When Alfred Gerald Caplin was nine years old, he lost his left leg in a trolley car accident near his hometown of New Haven, CT. Socially shunned and indignant, his father introduced him to drawing as a kind of refuge, and young Al found his life’s calling.
After briefly attending a series of art schools — including the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts — Caplin left for New York to pursue a career as a cartoonist in the depths of the Great Depression. While apprenticing with Ham Fisher, creator of the “Joe Palooka” comic strip, Caplin spent his nights on a story concept about his teenage trips hitchhiking across the mountain towns of West Virginia. In August 1934, he sold and published the first Li’l Abner comic strip — under the name “Al Capp” — to immediate acclaim.
Li’l Abner features a panoply of characters and storylines, rooted in the backwater hamlet of Dogpatch, and centered around the loutish but good-natured Li’l Abner Yokum. Dogpatch residents are visited by unseemly city slickers and government officials, and sometimes travel themselves to far-flung locales like Hollywood or the Moon. In its 40+ year run, Li’l Abner became one of the most successful comic strips in history, appearing in over 900 papers in 28 countries and inspiring themed movies, plays, amusement parks, and merchandise.
Capp is credited with transforming the comic strip genre into a vehicle for social commentary and satire. His strips parodied cultural icons like The Beatles and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and introduced phrases like “double whammy” and “Sadie Hawkins” into the mainstream lexicon. John Steinbeck once compared Capp to Cervantes and claimed that he “may very possibly be the best writer in the world today.”
Coinciding with the “golden age” of the American comic strip, Capp’s famed cartoon bolstered him into the limelight. He was a controversial though sympathetic presence on TV shows, radio broadcasts, and university campuses, and often volunteered to meet with veterans who had lost a limb. Although his political ideologies leaned left, he was unsettled by the turbulence of the 1960s, which often played out in his neighborhood of Cambridge, where he lived with his wife, Catherine Camerino.
A lifelong smoker, Capp’s health began to fail in the ‘70s as he battled bouts of emphysema, and his condition worsened after the tragic deaths of his daughter and granddaughter. He passed away in 1979 and is buried in Mount Prospect Cemetery in Amesbury, MA.