Thursday , September 24 2020
Volume One in a classic comic strip reprint series.

Al Capp’s Li’l Abner: The Frazetta Years

The cover to Li’l Abner: The Frazetta Years, Volume One, 1954-1955 (Dark Horse) puts its marketing agenda up front: posed on the front cover, showing off her bodacious figger is series regular Moonbeam McSwine. Titular hero of the strip, Abner Yokum, is nowhere to be seen, not even in the red-tinged strips that are used as background. We don’t buy a collection of Frazetta art to look at buff Dogpatch boys; it’s the babes that bring in the fanboys.
Packaging considerations aside, it’s great to see a fresh collection of Capp’s classic comic strip. Back in the 90’s, Dennis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press had taken on the Promethean task of reprinting the long-running strip’s dailies; Kitchen got up to 27 volumes (covering 1934 – 61) before the company crashed. Most Capp fans despaired of ever seeing future reprints; now, Dennis has found another publishing outlet for one of his long-standing fannish obsessions – and good for him!
Figures that the only way he could sell Capp’s work to another comic publisher, though, was to focus on the work featuring fan-favorite Frank Frazetta. The popular fantasy illustrator was an assistant to Capp for seven years, starting out on the dailies (see Volume 20 of the Kitchen Sink reprint series – if you can find a copy) where he initially both penciled and inked the strip until bosses at the syndicate reportedly began complaining about how different it all looked. Frazetta moved to penciling Sunday strips instead, with a separate Capp assistant inking to downplay his distinctive sinuous linework (full Frazetta made the characters so explicitly sexual that the risque jokes Capp had long imbedded in the strip became even more obvious). This he continued to do until 1961, when Capp’s refusal to give the artist a raise led to Frazetta leaving the strip to pursue a career in book and magazine illustration that’d ultimately prove more rewarding.
Unlike the daily strip, which tended to feature prolonged continuities, “Li’l Abner” Sundays mixed single entry and two- or three-part stories with slightly longer fare. Volume One shows Frazetta coming on board mid-continuity in a fifteen-week strip about “The Wrecker,” appropriate since the storyline concerns one of Capp’s dangerous women: a seemingly innocent girl whose mere walking presence is enough to ruin any marriage by driving the men who see her insane with desire. Frazetta’s propensity for rendering pulchritudinous women was put on display from the get-go – and where better to show it off than on the color Sunday strips?
The first volume, edited and annotated by Kitchen, presents 106 Sundays in color reproduction that emphasizes the strip’s humble pulp newsprint origins. Instead of recoloring or prettifying the strips (much as DC and Marvel have done with their archival reprints of old comic book series), Dark Horse has chosen to reprint ’em on lightly tanned paper from old repro-ed news pages. The end results come closer to the experience of reading a paper from 1954 – even the newspaper headings and headlines for each Sunday are reproduced, which can amusing by themselves (“Struggles of Lonely Girl on Broadway – See Magazine Supplement,” sez one heading) – though at times the reproduction can be a bit too close, particularly when it comes to copying the era’s sometimes slapdash color printing.
Still, the book remains a treat for anyone who enjoys author Capp’s unmatched blend of soap opera cliches, cornball dialect humor and broad-swiped satire. I’m one of ’em, though in general I prefer the more convoluted dailies to the majority of the Sundays, so it’s no accident that I find the best sequences here to be the three longest: the aforementioned Wrecker continuity, a twelve-week series featuring grasping capitalist General Bullmoose and Capp’s mock communist country Lower Slobbovia, plus a nine-episode surrounding one of the strip’s trademark strange foods, Druthers. In the first, we get to see the women of Dogpatch struggling to fend off the approaching Wrecker, keeping their menfolk away from the sight of this mysterious marriage-wrecking creature (though why the girl is considered more dangerous than the male-paralyzing Stupefyin’ Jones – who was allowed to wander around Dogpatch for decades before the townswomen neutralized her – is not explained). In the second, General Bullmoose brings the entire country of Slobbovia to the “Hew-Hess-Hay” just so he’ll have a ready market for a line of dog food so awful even American dogs won’t eat it.
Neither of these two tales are models of cutting satire. In the Slobbovia tale, for instance, we’re introduced to the Bald Iggle, a creature so preternaturally cute that whoever clasps eyes on it is driven to tell the truth. So whom does Capp unleash this fabulous creature on? Politicians, lawyers and salesmen (including – hold onto your hats! – a used car salesman!) The Wrecker continuity is even more quaint, driven as it is by a premise most readers today would find extremely suspect: the femme fatale’s secret lies in the way she wiggles her posterior, something none of the Dogpatch gals notice because, we’re told, “A woomin watches another woomin’s face to see if she’s flirty! But wif men, it’s diff’runt!” Men and woomen sure are diff’runt, ain’t they?
But Capp’s knack for goofy complications and cartoon inventiveness still hold strong, even if his satiric commentary doesn’t. One of the geniuses of “Li’l Abner” resides in its erection of a world of dynamic caricatures – dopey man/child Abner, long-suffering wife Daisy Mae, self-righteous and powerful matriarch Mammy Yokum, weaselly Pappy Yokum plus all the other Dogpatch Denizens – and their larger-than-life comic struggles. No other cartoonist has consistently made misanthropy so much fun – and, with Frazetta on board, so attractive either. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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