For Your Consideration: Li’l Abner Vol. 1

Li'l Abner Vol. 1

Li'l Abner Vol. 1

by Robert Greenberger

I used to have a secret identity. In 9th grade, I was encouraged to audition for the annual musical, which that year was going to be Li’l Abner. Apparently, the director thought I’d be perfect for Evil Eye Fleegle and when I won the role, I apparently also adopted the Method school of acting. For much of that spring into the summer, I adopted his Groucho-like walk and was called to do some of his stage shtick for months after the show ended.

Truth to tell, it was my first real exposure to Al Capp’s hillbilly comic strip, which didn’t run in my local papers but I had known about. Capps’ strip ran from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977 and for many people it was a real glimpse into a lifestyle long since vanished. In the days when the strip debuted, movies, radio, and newspapers didn’t spent a lot of time on social issues such as the poor socio-economic plight of the “hill people”. If anything, they were the source of slapstick humor, presuming them all to be uneducated, dirt poor folk who interbred.

Capp, with his whimsical art style, and jaundiced eye toward politics and society, opened up people’s perceptions by populating Dogpatch with the dumb, the smart, the slick, the gorgeous, and the amusing. His town was filled with a colorful assortment of character types, allowing him to tell stories that evolved into polemics and attacks on prejudices. In time, as Capp grew more and more conservative, the strip became his forum and grew far less amusing so it ended more with a whimper than a bang in 1977, its day long past.

But at its height, the strip was beloved, carried in hundreds of papers. Such was the series’ popularity that it added several phrases to the language including, according to Wikipedia, skunk works, double whammy, and Lower Slobbovia. Shmoo, the site says, “has also entered the language – used in defining highly technical concepts in no less than four separate fields of science.” The notion of a Sadie Hawkins Day, when women may propose to men, evolved into the ubiquitous school dance, letting girls invite boys onto the floor. The 1937 story proved popular enough that Capp repeated it every November for 40 years.

The comic strip led to the 1956 musical which became a 1959 movie that starred, among others, Peter Palmer, Leslie Parrish, a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar, Stella Stevens, the great Stubby Kaye, and had cameos by Jerry Lewis, Valerie Harper and Donna Douglas.

Denis Kitchen recognized the greatness of the strip and his Kitchen Sink Press began collecting the strip, amassing 27 volumes before folding and leaving the collection complete only through 1961. Dark Horse more recently collected the years when a young Frank Frazetta assisted Capp.

This March, IDW adds The Complete Li’l Abner to their impressive collection of classic comic strips. This first volume will collect both the daily and Sunday strips from the first two years. Here you meet Abner as he becomes a fish out of water, moving to New York to live with his rich aunt. While there, he has to dodge both kidnappers and grasping socialites setting the stage for Capps’ commentary before shifting the action to Kentucky where the strip largely remained.

If you’ve only heard of the strip and its creator, this is a wonderful opportunity to see what the fuss has been all about. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll fondly recall when comics could feature fully realized characters and settings that packed some punch along with its humor.

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