Thursday, August 11, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: [D. YOKUM'S VISIT], LI'L ABNER (1952-53)
One of the biggest events in the history of Al Capp's LI'L ABNER appeared in 1952, when the titular bachelor hillbilly-- who had been fending off the marital advances of neighbor-girl Daisy Mae for eighteen years-- finally "got hitched." The actual marriage, however, was less of an occasion for mythic matters than what happened afterward, when Daisy Mae became, as the hill-folk called her, an "expectorant mother."
Throughout his comics-career Capp became famous-- and sometimes infamous-- for his depiction of incredibly voluptuous women, who were invariably well-coiffed even when they lived in the hillbilly domain of Dogpatch. At the same time, Capp allowed for some "female gazing" as well, depicting Abner Yokum and a few others as prodigious muscular swains. But just as Capp was a past master of using beauty to entice readers, he also knew that he could use ugliness to titillate readers in a very different manner. One such female horror appeared in 1939: Mother Ratfield, a woman so ugly she caused Mammy Yokum to faint at first sight. More famously, in 1946 Capp introduced into the strip a character named "Lena the Hyena," but he deliberately didn't show her features, challenging his readers to depict "the world's ugliest woman"-- a contest won by professional artist Basil Wolverton.
Shortly after Daisy Mae has become "expectorant," the Yokums receive a letter from a distant relative, "D. Yokum." Abner and Daisy have never seen the man, but Abner's parents have, and it's all they can do to avoid running out of the hills in fear of seeing the face of "Disgustin' Yokum." The young couple can't avoid D.'s visit, but they're fearful that if pregnant Daisy sees his revolting features, it will have an evil effect on the unborn infant. Or, as Abner puts it to the hideous fellow-- who considerately keeps his back turned to them-- "Ef Daisy Mae sees yore face, our baby might look like 'yo!"
Disgustin' has come to Dogpatch to warn the couple that a spectre from the past is on his way to kill them and their child. One hundred years ago, one of the Yokums, a judge by profession, condemned a Wild West outlaw, "Wild Bill Hiccup," to a century in prison. Hiccup-- a manic, wizened little man who has somehow survived in prison even after his cellblock was condemned and sealed off-- is duly released by the law. On his way to Dogpatch, the galloping geezer shoots up various banks and movie-theaters, but evades capture until reaching the home of the Yokums. At this point D. Yokum challenges Hiccup to a duel, pitting his hideous appearance against Hiccup's six-guns. Not only does D. Yokum win, he duplicates the feats of Medusa, turning Wild Bill Hiccup into a stone statue.
The Disgusting One leaves Dogpatch, but a local photographer manages to snap a photo of the forbidden face, planning to sell it to "sordid curiosity seekers." Mammy Yokum knows that even a photograph could have fatal consequences, so she clobbers the photographer and takes possession of the photo. However, Mammy can't simply throw the photo away; she's consumed by her own curiosity. She decides to bury the photo until the day she's on her death-bed, when it won't make any difference whether she dies of age or the forbidden sight. However, as she does so, Daisy Mae overhears her mother-in-law's ruminations, and she too is consumed by feminine curiosity.
That Capp means to address a specifically feminine curiosity is denoted by the strip immediately following this event, when a local fellow predicts that Abner's wife, now that she's pregnant, will "almost go out outa her mind wif nosiness!" Although the subject is still treated as a running joke, Capp is clearly teasing the reader with yet another threat to Daisy's unborn child, but this time it's a menace "from within," rather than a male menace "from without." Mammy and Daisy Mae go back and forth, digging up the forbidden photo, and then putting it back. Mammy goes so far as to starve herself, hoping to bring about her death-bed all the sooner, so that she can satisfy her morbid desire. Finally, when Daisy Mae is on the verge of seeing the sight, Mammy grabs the photo and leaps into "Bottomless Pit," intending to see the picture before she strikes the ground below. The superhuman hillbilly woman survives the fall, but never sees the phoro. In a typically melodramatic contrivance, somehow D. Yokum became aware of the photo's existence, dug it up, and left in its place a note informing both ladies of what he's done.
Beneath all of the standard jokes about female inquisitiveness, Capp is playing around with the essence of the *apotropaic effect,* which appeared when tribal cultures set up hideous icons or images designed to repel evil. The severed head of Medusa was one such image, and in one narrative Athena adapts the head to use as a weapon. It's interesting that whereas Capp does finally show female ugliness in my examples of Lena and Mother Ratfield, D. Yokum's face is never revealed, and most of the time, when he talks to his relations, he does so by bowing down and presenting his buttocks to them. This wasn't the last storyline Capp did to imperil the unborn Yokum baby: the very next tale involves the walking jinx Joe Btfsplk. performing the same narrative danger that D. Yokum did. But this story-line was not nearly as provocative as the D. Yokum tale, which may have benefited from its relative brevity.