Friday, May 6, 2016

Regarding Al Capp

I'm not sure what brings him to my mind, but here he is wandering about it, that most perplexing cartoonist, Al Capp.  Liberal in the 1950s, conservative in the 1960s and 1970s, unbearably smug and insulting at times as when visiting John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their much touted time in bed (not Lennon's finest moment, true); creator of the comic strip Li'l Abner, and very much a public figure of his times.  There must have been something about those days which prompted intellectuals of sorts to appear on various TV shows, and something about such as Johnny Carson (and before him Jack Parr) and Dick Cavett which prompted them to seek them out as guests.  That doesn't seem the case any more.  Perhaps there are no public figures who purport to be intellectuals anymore, or nobody to patronize them, no audience for them.

I suspect he's been brought forth by my memory as a kind of tonic in response to these remarkable times here in our Great Republic, and the sense of foreboding I feel, given the likelihood that its President will soon be one of two people for whom I have no respect or liking.  Also the sense of chagrin at what seems to be a potentially catastrophic failure of our political system, already necessarily corrupt due in part to the ruling of those who are supposed to be among the greatest jurists of our land.

 I' ve often wished Mencken or Bierce were alive to comment on this dark age.  I'd settle for someone like William F. Buckley, Jr., or his old friend, Gore Vidal; Walter Lippmann would provide solace as well.  Christopher Hitchens would have gone into a frenzy.  When it comes to editorial cartoons, I wish Pat Oliphant was still working.

Those old enough will remember that, depending on his mood, Capp could be quite the satirist; and, somewhat remarkably for a cartoonist, he could even be rather subtle in his satire.  I cherish the memory of the Schmoos and the Kigmies.  I even think fondly of Fearless Fosdick, now and then.  Sadie Hawkins Day, Dogpatch and the Yokums are part of Americana.   But Capp was by most accounts a very disagreeable, angry and vituperative man, with several unfortunate characteristics, such as propositioning uninterested women.  Like too many artists and intellectuals, his ability doesn't entirely surmount his personal flaws and this leads me, at least, to doubt his worthiness.

Still, he and others like Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, were more adroit satirists than cartoonists of our time because they were more subtle in their political and social satire.  There's no question that cartoonists now lampoon political and cultural figures, but they do so in a more obvious manner.  Those figures appear in cartoon strips and do and say what one expects them to given the opinions of the artist.  This is sometimes funny, sometimes too blatant to be very amusing.  Now, Capp and Kelly would do much the same thing now and then.  I remember a character in Pogo clearly based on Spiro Agnew, and Capp wasn't above putting such as Ted Kennedy in his strips as characters under other names.  The case of Joan Baez appearing as Joanie Phoanie is notorious, and resulted in litigation.

But given his angry and seemingly malicious character, I have to wonder whether he would if he lived now merely contribute to the choleric nature of our politics, which I think contributes to the current chaos.  I wouldn't necessarily object to the mocking of either of what are being called the "presumptive nominees" of their parties, provided it's done well.  But I imagine him as being not content with satire, and inclined not merely to draw but to rant and not just in his cartoons.  At every opportunity.  He likely would, in other words, do little more than add to the thoughtless noise.  And we have more than enough of that now.

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