In our youth during the 1940s and 1950s, certain folks played a large role in our lives—highly influencing us on a daily basis. Sometimes I wonder if they were real? They certainly had our attention. They came to our door each day with interesting subjects. We found ourselves anxiously awaiting their arrival.
Those of whom I speak, came in all ages, sizes, shapes and with varying personalities. They were the characters on the comic strips of the Macon News in the afternoon and the Macon Telegraph each morning. They made us laugh! They made us want tomorrow’s paper right away. They were the topic of conversation around the dinner table. I began to read about them in the early 1940s, and I suppose I quit some time after I turned forty. I’m not sure why. Sometimes, I still glance at the comic section to see who are the delights of children’s minds today. Alas, I believe the comic strip business has suffered tremendously of late. Oh, I will still look to see if Beetle Bailey is still pestering Sarge in the army. I glance at Hagar the Horrible and Dagwood just for old time’s sake.
But, I dreadfully miss the late Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae, the beautiful, Joe Bltszmk and his ever-present dark cloud over his head, and Hairless Joe—who was anything but hairless—along with his Indian friend whose name escapes me, indulging us with the kickapoo joy juice which they made to drink. Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Abner’s parents were everyman’s parents.
Capp’s greatest creation was of course the shmoo, the lovable little white, cuddly, everything animal whose mission in life was to please everyone by becoming a great steak, pork chops, quart of milk or eggs—all produced with a smile. If one met an untimely death, the shmoo would automatically double itself into two shmoos. Oh glory! I used to longingly wish for a shmoo in my life.
Li’l Abner ranks among the greatest comic strips ever created. There are some who argue that it is the greatest. But what is indisputable is that Alfred Gerald Caplin best known as Al Capp, was the most influential and most controversial cartoonist of his era. Li’l Abner, at its peak, appeared in more than 900 newspapers with a daily readership of 90,000,000. A handful of competing comic strips appeared in more newspapers, but Capp's exposure didn't end in the comic section. His personal celebrity transcended comics, reaching the public and influencing the culture in a variety of media. For many years he simultaneously produced the daily strip, a weekly syndicated newspaper column and a 500-station radio program while maintaining a steady presence on television screens
In a single five-year cluster, five of America's top magazines paid prominent homage to Capp's genius. In 1947 he earned a Newsweek cover story. That same year The New Yorker's profile on him was so long that it ran in consecutive issues. In 1950 he was a cover story for TIME. Two years later he and his characters graced the covers of both LIFE and TV Guide. In 1937 Capp created Sadie Hawkins Day as an annual November plot device in Li’l Abner, in which Dogpatch’s love-starved maidens were allowed to chase and catch the town's eligible bachelors. In 1939, only two years after its inauguration, a double-page spread in LIFE proclaimed, "On Sadie Hawkins Day Girls Chase Boys in 201 Colleges." In 1952 the fictional event was celebrated at 40,000 known venues!
Capp took advantage of the popular Dick Tracy comic strip by Chester Gould to create a parody of the great detective. He introduced the bumbling detective, Fearless Fosdick, who could get shot badly—leaving his body full of mock holes in battles with bad guys—but continue to fight crime. It would take on a life of its own with Fosdick at times—a comic strip that was the favorite of Li’l Abner Yokum—meeting what would be almost certain death, only to survive. Capp had Fosdick advertising Wild Root Cream Oil, a hair product in the comic strip.
Al Capp finally retired his strip in 1977, and with his retirement went one of the most celebrated and controversial cartoonists of all time.
I had so many friends in the comic strips, one of which was Alley Oop, a mixture of adventure, fantasy and humor. The comic strip revolves around the irrepressible Alley Oop, who traveled from prehistoric Moo all the way to the 21st century in his friend Doc Wonmug's time machine. Other favorite regulars in the strip include King Guz and Queen Umpa, the king and queen of Moo, Oscar and Ava, assistants to Wonmug, and Ooola, Alley Oop's girlfriend. Oop’s favorite animal was Dinny, a giant dinosaur, and once saddled on the prehistoric animal’s neck, they could go anywhere, Alley swinging his ax club for protection.
There were so many comic strip characters who led our brave fighting men into battle during World War II. There was crack-flying navy pilot, John “Buz” Sawyer and his navy pal during the war, Roscoe Sweeney. After the end of the war, Sweeney dropped out of the daily newspapers, and instead appeared as a regular character in rural Florida. Along with his homely sister, Lucille, a dead-ringer for her brother, they periodically had to put up with deadbeat cousins coming around to sponge off them during an un-welcome visit.
Lucille eventually took up football and won a scholarship to college running the ball better than famed Bulldog great Herschel Walker. What fun that was each Sunday to read those great adventures on the gridiron!
Terry Lee in the strip known as Terry and the Pirates took a leave from his search for a missing gold mine in China to join up with Uncle Sam against the invading Japanese after the infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Steve Canyon and Buck Rogers, to a lesser degree, were factors against our enemies in WWII.
One of the greatest strips during the war and during my growing-up years had to be Smilin’ Jack Martin, known for his handsome, debonair looks, sporting a pencil-thin mustache. One of the characters in Smilin’ Jack was Downwind Jaxon, said to be the only cartoon character better looking than Jack—so good-looking that they could never show a front view of him, seeing only the edge of his face, perhaps in fear that readers might be struck blind by his beauty. Fatstuff, Jack's Hawaiian friend who was always popping his shirt buttons usually into the mouths of hungry chickens, so under-nourished from eating buttons instead of bugs that they were unable to grow feathers.
The final edition of Smilin’ Jack depicted his son, Jack, Jr. getting married in 1976 as the creator of the strip, retired at the age of sixty-seven.
One of the great strips was known as Gasoline Alley and starred the family named Wallett. It’s star was Skeezix who married his high school sweetheart, Nina Clock. The characters in Gasoline Alley, unlike many others, aged along with the adventures of the strip. In opposition to that, Snuffy Smith and Lowezy had a son named Tater at the same time our now 41-year-old son was born. Tater is still a baby.
Who could ever forget Little Orphan Annie, the girl with circles of nothing for eyes. She and Sandy, her dog were adopted by “Daddy” Warbucks, and because of all the successful movies may be the wealthiest comic strip character of all time.
So many of those comic strip characters played a large role in our lives. Dick Tracy and his team of detectives wore wristwatches that they could see who was calling them. Well, of course that had to be fantasy, or did it? Can you say picture-sending cell phones? Maybe they were real.
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