Al Capp

Stars and Strips

“Life imitates art,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “more than art imitates art.” In New Haven, that art has often involved cartooning and caricature. It’s a fun place to be.

One of the most popular and controversial comic strip creators of the 20th century, Al Capp, was born in New Haven. It was here that Capp lost a leg at age nine, after he was given half a dollar by his father to get a haircut downtown. “I had seen a tantalizing offer on a sign in a downtown New Haven window: ‘Prof. Amoroso, Barber Academy—Haircuts 15 Cents—No Tipping,’” Capp recounts in his collection of essays My Well-Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg. “By hitching a ride on the back of an ice wagon I could step into Professor Amoroso’s with fifty cents and, with luck, step out again with most of the money (and possibly some of my scalp) intact. Clutching that fifty-cent piece, blinded with dreams of riches and power, I hopped off the ice cart in front of the barber academy—and directly into the the path of a huge old-fashioned trolley car.”

Capp left the city in his teens and attended high school in Bridgeport—strangely, the same alma mater as another all-time great newspaper cartoonist, Walt Kelly of Pogo fame.

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Al Capp’s signature strip was L’il Abner, an ongoing satire about American class (or lack thereof), social standing and traditional rural cultures. This often involved parodies of Ivy League attitudes—besides coming from New Haven, Capp lived for decades near Harvard.

The long-running sports-oriented comic strip Gil Thorp, which was created by Jack Berrill in 1958, is ostensibly set in a generic town called Milford but was reportedly inspired by New Milford, Connecticut, where Berrill lived for many years. Gil Thorp has referenced New Haven on many occasions. A character in the strip once wore a T-shirt hyping local jazz vocalist Giacomo Gates, and a few years ago an illustrated athlete mused, “Know what I found out? 11 out of 12 kids who apply to Yale didn’t get in!” Gil Thorp’s current writer, Neal Rubin, lives in Michigan so the Connecticut references have dwindled. Jack Berrill’s widow oversaw a retrospective of her husband’s work at the retirement community Pomperaug Woods in Southbury earlier this year.

The most New Haven-rooted of all nationally syndicated newspaper comic strips, of course, is Doonesbury. Garry Trudeau based many of the strip’s original cast of characters on his Yale classmates. Title character Mike Doonesbury was inspired by Trudeau’ s roommate Charlie Pillsbury, who stayed in New Haven after graduation, served as Executive Director of Community Mediation Inc. and has been active in Green Party politics.

Doonesbury began as Bull Tales in the Yale Daily News, where it contained mentions of area hangouts such as Rudy’s Bar. Trudeau attended Yale as an undergrad, then got a degree from the Yale School of Arts, continuing to live in New Haven for a few years after Doonesbury became nationally syndicated. According to comics historian Brian Walker in the gorgeous coffee table book Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau (published in 2010 by Yale University Press), in the early ’70s, “Trudeau bought a red brick town house in New Haven, Connecticut. It was a typical bachelor pad, with stacks of books and records cluttering the floors, original cartoons and posters covering the walls, and a drawing board tucked in a corner.” In the national version of the once-hyperlocal Doonesbury strip, Yale University morphed into the much smaller Walden College, whose President King nonetheless bears a striking resemblance to Yale’s president from 1963-1977, Kingman Brewster. This week in Doonesbury, Walden College has been considering entering the lucrative world of for-profit higher education.

Doonesbury is not the only New Haven-connected strip which takes its topics from news headlines. This Modern World cartoonist Dan Perkins (who signs his strips “Tom Tomorrow”) moved to New Haven in the mid-1990s, and now lives in Hamden. His nationally syndicated strips, a fixture of alternative weekly papers (including the Village Voice) for decades, have occasionally touched on local issues. Perkins once drew a cover illustration for the New Haven Advocate which featured This Modern World’s iconic character Sparky the Penguin standing in front of the Duncan Hotel on Chapel Street holding a cup of coffee from Koffee? on Audubon Street.

There are new comics being created in New Haven constantly. An artist named Karneeleus has engaged in an unusual project where he hopes to post two thousand twelve separate “comic strips or pages” on his tumblr site during 2012. He acknowledges in the site’s brief introduction that many of the strips “will be made by collaging or altering other artwork by myself or by others, and some will be poorly drawn. I’m ok with this.” (Warning, should you Google it: much of the content is sexually explicit.)

New Haven has always supported its comic artists. The Alternate Universe shop at 1181 Chapel Street has carried locally produced comics on its racks and also runs a statewide comic convention, ComiConn. Among the convention’s many Connecticut-based guests was Frank McLaughlin, a legendary artist who has drawn Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and even Gil Thorp, and who has taught at Hamden’s Paier College of Art.

Yale has taken an interest in the form as well. Besides Trudeau, noted comics creator Art Spiegleman, whose Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, has spoken regularly at the university. Comics theorist Scott McCloud, author of the groundbreaking study Understanding Comics, was amused to find his work cited in a Yale Law School class on intellectual property rights.

In 2010, Yale Law School hosted an art exhibit, “Superheroes in Court! Lawyers, Law and Comic Books,” and the Beinecke Rare Books Library has also done several shows by comic artists or caricaturists, including a very popular 2010 exhibit of Doonesbury strips concerning the military actions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The selfsame Beinecke presented an exhibit entitled “Comic Inventions: The Pre-History of the Graphic Narrative in the Nineteenth Century” last year.

Clearly, such comic strip tropes as “Meanwhile…,” “To Be Continued…” and “Our story so far” have special meaning in New Haven.

Written by Christopher Arnott. Artwork by Al Capp.

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