sophisticated tycoons, celebrities and government officials with whom they crossed paths.

Capp himself was hardly an easy man to identify with. Frank Frazetta, a friend and famed science fiction artist whose works included many of the most iconic movie posters of our time, described Capp as "exasperating, infuriating, domineering, obnoxious, loud, lots of fun, acidic and lovable."

Capp had his own demons with which he wrestled throughout his life. At age 9, a trolley accident led to the amputation of his leg. He struggled with it, but it also gave him a resolve to help others. During World War II, for example, he tirelessly visited the wounded in hospitals, where he focused his attention on helping amputees adapt to their lives.

"The secret of how to live without resentment or embarrassment in a world in which I was different from everyone else was to be indifferent to that difference," he once wrote.

There are many people left in the area who still remember Capp, but to the larger population he is unknown. We are rich in history and historical figures in the region, and certainly Al Capp measures among them.

Amesbury ought to consider a prominent memorial to Al Capp that reminds us of this unusual and influential man. Dogpatch never existed, but Al Capp's legacy certainly does.