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Thursday, April 11, 2013

ABNER ORIGINE



Since I'm about to do a review of the 1959 film LI'L ABNER, I decided to take a quick look at the phenomenality of Al Capp's original 1934-77 comic strip.



During its long run the strip featured a considerable number of marvelous entities in assorted adventures, such as the Wolf Gal (seen above), the Schmoos (a race of creatures that love to be devoured by mankind), and Joe Btfsplk, the "world's world's jinx."  However, despite the presence of these and other bizarre characters, ABNER might not be considered a "fantasy comic strip" in the minds of its readers, in contrast to a literal science-fiction comic like FLASH GORDON or even a strip dealing with outre dream-fantasies like LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. 

Of course, I too might hesitate to deem ABNER a marvelous strip.  In this essay I put forth my "51 percent rule," which I applied not to the phenomenalities of features but to their alignment with particular Fryean mythoi.  Still, the principle remains the same.  If it's the case that the majority of Abner's adventures legitimately fall within the domain of the naturalistic, then ipso facto it must be judged a naturalistic feature. And when one looks at the first ten years of the strip as reprinted by Kitchen Sink, one may tend to consider the bulk of those adventures to be naturalistic, concerning the comic confrontations of Abner Yokum and his hillbilly kindred with snooty society and big-city gangsters.

There is, however, one element that, though it was not *constantly* referenced, might tip the strip into the domain of the uncanny, and that would be the unusual levels of strength attributed to Abner and his mammy, a.k.a. "Mammy Yokum" (seen below).



Indeed, within the first year of the strip, Li'l Abner undergoes an unexplained transformation.  In his first sequence in 1934, he's just a big brawny guy, capable of being knocked down by another brawny guy.  By 1935, he's taken on a near-Herculean level of power, amazing ordinary audiences when he beats down an angry gorilla.  Though Abner does this without full knowledge-- the fight takes place in a dark room, causing the hillbilly to mistake his opponent for a fellow in a fur coat-- clearly artist Capp was extending the limits of what Abner could do for comic effect.  Later episodes make Abner practically invulnerable, at least in the head region, as items like safes and concrete blocks bounce off the hillbilly's skull without giving him more than a headache.  This might not be quite the level of the mythic Hercules, but it's on the same uncanny level as many of the less extraordinary cinematic versions of the Greek hero, two of which I reviewed here.

The one objection that might be made to this observation is: did Capp keep referring to this "trope of the uncanny," or did he drop it over time?  If it ceased to be utilized at all in the strip's later days, then it might not be applicable to judging the overall fantasy-content of the strip, any more than the frequent fantastic guest-stars.  But that question is rendered moot until such time as the entire run of the strip becomes available.

I'll note that I tend to believe that once an author has established this sort of phenomenality-trope, it usually still has applicability unless expressly contradicted.  On my movie-blog I've been slowly reviewing episodes of the 1972-75 KUNG FU teleseries.  Some episodes show the hero Kwai Chang Caine as being capable of feats that belong to the uncanny-phenomenality; some episodes do not show him as anything but a skillful man.  But I tend to believe that once an author establishes that heroes-- even those as unalike as Caine and Li'l Abner-- possess such unusual properties, they should tend as narrative properties that don't disappear simply because the author isn't using them every time.

1 comment:

Al said...

Interesting commentary, Gene, interesting enough to make me wanna buy a few volumes of L'il Abner to see what you're talking about. Of course, I read the strip in my local paper when I was younger, liked it, but that was many years back. Thanks for the analysis.