1965 was a key year for comics, reflected in Al Capp’s funny piece from Life
The world’s second-largest comics convention takes place in Lucca, Italy, and has been running since 1966. According to Wikipedia, Lucca is larger than France’s Angouleme festival (running since 1974) and only Japan’s Comiket (started 1975) is bigger than Lucca.
Originating as the Salone Internazionale dei Comics, Lucca’s first incarnation actually ran from 1966 to 1992, transferred to Rome from 1995 to 2005, then a new version (Lucca Comics and Games) started in 2006, back in its “home town.”
In fact the Secret Origin of Lucca is that the Salone Internazionale actually began a year earlier, in 1965, in another Italian town, Bordighera (footnote 1). This means that Lucca’s “true” 50th anniversary was in February of this year, 2015. It was celebrated here and there (2), (3). The success of Bordighera/Lucca undoubtedly helped stimulate similar festivals around the world, and led directly to the founding of the magazines Linus in Italy and Charlie in France (2).
There had been outbreaks of seriousness about comics before, especially in France and Italy. Bordighera’s Salone was the first large-scale attempt to bring comics creators and academics together to discuss the medium. As the Salone’s own catalogue has it, it was “organized by the Institute of Education of the University of Rome, by the Centre for Sociology of Mass Communications and from the Archive of the Italian printing Comics (?) in partnership with Comics Clubs and with the Centre d’Etude des Littératures of Expression Graphique, under the patronage of the Municipality and of the Local Tourist Board of Bordighera.” (4)
It goes on to say how the event will benefit from: “The different interests and different backgrounds of the creators (scholars of communication and cinema, psychologists, sociologists, teachers, cartoonists, filmmakers, doctors, photographers)…” It is reasonable to suggest that the prevailing flavour of this mainly Italian gathering, at this time, could not have been anything other than significantly left-wing—if not out-and-out Marxist.
The Steering Committee included French film director Alain Resnais and Italian historian/academic Umberto Eco. Eco was yet to write the novel that made him famous throughout the world, The Name of the Rose (1980). But he had published Apocalittici e Integrati (Apocalyptic and Integrated: Mass Communications and Theories of Mass Culture) (5) in 1964. This book included the essays “The Myth of Superman” (6), “A Reading of Steve Canyon” (7) and “The World of Charlie Brown” (8).
Resnais was sent to the USA to recruit comics creators to attend the Salone. Al Capp, writer and artist of the highly successful newspaper strip Li’l Abner (assisted by a full-time team of helpers in both departments) was one of those invited.
Capp was a complex, in some ways self-contradictory character, as you can read about in many places (9). A relentless self-promoter, he also had another career outside of the comics. Li’l Abner’s huge readership and his own mordant wit gave him an “in” to the other media. On TV, Capp appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show and elsewhere (10). He even had his own radio show for some time.
By 1965 Li’l Abner’s glory years were behind him, and Capp’s early left-liberal politics were in the process of swinging hard right, as he reacted against the new cultural prominence of student leftism and hippies in general (11).
Capp wrote up his encounter with the Bordighera festival for Life magazine. I quote below from my own copy, which is in fact Life’s International Edition, Vol. 38 No. 11, June 14th 1965. The US edition carrying the piece (April 30th) did not have Capp’s drawing on the cover—they went with a picture of an unborn foetus instead, perhaps calculating that it would sell more copies. American readers were thus spared one of Capp’s hidden sexual images, or at least the colour version (which is the only place where it becomes really obvious).
See also a number of trees in the vicinity of Li’l Abner’s home town, which allegedly depicted genitalia in their bark. Evidently Capp enjoyed sneaking these images past his editors. The opportunity to get one on the cover of a major American institution like Life must have tickled him greatly. How disappointing must it have been that only the rest of the world got to see its full glory?
Much of Capp’s wit in the article itself is somewhat more sophisticated than that might suggest. He has a nice line in self-aggrandisement, sometimes disguised as self-effacement. Curiously he never quite identifies his hosts as the Communists, or at least fellow-travellers, which he must have known they were. Maybe he felt it was implicit? Unless, perhaps, it really did escape his notice? Or possibly an editorial hand at Life trimmed some of Capp’s comments? It is unlikely we will ever know.
At any rate, I present the text and illustrations here as they originally appeared, schoolboy humour and casual sexism intact. Some of this piece remains amusing in the way Capp intended. Other parts may entertain for different reasons. But there may be more than just amusement to be had.
This is an oblique look at a moment in comics history when some of the foundations of today’s thinking about the medium were being laid down. After this moment, Li’l Abner endured a fairly steep decline until its overdue demise in 1977. Two years later, plagued by ill health, beset by claims of sexual misconduct, the millionaire Al Capp died—reportedly a lonely and bitter man.
Fifty years on from that moment, comics today bring us an unprecedented diversity of reading, including—alongside the highly personal and the superheroic—more and better quality reprints of past classics than ever before. Li’l Abner definitely has a place amongst the latter. Happily today’s readership is not limited to the intellectuals, of whatever political leaning. But the cultural and academic legitimacy that Bordighera demanded for the medium has at least partly arrived.
Capp, as you will see, valued the admiration of his strip by fellow writers—authors of successful prose works whom he saw as legitimate cultural figures. It’s a shame he couldn’t participate in a different level of appreciation of his work from the intellectuals of Bordighera, but probably inevitable. There was more than a straightforward political divide between them.
1965 was a moment, arguably, when yesterday’s myth-maker met the new myth-builders. And they didn’t speak each other’s language.
HOW LI’L ABNER BECAME THE INTELLECTUALS’ DELIGHT
My Life as an Immortal Myth
by AL CAPP
I have never actually seen a French New Wave movie, because of my conviction that they are all Doris Day scripts filmed backward: film a Doris Day script backward and you’ll begin with Rock Hudson leaping out of her bed and refusing to be talked or tricked back into it. This, I have gathered, is the plot of all French New Wave movies.
Nevertheless, when my secretary dubiously held up a phone call from “a Mr. Allen Renay” one day last summer, I instantly recognized the name: Alain Resnais, one of the most revered of the New Wave French film directors, darling of the Art Cinemas that provide espresso in the lounge, served by the ex-poet laureate of Katanga. I said to put the call through. A heavily accented voice said, “I have come from France in the hope of seeing you.”
Even though I didn’t know exactly which films Resnais was celebrated for, I’m always thrilled to talk to any celebrity, especially one who thinks I’m one. I invited him to drop over.
A tall, slim, melancholy young man appeared. He said he was overcome with emotion at being in my presence. Now this isn’t said to me often. To tell you the truth, it’s never been said to me. I was so overcome with emotion that all I remember was the main drift of our talk. As I recall, it went something like this: “All I know of storytelling I have learned from my study of your immortal myth.”
“Look—I’m the one who does Li’l Abner,” I said.
“America’s one immortal myth,” said Resnais, “and the dominating artistic influence of my life.”
I excused myself, and from another room called a Broadway producer I happen to know. I hadn’t seen much of him lately because he’d been going with a girl who is crazy about foreign movies. I asked him what Alain Resnais was famous for.
“Last Year at Marienbad,” he said.
“What was it like?”
“It was the world’s longest wallpaper commercial.”
I rejoined my guest. “It’s hard to believe that the man who created something like Last Year at Marienbad could ever have studied Li’l Abner,” I said, “and still created something like Last Year at Marienbad.”
“I am not unique,” he replied. “In advanced European intellectual circles the study of Capp is considered as vital to the creative dramatist as Becket or Ionesco.”
I began wondering if Last Year at Marienbad might not be the world’s greatest wallpaper commercial.
“Groups have formed in Paris, Rome and Brussels to study your myth and your mind. We have collected every instalment, since it first appeared in August 1934, of your gigantic mosaic. The sophistication and universality of Li’l Abner transcend the sectionalism and naïveté of such inferior attempts as Huckleberry Finn.”
I usually get fighting mad when anyone downgrades Mark Twain, but Resnais did have a way about him. The fightingest retort I could think of was “Aw shucks.”
Resnais arose. “I should go,” he said, reluctantly. “Such worship must embarrass you.”
“Hell, no,” I said. “People over here like my stuff all right, I guess. But as for worship—to be honest with you, I haven’t had enough of that, exactly, to know how I like it.”
My guest sat down again. “When I return with the news that I found you, that you received me, my colleagues will demand that I repeat every word, re-enact every gesture.”
“That ought to be easy,” I comforted him. “I’m not much at gesturing.”
“Naturally one so accustomed to the world’s reverence cannot realize how important is every nuance of voice, every flicker of eyelash. They will devour it all! Yes—I must make of my mind a camera.” And then he seemed stricken by a bitter thought. “If I had a camera—could I have dared ask permission to record a typical hour or two of your daily life?”
“Sure you could,” I said with the graciousness of one who has nothing to lose by it, “if you had a camera.”
“Marvelous!” said Resnais, leaping up. “I left it outside the door. It will be,” he gloated, “the record of a visit to a shrine.”
Resnais returned, lugging his equipment, and began to follow me, filming my every movement for several hours—lunching, answering the telephone, drawing. At the end of the afternoon I apologized for having such a drab day. But if it was a typical one he wanted, I said, that’s how they went.
Resnais assured me that my every casual scratch would have a world of meaning for the Capp cult, and be of inestimable value—especially at this time, when the members were all preparing their papers on my mind and on my myth for the First International Exhibition of the Comics, to be held at Bordighera, Italy.
“The first international what?” I asked. Anyone would have.
Resnais explained: Hundreds of savants, sociologists and social historians from all over Europe would meet in congress at Bordighera, on the Italian Riviera, from the 20th to the 24th of February, to discuss the flower of American art and literature, namely the American comic strip. Just which comic strip would be honored as the fairest flower of all, Resnais smiled, I could certainly guess. He would not presume upon my hospitality to make such a request now—but if I would entertain the thought of attending, my presence would make of the congress a historic literary event. So fervent was that hope, he said, that a certain “honor” (he never was specific about the “honor,” but I got the feeling that it was made out of solid gold, and of pretty good size) was being prepared for me. He again said something nice about my immortal myth and left.
Through the summer and fall, more letters came from Resnais, in Paris, telling me of the burgeoning plans for the fete at Bordighera, and hoping I would make a favorable decision. “You are the one person,” one of them said, “whose flying and accommodations the congress will take care of.” I thought of framing that letter as the first instance in modern history of a Frenchman offering an American anything free. (It turned out later not to be suitable for framing. When I was getting ready to submit my expenses after my return, my secretary pointed out that, although Resnais’ handwriting was graceful, it was tricky, and I had mistaken the phrase “living and accommodations” for “flying and accommodations.” We filed the letter under “Nine Hundred Dollar Misunderstandings.”)
I was about to cable Resnais that I accepted the invitation, would arrive the night of the 19th and gladly remain for the four days of the congress. But my secretary pointed out that, months before, I had accepted an invitation to address the Colorado Press Association in Denver, at noon on the 19th—an irrevocable commitment. I studied airline schedules and the schedule of events at Bordighera. The congress was to be composed of two days of speeches followed by two days of an exhibition of cartoons at the Palazzo del Congresso. So, I cabled a proposal to Resnais:
If the schedule could be reversed, the two days of exhibition put on first, and the really meaty stuff—the speeches about me and my immortal myth—held for the last two days, I could be there when they needed me, and vice versa. It would be hell, but it would be possible.
I never heard from Resnais again, but on January 18 a delighted reply did come from a Dr. Romano Calisi in Rome, on stationery emblazoned “Salon Internazionale dei Comics.” Under the doctor’s signature, typed all in capital letters, was his title—THE DIRECTOR. THE DIRECTOR (12) suggested that if I arrived in Milan by noon on the 20th, a car and driver would be waiting to zip me to Bordighera. I noticed that six hours were allotted to this zipping. On the 21st, refreshed by a night’s sleep at my hotel, I could exhibit myself at the first major event: A Round Table Discussion of Comics as Classic Art, Comics as Social Criticism and Comics as Social Science.
There was, however, no mention of which hotel. Nor was there, as late as the morning of the 18th of February, any reply to our queries to Rome. There wasn’t time enough to risk cabling again, and so I put in a call to THE DIRECTOR in Rome. Now, I don’t speak Italian and I didn’t know whether THE DIRECTOR could speak English. It was clear, however, from his letters that someone in his office could, and so I instructed the overseas operator to make it a person-to-person call to anyone in THE DIRECTOR’S office who spoke English. In less than an hour the operator told me my party was on the line. A man’s voice said, ” ‘allo, ‘allo.” I said, “Do you speak English?” The man said “Si! You spik Inglis?” And that was the last thing from Rome that made any sense to me until, after a long, operatic and utterly incomprehensible conversation, the operator came back on the line to announce, “The charges on your call to Rome, Italy are $24, plus tax.”
I said I didn’t think I ought to be charged anything for the call because it made no sense. She replied that she was only paid to put calls through to Rome, not to make sense out of them.
Some phone subscribers just sit there and foam at the mouth at something like this, but not us public service crusaders. After some hours of spirited repartee with a long series of haughty operators and icily regal supervisors, I put in a person-to-person call to New York to Fred Kappel, president of A.T.& T.—and I made it collect. I felt that a simple long-distance, person-to-person call to Mr. Kappel from Al Capp, even if he recognized my name, might not seem urgent enough. But that a long-distance, person-to-person, collect call from Al Capp would be too pitiful, somehow, to ignore.
Mr. Kappel’s office accepted the charges. His personal secretary said that he was attending a business meeting out of town and asked if she could do anything for me. I said I would prefer to speak to Mr. Kappel. She said he was somewhere that couldn’t be reached by phone. At that moment I felt a kinship with Mr. Kappel and with his secretary.
She heard my story out, expressed regret for the inconvenience, and said she’d do something about it. In about 30 seconds she called back to report that the $24 charge would, of course, be canceled, and again expressed her regret for the inconvenience. Five minutes later, a vice president of the phone company called me from New York and expressed his regret for the inconvenience. An instant later, the phone company’s traffic manager called me and began to express his regret for the inconvenience—until I assured him that the inconvenience that operators had caused me was nothing compared to the agony the brass was now putting me through.
The phone company finally stopped apologizing to me long enough for me to start my journey from Boston, Mass. to Bordighera, Italy, by way of Denver, Colo. Although I didn’t know where exactly on the Italian Riviera I was expected, I didn’t anticipate much more trouble finding the hotel than a slow ride down the main stem of Bordighera. Resnais had described it as “a sleepy little town, with a nice hotel” in one of his early letters from Paris. Thirty-six hours later I realized he was the sort of observer who would describe Atlantic City that way.
When I staggered off the plane in Milan I was met by my driver, a brisk little Italian-Americanophile in his 30s. He wore a button-down shirt, a crew cut, a Goldwater button and a Hertz cap. He was pleased by the sound of his accentless English—picked up, he told me proudly, not from books, but from life—from his American clients—and by the opportunity to use it off-season. He looked reproachfully at the gray noon sky.
“Wouldn’t you just know it,” he said—the quotation marks were almost visible—”a total absence of sun on a day planned for sightseeing.”
I said the only sightseeing I planned was to try to keep my eyes open until we got through the airport to the car. Then I planned to collapse.
“I don’t get it”—the quotation marks again—”if not to sightsee, why the disembarking at Milan—six hours and $79 from Bordighera?” He handed me a Hertz rental contract for my signature. “If you landed at Nice,” he said, “it would have been less than an hour and four bucks away.”
It was then, I think, I began to worry about THE DIRECTOR.
The driver, although starved for an American to talk American to, shut up and let me sleep. However, he kept a hawk’s eye on me from the rearview mirror, and whenever during the six-hour drive I showed a momentary quiver of life, he seized that moment to offer me hasty morsels of conversation. Once he caught me shifting sleep positions and remarked that he admired Americans—all Americans —regardless of race, creed or social position. Mainly what he admired about Americans was their democracy, so different from the snobbery of Europeans. That sent me back to sleep for an hour, when I grunted and stirred again.
“Being from Boston,” he resumed hurriedly, “you must know a client of mine. Not so much a client as a dear, intimate, personal friend. Mr. Cox? A director of the Wall Street Journal.”
I said I knew the Wall Street Journal all right, but Mr. Cox was not a dear, intimate, personal friend of mine.
After that he continued to be civil to me, but made no further effort to talk until, approaching Bordighera, I announced that I didn’t know the name of my hotel.
“But maybe you do,” I said. “It’s the nice little one.”
He said there was something like a hundred nice little hotels in Bordighera. The nicest, of course, was the new De la Mare.
Then that, I decided, should be it. And it certainly should have been, because the one it turned out to be instead was an ancient rotting pile, more suitable for an Italian TV version of the Addams family than for human habitation. The lobby had the melancholy air of the waiting room of an unpopular Roman sportinghouse.
The little old desk clerk told my driver in Italian (and my driver told me in English) that most of those attending the congress were guests of the hotel, but were not in at the moment. They were now at the Palazzo for the grand conclusion of the ceremonies and the closing of the exhibition. However, he added cheerfully, they would soon return to pick up their baggage, for they had all checked out and were leaving that night.
I told my driver to tell that crazy little old desk clerk it couldn’t be true!
The clerk shrugged, and pointed to a mountain of luggage ready to go.
My driver was ready to go, too. For the last few minutes he’d become even less eager to talk his English to me, or to talk to me at all. And I could understand it. I’d feel the same uneasiness about an Italian who had rushed from Milan to, say, Asbury Park, to look for a hotel he didn’t know the name of, to attend an event that was over.
Just then, a man leaving with two bellhops—one carrying bags, the other photographic equipment—stopped, stared at me, came over and said in English:
“You’re not Al Capp?”
I said, as luck would have it, I was.
He identified himself as an American photographer, who was returning to Rome after covering the congress. There had been rumors, right up to the end, that I might turn up.
I snarled that I’d turned up precisely when I’d promised to, and they’d promised they wouldn’t begin until I did. As a matter of fact, they’d claimed they couldn’t!
The photographer said he spoke Italian and would phone the Palazzo, on the chance it hadn’t yet closed, and ask somebody from the congress, if anyone was left, for an explanation, if there was one.
He suggested that I not check in, but wait in the hotel’s bar. Nobody was there except a couple of cartoonists from New York: Lee Falk, who does The Phantom, and Alfred Andriola, who does Kerry Drake. I was astounded. Falk and Andriola were not.
“How long have you been here?” Lee asked me.
“Under an hour.”
“We’ve been here two days,” said Andriola. I thought I detected a look of envy.
“Didn’t you come here together?”
“Neither of us knew the other’d been asked,” said Al. “When Resnais came to New York last summer he told me, confidentially, that the intellectuals of Europe revered Kerry Drake, my immortal myth . . . .”
“He dropped in at my shrine, too,” said Lee.
“I kind of got the impression the whole deal was to be built around me,” said Al, “and I didn’t want to mention it to any of the other guys and hurt their feelings.”
“I felt the same way,” said Lee, “and now that it’s over, I can’t help wondering how I also got the impression they were going to present me with some kind of ‘honor.’ I saw it as something made of gold. . . .”
“And of a pretty fair size?” asked Andriola.
“Yes,” said Lee. “Not small.”
“The thing to remember,” said Al, “is that English isn’t Resnais’ language. We must have misunderstood him. Even at that, he was a very pleasant conversationalist.”
“Except for those mean things he said about Mark Twain,” said Lee.
“Foreigners don’t realize how we resent any slur against Mark Twain,” said Al. “But for some reason, I didn’t get mad at Resnais.”
“For some reason, I didn’t either,” said Lee.
The photographer returned and reported that THE DIRECTOR and everybody at the Palazzo were thrilled that I’d made it, and would extend the congress another 20 minutes in my honor, if I would rush over.
In the taxi, I asked the photographer, since he seemed to understand the Italians, why they’d agreed to reschedule the congress to suit my convenience, then went ahead as planned.
He said it wasn’t the Italian style to refuse such a request as mine merely because it was pompous and inconsiderate. It was pleasanter to treat it as reasonable, agree to it and go ahead as planned.
“And let me come here all the way from America? Well, if that’s the Italian style, it’s a good thing to know.”
The photographer smiled and said, “Italians figure that coming to Italy is such a good thing to do, anyone will eventually be grateful for anything that brought them there, whether or not it made any sense at the time.”
And, although I couldn’t see it then, he turned out to be right.
The Palazzo at Bordighera is a triumph of modern Italian institutional design. It has the antiseptic exterior of a New China leprosarium, and the lush interior of the Miami-Fontainebleu men’s room.
THE DIRECTOR, surrounded by a swarm of savants, kids, photographers and one young female interpreter, was waiting excitedly on the Palazzo steps to greet me. The interpreter said she hoped I’d be patient, for she was not very experienced.
I was shown through several galleries of original ccmic strip drawings, mostly American. It was a joy to see the work of artists with the genius to illuminate the absurdity or, as in the “adventure” strips, the perils of a fantastic but comprehensible world.
“It is sad,” I said to the swarm through the girl interpreter, “that such works are preserved only long enough to wrap fish in, while the messes created by the unbalanced and untalented are sold by the unprincipled as ‘real’ art to the totally bewildered.”
The girl translated this to THE DIRECTOR. The procession stopped.
The savants held an excited conference. When they all seemed to come to some agreement, they all shook my hand and began to leave the Palazzo. “Is it agreeable, then?” asked the girl interpreter. “In half an hour? At Giovanni’s?”
I said I was game, and asked the photographer, who’d been bouncing around taking pictures, who was Giovanni?
“He runs a big fish place near the hotel. That’s what the girl understood from what you said—that you wanted fish. So the entire congress voted to delay their departure home until tomorrow morning, and give a fish dinner in your honor. In half an hour.” I had to admit that was darn nice of them.
“It’s the Italian style,” he grinned, “and that’s not all. They also voted to run through the highlights of the two days of speeches you missed. That’s why the half hour. They’ve all dashed back to get the manuscripts.”
“They needn’t have gone that far,” I said.
“They will,” said the photographer, “unless you stop them. I’ve heard those speeches. There were 14 of them, none under an hour. Why don’t you suggest they mail them to you, in their rich fullness, instead of giving you mere highlights? And hold a mass interview after the fish at Giovanni’s—in which you can exchange ideas?”
At Giovanni’s the photographer remained at my side long enough to make sure the girl interpreted this suggestion correctly. It was declared agreeable to the congress, so the photographer bounced off to the outer fringes of the crowd and resumed snapping pictures as the mad interview began.
A Marcello Mastroianni type rose, looked yearningly at the girl (not because she was anything to be yearned for, but because she was the only girl around, and he was Italian).
She quivered, and translated: “The Professor from Genoa inquires, what was your motivation for creating Li’l Abner in 1934?”
“Hunger,” I replied. “I was very hungry in 1934. So I created Li’l Abner. It became big business and I became overweight. Since then my motivation has been greed.”
Falk, Andriola and the photographer laughed. Raw truth amuses Americans. The girl translated. None of the Italians laughed. They all nodded gravely.
“I bombed,” I said.
“In the translation,” the photographer explained, “it came out you created Li’l Abner as a protest against the greed of American big business.”
“I meant my greed,” I said to the girl. “Tell ’em that!”
She translated. The Italians nodded sympathetically. A few applauded.
“To translate her translation,” said the photographer, “you consider your pen a lance against the forces of obsessive materialism. You see, she likes you. The little touches she adds are making a much finer impression on this crowd than if they knew what you were really saying. Better let her handle it her way.”
She was now ready with the next question.
“The Doctor of Philosophy from Rome asks you to settle a dispute. It is his contention that Li’l Abner is not so much a hillbilly as a total vision of life. His destiny contains all: poverty; an elementary sense of justice; courage; absolute dependence on the material world; optimism with, however, very little ambition; fatalism; momism; superstition; innocent and automatic conformism; and an instinctive desire to remain eternally young. Is not this mixture of activism and apathy, of absolute conformism and a desire for personal liberty, this mirage of an unattainable future your colossal comic-grotesque, cynical-sentimental comment on the American Dream?”
“You might put it that way,” I replied.
With a triumphant smile at a small man on the other side of the room the Doctor of Philosophy sat down.
The small man leaped up, glared at the doctor and spoke. Translation:
“The Director of the Department of New World Literature pays his respects to the distinguished Philosopher and suggests that his theory is a kettle of cabbage, since it is based upon Li’l Abner as read in translation. He says the result of his department’s multilanguage analysis of 30 years of the daily instalments of the masterwork indicate that it is as difficult to translate the text of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner as it is to translate the text of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Both employ a subtle use of typography, creating fascinating modulations which are inimitable, and therefore impossible to savor fully in any but the original form. The speaker therefore begs us not to bore our guest with our grotesque explanations of what Li’l Abner is to us. To settle all disputes for all time, he implores Mr. Capp to tell us what Li’l Abner is to him.”
“To me,” I said, “it’s a living.”
And that’s the way it went, until long past midnight.
The next day I left Bordighera for Rome. I was depressed. The determination of Europe’s New Wave of intellectuals to elevate the status of a continued-story comic strip to an immortal myth was heady stuff all right, but such sudden enthusiasms are apt to be flimsy and treacherous. Passionate affirmation inevitably creates passionate opposition, especially in the literary world, and next year us new immortals might be considered just another overpaid bunch of old immorals, just as we are back home. I decided it was more comfortable being a cartoonist in America than a colossus in Rome.
My photographer friend had returned to Rome with me, and to relieve my gloom took me to a party at the home of a celebrated Roman femme fatale. There, he asked me to pose with Carlo Levi, who seemed perfectly happy chatting with friends.
“There’s always a market,” he explained, “for celebrity pictures.”
I protested that the author of Christ Stopped at Eboli was a celebrity to me, naturally, but it seemed an intrusion to ask him to pose with an American he didn’t even know, and maybe didn’t want to. At that moment Levi turned, slapped my back and chortled.
“I know you very well, Capp, but maybe you don’t want to know me, if you read my article on General Bullmoose for La Stampa of Turin.”
“Somehow I missed it,” I replied. “When did it appear?”
“I’ll call Turin and get you the exact date,” said Levi. He did, and then gave me his card with the date scribbled on it. The year was 1955.
“Then you aren’t a new follower of the Li’l Abner wave?”
Levi snorted. “You mean those fellows at Bordighera? They followed me! Although it is true that my piece followed, by several years, John Steinbeck’s, urging that Li’l Abner be given the Nobel Prize for Literature. Certainly that started a Li’l Abner wave among the critics in your country?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “They figured he was trying to be funny.”
“American critics are funny,” said Levi.
The photographer was tugging at my sleeve. “[Alberto] Moravia just came in. Let’s get a shot with him.”
“Let’s not press our luck,” I was saying as he placed me alongside the author of A Woman of Rome.
“Say something to Mr. Capp,” urged the photographer.
“I’ve been reading Li’l Abner since 1934,” said Moravia, “I detect . . .”
“That’s just fine,” said the photographer, closing shop. “I’ve got one more job to cover. I’ll drop you at the hotel.”
Driving back through the Borghese Gardens, I said I guessed the New Wave of intellectual attention to the comic strip in Europe wasn’t so new or fragile or faddist after all.
“Do you suppose,” I asked the photographer, “it’ll ever reach our country? Just think! To be treated as the equal of real writers and artists! To have each new story in Li’l Abner reviewed by the New York Times—same as each new story by, say, Robert Ruark! To have my daily square full of cartoons discussed in the Art Review, as reverently as Rothko’s empty squares! It would do a lot for me with my grandchildren.” The photographer said not to bet on anything like that happening, not in time to do me any good with those kids anyhow.
“Sixty million people from age 7 to 70 take us seriously enough to have read us every day for 30 years. The world has never been that transfixed by any top TV series, the complete works of Harold Robbins and Dostoyevsky, or the total output of M-G-M studios.”
“I’m afraid what that anti-American critic said at the congress was right,” my friend replied. “Classifying comics as a subculture is a form of prejudice your people will never overcome.”
Were my kind, I wondered, forever to remain second-class citizens in the democracy of arts and letters?
“We shall overcome,” I said.
- Peter Bondanella’s study Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2005) summarises the essays in English, and describes some places where English translations can be found. (There is no English translation of the whole book; Apocalypse Postponed, ed. Robert Lumley (Indiana University Press, 1994) contains the introductory essay and some of the content.) Some, perhaps all, of these pieces had appeared in journals over the preceding few years.
- An English translation of “The Myth of Superman” appears in Arguing Comics (Literary Masters on a Popular Medium) Ed. Jeet Heer & Kent Worcester (University press of Mississippi, 2004.
- “A Reading of Steve Canyon” appears in Comic Iconoclasm, ed. Sheena Wagstaff (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1987). Bondanella states that this translation is cut short.
- “The World of Charlie Brown” appears in Apocalypse Postponed.
- Though Wikipedia may be all you really need. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Capp
- Anyone who hasn’t witnessed Capp in conversation with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their 1969 “bed-in” is advised to detour in that direction immediately after reading this post. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYxFO8o-t2E
- The catalogue text I have seen (4) has the President, Rino Albertarelli, heading the evidently more prestigious Steering Committee, and a Chairman of the Organising Committee, Raul Zaccari, at the head of the lists. Calisi as Director of the Organising Committee is listed after the vice-president of same.