Presarvin’ Freedom: Al Capp, Treasury Man
Unable to serve in the military, Al Capp spearheaded cartoonists’ effort to raise money to fight World War II. Jay Maeder explores their role.
Early in 1942, when his Li’l Abner was not yet eight years old but was already a monument in American life and letters, faithfully followed in every hamlet and valley of the nation, Al Capp came to the decision that he would neither put Abner Yokum into military uniform nor permit the horrors of war to intrude into peaceful, happy, unfretful, undarkened Dogpatch. His public rationale, stated in a letter-to-the-reader strip that July 4: “Perhaps this small section of our daily newspaper can do its part best by helping us to remember that a free world once did exist-and will again!!” Still, in 1942, a good citizen wanted to contribute something material to the war effort. And perhaps it is ungenerous to posit that Capp might have been smarting at the public attentions showered upon his hated onetime employer Ham Fisher, creator of the equally popular Joe Palooka, who had signed Joe up in the Army more than a year earlier, thus sparking such a wave of enlistments that President Franklin Roosevelt himself had hailed both Fisher and Joe as the greatest of patriots.
To Washington went 32-year-old Capp. There he presented himself to the United States Treasury Department and offered his professional services as a highly visible homefront propagandist.
What resulted from those meetings was Capp’s third strip, after Li’l Abner and Abbie an’ Slats, a public-service feature titled Small Fry—and, beyond that, a goodwill relationship between Treasury and the band of comics men who would subsequently become the National Cartoonists Society.
The U.S. government had been selling investment in itself to private citizens since 1789. In 1942, millions well remembered that the famous federal securities called Liberty Bonds had funded much of the Yank participation in the European War in 1917 and 1918. Now, this bleak generation later, Treasury was offering the new Series E issue and entreating patriotic Americans, via a massive promotional campaign in the public prints, to put aside 10 percent of their weekly paychecks for these star-spangled bonds that would surely buy defeat for Tojo and Hitler. Now, at about the same time he was concocting his first Fearless Fosdick yarn over in Li’l Abner, it became Al Capp’s job to help Treasury sell its urgent message.
Though Capp neither bylined nor signed Small Fry—indeed, not unlike Li’l Abner itself, most of it was doubtless produced by his longtime Boston-studio assistants, Al Amato and Harvey Curtis and Walter Johnston—the feature looked and sounded exactly like Abner, and there was no comics reader in the firmament who could not possibly have recognized that the Capp shop was plainly behind the thing. Made available to newspapers free of charge by Treasury—Capp himself took just a public-spirited dollar a year for the strip’s production—Small Fry premiered amid much fanfare on Sunday, May 31, 1942, introducing a solemn little runt who was much too small a fry to get into the Army or the Navy or the Marine Corps or even to land a defense-plant job and who accordingly settled for helping to win the war by buying as many of Treasury’s war bonds as he could afford and shaming his tightwad neighbors into doing the same.
And here was the strip’s sole mission. This was every American’s world war, and every hometown civilian was expected to dig deep and sacrifice to finance the enterprise every bit as much as our valiant boys overseas could be counted upon to fight to their brave deaths. “Taxes alone cain’t do it!” whispered Small Fry’s voluptuous lady friend Tallulah as her determined little fella earnestly chased down one deranged scheme after another in his never-ending quest for a few more bucks that could buy him still more war bonds. Series E securities were $18.75 apiece and they were guaranteed to repay their bearers $25 after ten years. “It’s the world’s biggest double-barreled BARGAIN!” whooped Small Fry. Meanwhile, eighteen dollars and seventy five cents bought nearly a thousand bullets. A hundred bought a bomb. Fifty thousand built an airplane.
By war’s end, more than 85 million Americans had bought more than $185 billion worth of what by then were known as Victory Bonds. It cannot be guessed how many of those Al Capp had a hand in selling. Certainly Small Fry—soon efficiently retitled Small Change (“It don’t matter how MUCH or how LI’L yo’ invests—EVEN SMALL CHANGE WILL DO IT!”)—was seen by many millions of comics readers through most of the war, appearing every two or three Sundays in as many as 120-plus cities. Certainly it’s a good bet that some of those readers were encouraged to spring for a double-barreled bargain or two.
By the time the Small Change feature disappeared from the nation’s Sunday funnies in 1945, Capp had undertaken additional services for which his government was grateful. Abner Yokum ended up in uniform after all, if only in specially drawn posters and pamphlets supplied exclusively to military installations. Somehow the war was won despite Abner’s participation. Terry Lee and Don Winslow and Johnny Hazard and Buz Sawyer, not to mention Joe Palooka and Jerry Leemy, had done most of the heavy lifting anyway.
Since Pearl Harbor, a loosely knit unit of several dozen stripmen, more or less presided over by Gus Edson and C.D. Russell, had indefatigably staged hundreds of morale-boosting shows at Army camps and Navy bases and veterans’ hospitals; Al Capp’s particular specialty was visiting the amputee wards, displaying his own wooden leg that he’d worn since childhood and brusquely ordering the gloomily damaged young men to stop feeling so goddam sorry for themselves. After the war, several of the more prominent of them—Edson, Russell, Rube Goldberg, Russell Patterson, Otto Soglow, Milton Caniff, Ernie Bushmiller, a few others—agreed among themselves that they would continue their pro bono good works. This was one of the reasons they formally organized themselves into the National Cartoonists Society in New York in March 1946.
From the beginning, Milt Caniff and Al Capp—fast friends since their scuffling Associated Press days in the early 1930s, boundless admirers of each other’s work, by now both masters of self-promotion, the two daily newspaper cartoonists who routinely arranged for themselves more glowing personal publicity in the national magazines than any other ink-stained wretch could ever dream of—were the runaway chieftains of the new NCS. Between them they won the first two annual Cartoonist of the Year awards, then named in honor of the immortal Billy DeBeck. Caniff was quickly NCS president; Capp, who himself never sought office, was always quietly at his side. Together they consulted and set the Society agenda for years to come, subsequently aided and abetted by such like-minded colleagues as Alex Raymond and Walt Kelly. Here was the NCS political bloc against which poor crazed Ham Fisher never had a chance as he embarked upon his famously protracted campaign to discredit and disgrace Al Capp.
But that’s another story. Here is this one—as, in early 1949, with Red China on the march and Soviet spies filching atomic secrets, the United States Treasury Department set out once again to drive home to every citizen the obligation to buy up civilization-preserving savings bonds—and it called upon the National Cartoonists Society.
If the NCS was largely a marching-and-chowder fraternity of good fellows well met, quite devoted to good food and drink and the occasional ribaldry, it also very much remained a public-service organization. The cartoonists still regularly entertained hospitalized veterans with chalk talks, and they generously donated their time and talents to the Boy Scouts and the March of Dimes and the Heart Fund and the Cancer Fund and the Anti-Tuberculosis Drive and the Crippled Children’s Committee, and they sent poor New York kids to summer camp. When Treasury asked for major funny-papers participation in the ambitious 1949 bond drive—“Be A ’49er,” the campaign was called, its symbol the cross-country covered wagon of pioneer days—President Caniff was most pleased to call on his members for such.
Treasury officials were introduced to the cartoonists in New York in late January, at a banquet notably enlivened by Ham Fisher, who screamed curses at Al Capp throughout Treasury’s presentation of awards and citations, somewhat to public notice. In mid-February, Caniff and Capp went to Washington to meet with Treasury Secretary John Snyder and his press attache Jacob Mogelever and hammer out the details. The official drive dates were May 16 through June 30, which gave the newspaper stripmen just enough lead time to work one bond-sales mention or another into their features. Comic books, represented at NCS by longtime Famous Funnies editor Steve Douglas, were more difficult: Treasury had not understood comic-book production timetables and most publishers could not comply with Washington’s request for special covers and features in their May and June and July issues. But the newspapermen had their 12 weeks to figure something out.