These Kids Today!

By | Wednesday, February 08, 2023 Leave a Comment
A couple weeks ago, I shared a link to UNL's online library of comics-related images. One piece that is in that collection is a 1954 booklet entitled, The Youth You Supervise which explains all the ways you, as a businessman, need to communicate with "the youth" to make them better employees. It's hilariously outdated and sophomoric, but it's in that collection because it's punctuated with original Li'l Abner illustrations by Al Capp. We just had a group chat at work that circled around the age differences among our team, so I threw some 'advice' from the booklet out to the group. One of the comments that came back about one of the illustrations of Li'l Abner said he "looks like a himbo. Like he's Moose's friend in the Archie comics and starts every sentence with 'Duuuuhh...'" Clearly no one recognized the character, which makes sense since the strip ended in 1977 well before any of them were born. (I think the next oldest person in the group was born in 1984?) So in my self-appointed role as Educator of Comics Trivia, I started flooding the chat with some info to showcase how the character would've been a big deal in 1954...
  • His name is Li'l Abner. It was a popular comic strip that ran from 1934-1977. The creator, Al Capp, was famous enough that he made it on the cover of Time Magazine a couple of times.*
  • The strip was adapted into a stage play and then later a movie multiple times. The character's mother, Mammy Yokum, was played by Billie Hayes... who's better known as Witchiepoo from HR Puffnstuff.
  • Julie Newmar also made her film debut in the movie as a character called Stupifyin' Jones. She was called that because she was supposedly so beautiful that it made all the men who saw her stupid.
  • The character called Sadie Hawkins was introduced in 1937. She was supposed to be the ugliest girl in town but was totally man-crazy. She couldn't find herself a husband so her father got together all the men in town at gunpoint and let her chase after all of them; the first one she caught, he was going to force them to marry her. That's how Sadie Hawkins Day started.
  • They tried making Li'l Abner into a TV sitcom in 1967 in the wake of popular shows like Green Acres. They filmed a pilot but it was never picked up. The out-of-towner who came to Li'l Abner's town and was supposed to be representative of the audience was played by Robert Reed. The pilot was never picked up but Reed found a bit of success a couple years later playing the dad on The Brady Bunch.
  • The first movie adaptation of Li'l Abner was actually back in 1940. Most of the actors you've probably never heard of, but there was a very-not-politically-correct Native American character by the name of Lonesome Polecat played by Buster Keaton.
  • John Lennon and Yoko Ono held a "Bed-In" in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War. Al Capp -- Li'l Abner's cartoonist -- was sent in to talk to them as part of a televised event. Capp was radically conservative, though, and he was basically sent in by networks to try to antagonize Lennon and Ono. Capp comes across as a serious ass and it's part of what led to the eventual cancellation of the comic strip.
  • Oh, and you know The Shmoo? Debuted in Li'l Abner in 1948!
  • Ok, last one... Rat Fink and all the "Big Daddy Roth" creations? Those were pretty directly inspired by the work of Basil Wolverton, who worked on Mad Magazine in its early days. Wolverton's first published work was from a contest that was run in Li'l Abner to draw the world's ugliest woman. Wolverton submitted "Lena the Hyena." His artwork was so popular that he had (mostly comics) publishers beating down his door to work for them.
That last one actually sparked a recognition from one co-worker, who was surprised that Lena Hyena from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? wasn't a totally original character. I had to correct him that, technically, the one from Roger Rabbit is original, but clearly inspired by Wolverton's.

What struck me is that, while I knew all those facts (and more) about Li'l Abner and Al Capp, and I knew he had a huge impact on American culture, I don't think it ever really sunk in just how significant an impact he actually had. Just taking those handful of bullet points alone, that's an enormous half century of influence! Especially for a single person!

And that's with me, knowing that information. Anyone much younger than me and with even more than average interest in comics isn't going to recognize that at all. It's almost more incredible that so few people know about Al Capp and his impact than the actual impact he had!

* Technically, Capp only appeared on the cover once. I was working from memory and mixed up his appearances on Time and Life.
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