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Complete Li'l Abner, Vol. 1
posted April 29, 2010
 

imageCreator: Al Capp
Publishing Information: IDW, hardcover, 288 pages, April 2010, $49.99
Ordering Numbers: JAN101030 (DCD); 9781600106118 (ISBN13)

Of all the classic comic strips, I have the hardest time processing Li'l Abner. I recognize the verve and energy of the strip, and love the beauties and grotesques that stomp their way across Dogpatch, but the tone and pacing and most of the satire leaves me cold. Therefore I'm always on the lookout for entry points into the work, why others hold it in high esteem. I was hopeful that the latest Library of American Comics might provide clues into the secret heart of Al Capp's masterwork. It's a collection of the earliest material, which despite not being the exact work that thrilled so many in its prime might for its nascent state allow insight into the strip's basic workings.

I came away with not one but two observations. In my ongoing attempt to simplify my critical thinking to the point where one day I'll merely have a series of numbered flash cards with animals on them and reviewing will be about filming myself showing one of them to the camera, I was reminded that in addition to the pleasing art and dialogue work people really like laughing at hillbillies. In a stronger sense than any other comedic grouping of people, hillbillies are defined by pointing at some stupid-ass over there. People will call themselves hillbillies or the urban equivalent white trash only because they know it's ridiculous; that's what those folks are, not us. I'm acquainted with folks burnishing three teeth that are lightning-quick to make jokes about people only sporting two. Capp's gag work would develop as the strip continued, but he certainly proved adept at maneuvering the reader to the general neighborhood of comedy by parking them up against his endless array of rubes. I know how ridiculous that may sound, but if we're going to afford other cartoonists -- say Bill Watterson -- the genius of their concepts, you have to give it up to Al Capp for planting his flag in this particularly fertile soil. That respect/contempt thing for the characters and their situations the later strip bears like a flag borne by infantrymen trying to take a hill, that's already here, a polish or two away.

The other thing I took away from this volume is based on something Denis Kitchen writes. A longtime publisher of this material and eventually an agent of Capp's estate, Kitchen expresses his childhood love for Li'l Abner in terms of how it compared to the other strips on the comics page. That seems key to me. These strips were originally consumed in a very different way than in their own, giant books. They were read as part of a comics page with any number of pen-and-ink peers in close proximity. Compared to most of the strips of his day, even this early Al Capp material must have seemed a break with more staid cartooning traditions. No strip this handsome had barreled ahead quite this speedily. The history of stand-up comedy has a similar element in that comedians that break with the dominant style make up most of the spots in their hall of fame. Capp's feverishly silly strip with its boldly black character designs and generally skillful, not-ragged art must have seemed like it stepped off of a UFO. I can imagine being bowled over despite myself. Reading the strip as it once was isn't necessarily the goal of a classy project like this, but Kitchen's insight allows us to imagine what this book must have been like read one strip per day. That by itself is reason to consider its purchase a volume or two before Capp fully ramped up to speed.