August 2003

Joseph J. Finn


The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo by Al Capp

Though it's brand of humor is becoming more and more rare as ethnic humor falls by the wayside, Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" was a hugely successful comic strip for decades. It looks completely cornball, with its stereotypes of mountain men, big dumb lugs, and oversexed mountain girls who can never get their men, but Harlan Ellison argues successfully in his introduction that "Li'l Abner" was a brand of social satire that can be fairly easy to miss if you're only looking at the easy jokes. This collection focuses on one particular plot line from the strip, that of the fabulous Shmoo.

Those of you around my age (30) might actually remember the Shmoo from a horrible Flintstones cartoon in the early 80's, where Fred & Barney were cops (don't ask). But the Shmoo actually emerged in "Li'l Abner," in a 1940's strip where Abner stumbles on the Valley of the Shmoos, filled with these short white cute creatures that will do anything for people. They produce as much milk and eggs as you like, they're cute as a button, and if you're hungry they'll fall over dead so you can cook them. They're a fabulous creation from Capp', but he had much more interesting things in mind than simply creating an interesting creature.

Abner brings back the Shmoo to Dogpatch, where it starts reproducing (apparently asexually), and everyone gets a Shmoo. Here's where it gets interesting: as Shmoos start spreading, Capp starts with some really interesting satire of economics and capitalism, not to mention getting some jabs in at utopian societies. There are hilarious meetings of panicking beef producers and an even better part when the government decides all Shmoos must be destroyed to keep the country intact--but the soldiers find the Shmoos so cute that they won't do it. I won't tell you how it turns out, but it's a great storyline.

More and more while I was reading this I was admiring the art style. Al Capp worked in a lovely pen and ink style evocative of the fine editorial cartoonists like Jeff MacNelly or Bill Mauldin, just thick enough and verging on caricature. Capp's detail work is also to be admired; look at that wonderful little moustache he gives the male Shmoos, and the long eyelashes on the females. He was a fine cartoonist to balance the wonderful writing.

Really, it all sounds bizarre beyond belief but it works beautifully because Al Capp was a surprisingly funny writer. Sure, some of the jokes seem dated, but a lot of it is still timely and his satirical targets are fresh as a daisy. It's great multi-layered humor that Jonathan Swift would have appreciated. Draw them in with the obvious humor, and then slide in the satire. This is a collection that's surprisingly relevant these days (did you know Al Capp introduced Sadie Hawkins Day?) as well as still very, very funny.

The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo by Al Capp
Overlook Press
ISBN 1585672165
160 Pages