The Enduring Legacy of Li'l Abner

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Li'l Abner was a comic strip drawn by Al Capp that appeared in newspapers from 1934 to 1977. Those born after the strip ceased publication may look at samples and see only humor based on stereotypical hillbilly culture, but when you follow the adventures of the citizens of Dogpatch over the years, it was so much more than that. Capp had plenty to say about the events, trends, and politics of his time. He used a parade of unforgettable characters like Moonbeam McSwine, Fearless Fosdick, and Jubilation T. Cornpone to comment on world events, buried but visible under a thick Appalachian accent. The comic strip spawned books, plays, movies, and TV shows, as well as an avalanche of advertising and merchandising. Forty-three years of Li'l Abner left us with cultural touchstones even my children know, although they don't really know where they came from.

Kickapoo Joy Juice

In the Li'l Abner strip, Kickapoo Joy Juice was an alcoholic beverage distilled in a cave with an undisclosed location (for revenue reasons) near the Dogpatch area by characters Lonesome Polecat & Hairless Joe. I recall a vendor giving out samples of a new soft drink called Kickapoo Joy Juice in my small town when I was very young. We were asked to taste-test the drink and compare it with Mountain Dew. Introduced in 1965, Kickapoo Joy Juice is still manufactured in Atlanta. In the real world, the drink is non-alcoholic.

Sadie Hawkins Day

The name Sadie Hawkins is familiar to millions of people who have never read L'il Abner. The idea of women pursuing men as they did one day of the year in Dogpatch became a phenomenon in real life starting in 1938 on college campuses. The sheer contrariness of the concept made the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance a campus staple for decades. Today, as female high school and college students are more comfortable asking males for a date, the custom survives mainly at the middle school level.

Shmoo

The creature Capp named the shmoo was lovable, prolific, and delicious. The amorphous shape and unlikely characteristics of this animal captured the public's imagination. The rare evil version of the shmoo was called a nogoodnik. In the late 1940s and early '50s, any kind of merchandise called shmoo or anything in the shape of a shmoo was a guaranteed hit. The New Shmoo cartoon series entertained children on Saturday morning TV in 1979. That was shortly after Al Capp died, and two years after the strip ceased, the target audience was not familiar enough with the shmoo to carry the series more than a year.
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The word "shmoo" survives today in science. Actually, the term, like the fictional animal, proved to be so useful that five scientific fields use it for different concepts that are understood within their disciplines. Economics refers to a shmoo in the same way Capp did: a "free good" or useful material that self-reproduces without investment or labor. In biology, when a haploid yeast reproduces, the bulge that appears resembles a shmoo and the process is called shmooing. Some sea urchin larva are called shmoo. A piece of equipment used in particle physics is called shmoo because of its shape. The term is also used in electrical engineering and evolutionary science.

-nik

Words like beatnik and Sputnik entered our consciousness in the 1950s, and we learned that the suffix connoted a Slavic or Russian word. Words using the suffix have been around a long time, but the popularity of adding the -nik suffix to random English words to make something new is attributed to Al Capp's habit of coining words in Li'l Abner, such as nogoodnik and neatnik.

Dogpatch

The theme park Dogpatch, U.S.A. opened in 1968 in the Ozark Mountain area of Arkansas and closed in 1993. Investors paid Al Capp a continuing percentage to use his themes and characters, the value of which faded dramatically after Capp retired in 1977. The community surrounding the theme park had very few residents and took the name Dogpatch, Arkansas as park investors and employees moved in during the 1960s. The unincorporated area changed it name back to to Marble Falls in 1997. The name Dogpatch survives in numerous businesses that cater to tourists in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains and elsewhere. It is also used as a synonym for a generic isolated mountain community, and was a slang term for US military quarters and hangouts in Vietnam.

We see vestiges of Dogpatch here and there, but probably the most important legacy of the strip is the use of political satire and social commentary in continuing comic strips that are mainly published for entertainment purposes. Al Capp has been cited as an influence in the later strips Pogo and Doonesbury and in the comics of MAD magazine, as well as other publications.

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July 14, 2011 - 5:14am
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