No exaggeration: I coughed hot soup out of my nose while reading the new hardbound volume of deadpan dadaist Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed to Thrizzle (Fantagraphics; $24.99).
The strip that did it was one of the book’s last, an alt-historical fantasia on the first moon landing, narrated in the drily factual manner of educational filmstrips no matter how deep the ridiculousness piles. The mission is conceived by Nixon to win over hippies; the crew is at first made up of condemned criminals until the press asks if the moon will become “another Australia”; Woodward and Bernstein attempt to sneak on board disguised as an ant and an owl; Nixon attempts to murder Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong with exploding sandwiches; TV’s Columbo is dispatched to the moon to investigate another murder but instead becomes a werewolf; the pope condemns the entire enterprise after the mad Russian inventor who won NASA’s contest to design a rocket announces he only did it because his wife said she’d blow him the day a man walked on the moon.
Kupperman heaps absurdity upon absurdity, each joke reacting to the one just before it, but hardly ever having much to do with the ones before that. The result is a jubilant rococo, the strips all thrilling ornamentation. In his pages, the voices of old-school media authority—narrators, historians, Cronkite—are forever tasked with recounting the senseless juxtapositions of channel flipping, mash-up logic, and unbounded appropriation. A kid in one strip encounters Mark Twain and Albert Einsetin, who in Kupperman Kountry are the look-a-like stars of a series of ’50s adventure comics; he guesses that the shaggy duo are actually Colonel Sanders and Sam Elliott—and why couldn’t they be? After encouraging him to visit his local library,Twain and Einstein then attempt to choke each other until they’re just barely dead so that their ghosts may peep into a YWCA shower room. Here our iconic yet impersonal idea of historical figures collides with the blandly inspiring use of those figures in Weekly Readers and spiritless textbooks—and then all that wallops into terrible ghost stories and horny college buddy comedies. Here’s a century-plus of American pop culture crammed into one mad bouillon cube of a comic. The drawing’s ace, too.
Perhaps the first parody of the kind of deadpan comics Kupperman mocks turned up in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner strip in 1941. Just two years after Superman’s debut in Action Comics No. 1, Capp whipped up a story in which Abner, his backwoods dope, dons the cape and tights of “the Flying Avenger” for a live radio broadcast at the behest of producers eager to trick America’s kids into believing the Flying Avenger was actually real. (Musclebound Abner, the he-hunk of Dogpatch, looked the part like nobody else.) This being the daft, anything-for-a-gag strip that it was, just as soon as Abner dressed as a superhero he actually developed the powers of one, for reasons too dumb to go into here—and just as daffy as any Kupperman might craft. Then, for the next month or so of daily strips L’il Abner was about a flying hillbilly’s battles against central-casting gangsters.
All that’s standard Capp. Like the Mad magazine it preceded, Li’l Abner was forever suggesting that our entire culture was a racket ginned up to separate chumps from their cash—a racket Capp was himself pig-in-slop happy with, as he peddled his Shmoo toys and Sadie Hawkins Day kits. His strip, once read (as United Features insisted) by 60 million, piddled out in ’77, two years before Capp’s own death. By then, the prodigious satirist had devolved into a pre-Limbaugh model right-wing crank, assailing the activist college crowd on TV and at public appearances, and even applauding the National Guardsmen who killed students at Kent State. Ironically, this proto-Fox host was brought down by the reporting of a young Brit Hume, who proved that Capp had, in 1968, attempted to force himself on four different college students, each of whom had been ushered into his hotel room on trumped-up business during a campus visit.
Complicating this son-of-a-bitch’s legacy: The fact that L’il Abner (slowly becoming available again in IDW’s excellent collections) is great, a dense and lively strip, sharply drawn, somewhat biting, sexier than you would expect, and always distinguished with its own absurd polyglot. From it we got nogoodnik and hogwash; among its choice character names were the wrestler Earthquake McGoon and the siren Appassionata Von Climax. Bound volumes of the strip’s best years, in the ’40s and ’50s, are like core samples of the culture that was: Here’s what people laughed about, and much of it is still funny.
A thorough biography of Capp has long been overdue. Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen’s Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary (Bloomsbury, $30) is great, dishy fun, especially as Capp crashes into the biz and then into the American consciousness. They’ve dug up archival treats, such as the winning entry in a contest (judged by Frank Sinatra and Salvador Dali!) that asked readers to draw the world’s ugliest woman. Capp lost a leg in childhood, and the authors movingly capture his struggles to walk, as well as his frank but encouraging letters to kids and soldiers suffering recent amputations.
As always with Capp, there’s a rub. Schumacher and Kitchen never shy away from his womanizing, but they only address his habit of forcing himself upon women late in the book—at the point in his life when Capp got caught. By then, as the authors point out, Capp was an old crank hopped up on pills—hardly the vital cultural force whose life they’ve been relating. But then the book backtracks: Turns out, Grace Kelly purportedly suffered a Capp assault in the early 1950s; in the ’60s, Goldie Hawn did, too. Both women were lured to his office under the guise of auditioning for L’il Abner–related media spinoffs; Capp exposed himself to Hawn, and Kelly emerged with a ripped dress and a claim (reported to biographer James Spada by Kelly’s manager) that he had tried to rape her. Schumacher and Kitchen can’t verify that, of course, but they could have more thoroughly examined a pattern of casting-couch abusiveness that seems to date well before Capp’s public souring. That subtitle, A Life to the Contrary, doesn’t cut it. This is more The Life of a Gifted and Terrible Monster.