Book Review: Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, Volume Nine: Complete Sundays and Dailies 1951-1952

Al Capp’s Li’l Abner had the kind of success most comic strips only dream of. Running for 43 years, it captured the heart of pop culture long before the Marvel movies and big-screen blockbusters we have today. The strip introduced the idea of Sadie Hawkins Day into the lexicon, where in a role reversal, young ladies asked young men out for dates. Not a big deal now, but it was a major deal in the 1930s when Capp brought it into his strip.

The strip turned Capp into a celebrity, with Capp presenting Kitty Pankey the title of “Sweetest Face in the World” in 1951 and, as of 1950, boasted 40 million readers, something no comic book or comic strip can claim today. The strip was big enough that the marriage of Li’l Abner to Daisy Mae Yokum made national news, garnering the fictional couple a place on the cover of Life magazine.

IDW has been collecting the strips in a series of lovingly assembled volumes. The latest of these, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner – Volume Nine: Complete Sundays and Dailies 1951-1952 covers all of the color and black and white strips released during this time period (more than 700 in all) including some color pages that have never been reprinted before. The strips have been restored, with the vibrant colors popping off the page and the black and white showing excellent contrast, making for a vital time capsule of this all-important year in the lives of Dogwood’s most famous couple.

The strips feature a healthy dose of parody. We see Daisy Mae and Mammy Yokum on the cover of Lime magazine, a takeoff of Time with the slogan, “The flavor’s fine. If you can’t read it, eat it!”The strips were not opposed to the absurd either. The pair was to battle it out for the Flyweight Society Leadership of Dogpatch, with the heavily favored Mammy taking out chunks of trees with her incredible punches. Mammy wins the bout of course, but not in the way one might think.

We see a sale by Slobbovian refugees of shmink coats at half the price of real minks. The women who buy them are happy at first, but that happiness soon subsides after their coats fall apart as shmink fur is “disintegrated by the radiations of happiness.” The strip is a not-so-subtle dig at manufacturers selling cheap knock-offs of expensive clothing. Of course, it is also a sign of the times with fur being a fashion faux pas these days.

The shmoos make an appearance in a pair of 1952 strips. These mythical animals provided virtually anything people wanted, producing milk and eggs and tasting great when cooked, all while asking for and eating nothing and multiplying into the millions. They sounded too good to be true and some enterprising cattle barons, Curly and Slim, decided they were going to get rich quick by selling them to people. When they realized how quickly the shmoos multiplied and that anyone could sell them, they have them line up in groups of 12 and shoot them, except for two saved by Moonbeam McSwine. It is in this way that Capp blasts greedy people and get-rich-quick schemes. The shmoos, while good for everyone, tended to bring out the worst in people.

Besides the famous wedding, the mystery of Nancy O is revealed in these strips. “Nancy O” was a name that appeared in the strip for some time with no explanation, causing much speculation among fans. We also see young Daisy Mae’s bare backside in a story about why Moonbeam McSwine preferred the company of hogs and being filthy in the literal sense. This was edgy stuff for the early 1950s to be sure.

In addition to the strips is a lengthy essay by Bruce Canwell detailing the history of this important period for Li’l Abner. There are also pictures of Kitty Pankey as well of Abner merchandise such as coloring books, a watch, a comic record, and Orangeade. It’s not often comic characters make the cover of Life, but these were no ordinary characters. For these reasons, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, Volume Nine: Complete Sundays and Dailies 1951-1952 offers readers a fascinating time capsule into a very different era of comic strips and is a must read for fans of the genre.

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