Hubris and Chutzpah: How Li’l Abner Kayo’d Joe Palooka and Both Their Creators Came to Grief (Part 4)

Previously, the introduction, part two, and part three of our story.


IV. The Hillbilly Feud

WHEN FISHER LATER CLAIMED that he created the first hillbillies on the funnies page, strenuously suggesting that his one-time assistant had stolen the idea from him, Capp, at first, treated Fisher’s claim with disdain. “I tried to ignore him,” he said in Newsweek (Nov. 29, 1948). “I regard him like a leper; I feel sorry for him, but I shun him.” That only enraged Fisher. He was determined to make his case. By 1954, in his autobiographical essay, Fisher had even invented a trip through the South that paralleled Capp’s legendary youthful trek. Wrote Fisher:

One great adventure in meeting people was on a selling trip at the age of eighteen when I spent several months among the hillbillies through the Great Smokey region of the South. Later, when I took Joe Palooka on a barnstorming tour, they came in mighty handy as the first hillbillies to appear in the comics. I dropped the hillbillies after several months, but they had made a hit, for many hillbilly comic strips sprung up the following year. Big Leviticus, whom I originally called Li’l David, was a wild paranoiac character, and my great and good friend, the late John Custis, one of my publishers, tagged him as an unsavory specimen. His objection was that Leviticus was no fit company for a nice guy like Joe. You see, Leviticus had a bad habit of trying to kick Joe in the jaw while boxing.

Leviticus resorts to kick-boxing.

The rhetoric of this contrivance is notable for its transparently argumentative ingenuity. Although seemingly a casual narrative of a mildly interesting incident in Fisher’s life, it is laced with attacks and defenses. He repeats his claim of being the originator of hillbillies in comics, and he adds that Leviticus was originally called Li’l David; whence, clearly, Capp derived the “Li’l” of his Abner. Leviticus is an unsavory specimen; hence, so is Li’l Abner. John Custis, who could have verified this story, was conveniently dead.

That Fisher’s obsession about Capp had become utterly shameless can be deduced from the venue of the essay — an instruction booklet for a correspondence course in illustration and cartooning. Rather than supply a drawing lesson, Fisher was asked by Coulton Waugh, the author of the course, to tell how he had become successful: Waugh’s expectation was that Fisher’s story would be inspirational to aspiring young illustrators and cartoonists. The hillbilly origin tale is wholly extraneous to the essay’s ostensible purpose — and to its running argument. But it is integral to what had, by this time, become Fisher’s absorbing preoccupation: that the hillbillies who were making Capp rich and famous appeared first in Joe Palooka.

And Fisher was right. In Al Capp Remembered, published in 1994, fifteen years after Capp’s death, his brother Elliott wrote: “Alfred never quibbled about the obvious relationship between Big Leviticus and Li’l Abner. He freely admitted that his hillbilly was germinated in the Sunday pages of Joe Palooka.”

The essential fact was never in dispute. At issue was who created Big Leviticus. If Capp created Big Leviticus, he could scarcely be accused of “stealing” the hillbilly idea.

We’ll probably never know, with certainty, the truth about who created the hillbillies in Joe Palooka. But it is more than probable that each of the participants in the dispute has a piece of the truth on his side. Take the question of the “creation” of a comic-strip character. In his mind, Fisher could legitimately claim to have created Big Leviticus and his obnoxious family even if all he actually did was give Capp instructions to do a sequence about Joe Palooka fighting a roughneck hillbilly. The concept, as they might say these days in Hollywood and other suburbs in La-la Land, was Fisher’s. The execution might have been left entirely to Capp. And if Capp fleshed out the idea — gave personality to Big Leviticus and his entourage — he could legitimately claim to have “created” the character, too.

Morris Weiss is certain that Fisher’s version of this episode is the truth. “I don’t know how it could be documented,” he told me. “I can only go by knowing Ham Fisher’s character — knowing what he was like — what he would do and what would be foreign to him. As far as the Leviticus thing is concerned, it would have been foreign to him to have let someone take over the strip at that time; it just wouldn’t have been done. And also, Ham Fisher showed me a letter once. And I don’t know what happened to it. But it was a letter that, during the feud, Al Capp wrote to [George] Carlin, the head of United Feature Syndicate, in which he said, he admitted, that Ham created Leviticus, and he’d like to put the matter to rest, and he would admit that it was not his character, that it was Ham’s. Well, what happened then was Ham got that letter and took it around to nightclubs and showed it to different people, and when Capp got wind of it, the feud was on all over again, hotter than ever.”

In their new biography, Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen allude to this mysterious note, but they didn’t find it either. Despite unprecedented access to Capp’s papers and the cooperation of his children and grandchildren, they are unable to be any more definitive than Weiss. No surprise; not everything in such a long and energetic life as Capp’s can be documented in writing (although the biographers found love letters to document Capp’s long affair with a singer in southern California.)

In their Big Leviticus scenario, Schumacher and Kitchen manage to favor both sides of the debate by knitting a few known facts together with a few reasonable speculations and adding some probably fictional connective tissue to create a cohesive story. They suppose that Capp brought the idea of hillbillies to story conferences with Fisher, but Fisher wrote the script for the Big Leviticus adventure. In support of this contention, the biographers cite a long-standing custom in the syndicate business that cartoonists submit scripts to their syndicates for approval before drawing the strips. In their narrative, Fisher did not go on vacation; he was present while Capp drew the sequence. Big Leviticus shows up again in the strip a few months later while Capp was still there, and it was during this time, they say, that Fisher went on vacation. In short, Schumacher and Kitchen find it highly unlikely that Fisher’s “brand new assistant” soloed on the Big Leviticus story so soon after joining Fisher.

This interpretation of events is as plausible as any other, and in its resolution, it agrees with Weiss’s supposition based upon his long acquaintance with Fisher. But the explanation is scarcely leak-proof. Not all syndicated comic-strip cartoonists were required by their syndicates to submit scripts for advance approval. And by 1933, Fisher’s strip was roaringly successful; it’s at least probable that he wouldn’t have been expected to get approval in advance for his stories. Moreover, in support of Capp’s version of events, Big Leviticus’ behavior is more akin to the sort of comedy Capp would later develop in Li’l Abner than anything Fisher had done or would do. Still, Weiss’ conclusion remains the most convincing version of this famous episode in Capp’s life.

Fisher’s persistence in claiming to have created the first hillbillies in the comics had about it exactly the whining quality that doubtless rubbed Capp the wrong way, stimulating his rambunctious satiric sensibility and prompting him to do whatever he could to irritate Fisher. And as we shall see, he found opportunities to do just that.

But whether Capp was inspired by the vaudeville act, by his own experiences on a trip into the South years before as a youth, or by Fisher’s Big Leviticus is probably beside the point. Regardless of how hillbillies found their way into the comics, their arrival scarcely represented an isolated act of divine afflatus.

As Dave Schreiner points out in Volume One of the Kitchen Sink series, hillbillies were “in the air” in those days. Hillbillies were on stage and in songs. And in books and movies. And on the radio. In the introduction to Volume 26 of the Kitchen Sink reprints, M. Thomas Inge writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that culture in the United States, high and low, had been obsessed with things Southern and Appalachian since the turn of the century.” Between 1908 and 1928, Hollywood produced over 475 films about the backwoods South. “That is an average of over twenty-two films a year, almost two a month,” Inge notes. And with the advent of radio as the preeminent entertainment in American homes in the 1920s, such programs as The National Barn Dance from Chicago and The Grand Ole Opry from Nashville were heard everywhere. Hillbilly string bands, banjo players, fiddlers, gospel singers and comedy groups traveled across the country, appearing on stages in most cities. It was one of these that the Capps saw in New York in 1933.

The emergence of hillbillies in popular culture in the ’30s may have been a consequence of the disruption of rural life during the Depression. Many country dwellers — hillbillies as well as dirt farmers everywhere — left the country for the city, where they hoped to find a livelihood. Their advent raised the consciousness of big-city residents about these colorful characters, and because they were colorful, they were ripe subjects for comic strips. In 1934, cartoonist Billy DeBeck, responding undoubtedly to the currents of interest he detected in popular culture at the time, took his horse-racing hero, Barney Google, into the hills where he met a scruffy distiller of illegal brew named Snuffy Smith, who eventually took the strip away from Google. Fisher never accused DeBeck of stealing hillbillies from him. But DeBeck had never been Fisher’s assistant.

But all that, as I said, is beside the point. Whatever the actualities of the matter, Fisher was aggrieved. And his grievance would fester for years until it erupted in the profession’s most notorious scandal.

Next: Cartoonists at War