I don’t think a lot of people still read Al Capp’s Li’l Abner; Capp’s extreme misanthropy, combined with his shift to the hard right late in his career, can make the strip a bit of a slog at times. But at its best, it was comics genius. And it was never better than in the story where Capp finally, after years of almost making it happen, forced the title character to marry Daisy Mae, the beautiful girl who pined for him in vain (because Li’l Abner was too stupid to have any concept of sexual attraction to anyone, he just considered her a nuisance). I found the story in an old book, and thought I’d share it here, because after almost 60 years, it still puts most comics to shame when it comes to handling an “event” story.
The full story can be found a this link. But one thing you need to know to understand the story, or at least how it looked at the time, is that Capp had constantly made it look like Abner would have to get married, and then found some twist to get him out of it. That’s what comics creators do: they toy with us. By the time this story ran, no one really believed that Abner would marry. Everyone was on to Capp’s tricks. So what does he build the story around? The fact that everyone is in on his tricks. The whole story is like a huge meta-game with his huge audience, starting as soon as Abner’s “Uncle Future” predicts that he will get married:
The biggest stroke of brilliance, though, was the device Capp used to marry Abner off. For years, one of Capp’s most popular recurring ideas was “Sadie Hawkins’ Day,” where boys are forced to marry the girls who catch them. Every year, someone would catch Abner and there would be some crazy reason why he stayed a bachelor. So by 1952, anyone who had ever read the strip assumed that if Abner got married (unlikely) it would be because of Sadie Hawkins’ Day. So Capp doesn’t even bring that into the story at all. Instead, he uses Fearless Fosdick, the Dick Tracy-style strip-within-a-strip that produced many of his best stories (Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad was so influenced by Fosdick, with its gruesome cartoony violence and take-that attitude to the comics, that it bordered on copycatism at times). Because Abner was a devoted reader of Fearless Fosdick, he would sometimes echo Capp’s own thoughts on comic strips and comics readers. But here, he takes a vow: from now on he’ll do exactly what Fosdick does, all the time. This will keep him safe from marriage because Fosdick is the most famous lifelong bachelor in all of comics.
So having set up this meta situation, Capp takes it up a notch by having Daisy Mae meet “Lester Gooch,” creator of Fearless Fosdick, and tell him some of the same things that Capp himself had probably heard: by portraying an anti-marriage hero, he’s setting a bad example. I doubt Capp actually decided to do the marriage for this reason, but he is, as we now say, putting it out there. He’s added an extra layer of irony, as we try to figure out whether Lester Gooch is speaking for Capp, or just standing in for the way people saw Capp’s reasons for doing this storyline.
So Gooch creates a storyline where circumstances push Fosdick closer to marriage, and because Abner has promised to do whatever his comics hero does, Abner is going to have to undergo a “real” marriage the very day one happens in the comics. Here’s where it gets really byzantine, because Abner starts speaking for his own readers, the ones who were hep to all Capp’s tricks and knew (or thought they knew) that Capp would put in some twist to get his hero out of it, as usual. Abner points out that gullible comics readers belive that these gimmicks — like marriage — are real, while the savvy comics reader knows that Fosdick (and therefore Abner) will just go back to the status quo in the end.
But Fosdick gets married, in what is undoubtedly the biggest event in the comics-within-comics world, with Abner — standing in for his own readers — expressing shock and appallment (appallitude?) over this.
And the day after Fosdick’s strip-within-a-strip wedding comes a similar “event” wedding in the strip itself. Once again speaking for the readers, Li’l Abner wonders how this could happen after all the times he’s gotten out of it. While his parents, more or less breaking the thin fourth wall that this story had up to now, sort of acknowledge that this (heavily-publicized) comics story is being read by millions, even “billyuns,” around the world.
But of course that doesn’t end things, because we know that even when the big event happens, it doesn’t “really” happen. This is the comics, after all. Abner keeps clinging to the idea that a “miracle” will happen to restore the status quo, even as he and Daisy Mae set off on their honeymoon. One possibility Capp keeps referring to, with his typical gruesomeness, is that Daisy might just get killed off; a couple of strips end with it looking like she might be about to die, or even shot dead.
But most readers had one explanation in mind. People who read the 1952 equivalent of TVTropes could tell you what a comics creator would do after marrying his bachelor hero off. And sure enough, it happens — but not in Li’l Abner, in Fearless Fosdick.
Yes, in the final game between Capp and the reader, he’s used the last-ditch trick, the one cartoonists always use, the “imaginary story” gambit we were all expecting — but not in the world of the strip. Instead he uses it as a way of showing that this is absolutely final for Abner: there’s no miracle to save him, and it’s not a dream. (Capp is also distancing himself from other comics: the “it was all a dream” trick is something they use, not him.) As Mammy explains to him, and us, things will never be the same in this comic again. Abner was wrong in thinking that this was all going to blow over, and so were we: Capp has put one over on all of us who thought we knew all the tropes.
There are differences of opinion as to whether this marriage was even a good idea. Some people think it hurt the strip; others think it had a natural rate of decline that was going to happen whether Abner was married or unmarried. But one thing’s for sure: no one had ever turned a comics marriage into a gigantic exploration of the whole process of reading comics, the relationship between reader and artist, and the audience’s ability to anticipate comics clichés. Well, it beats the hell out of another “Superman marries Lois Lane” cover.