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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, March 9, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: ["THE MUSIC OF THE SHMOOS"], LI'L ABNER (1948)

In STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY PT. 2, I wrote:

My re-reading of ABNER is by no means complete. However, in the upcoming "mythcomic of the week," the sequence I have chosen is not the sort of thing most comics-mavens would have chosen. Most would probably have selected one of Capp's overt satires, like those involving the Shmoos. The Shmoo storyline is a pretty good example of a strong "overthought," but I don't think it displays the mythic "underthought" that I've been searching for.



I have not yet tracked down what Shmoo-strip I'd read when I made this comment, but it's now clear to me that I had not read the original sequence from 1948. My source for the original story-- the 1998 Kitchen Sink reprint-- mentions in passing that creator Al Capp returned to his Shmoo-theme a few other times, so I assume I saw some later Shmoo-outing.

I also mentioned in the cited essay that a lot of Capp's storylines were too haphazard to generate "significant mythicity." The storyline I'm calling "Music of the Shmoos"-- a bad pun I consider worthy of Capp's own bad puns in the sequence-- is no less haphazard than the average Capp continuity. However, in giving birth to the Shmoos, Capp came up with a concept strong enough to unify all of his humorous schticks.

The reason I thought that the Shmoo-sequence might boast nothing more than an over-intellectualized overthought was because I'd seen much commentary about the political reactions to the concept. According to Dave Schreiner, whose essay on Shmoo-history appears in the Kitchen Sink volume, Capp got complaints from factions identified with both "the Right" and "the Left." The objections of the Right seem more immediately justified, for the Shmoo-- a creature who looks much like a walking penis with a cartoon-walrus face-- directly threatens the forces of capitalism. The Shmoos, who have existed "since the dawn of time," inhabit a lonely valley near Dogpatch. Li'l Abner Yokum seeks out the valley, guided by some strange music he alone hears. Once he gets into the valley, he meets a hairy old man, who tells him that the Shmoos are unique, self-sacrificing creatures who can provide for all the creature comforts human beings desire.




This means, of course, that anyone who makes money off providing such comforts is out of luck.




There are no explicit barbs at the Left in the sequence. Still, it's not hard to see why persons of any strong political persuasion would resent the idea of the Shmoos. In my analysis IDEOLOGY VS. MYTH, I extrapolated the position taken by Northrop Frye: that all ideologies are rooted in their ability to deliver the Good Things in Life:

Name any ideology out there and at base it's just another way for its adherents to maximize their chances of getting those things that make life pleasurable and fulfilling.
I suggest that this is the reason the Left didn't like the Shmoo any more than the Right did. If you've got magical creatures who can provide for your every need, why do you need socialism any more than you need capitalism?

Schreiner covers two of the great appeals of the Shmoo for postwar audiences: that the creature spoke to Americans who had been forced to do without many creature comforts during World War II, and the fact that the Shmoos look like living penises, making them intrinsic symbols of plenitude. (That said, we learn late in the sequence that there are both male and female Shmoos, though elsewhere Capp himself says they're asexual.) Schreiner also points out that Capp the consummate businessman almost certainly planned to make the Shmoos into a multi-level merchandising property even before the August 1948 sequence appeared. That said, the fact that Shmoo merchandise did become phenomenally popular for the next few years suggests that Capp knew the temper of his audience, knew that the American people would respond favorably to this image of living "Horns of Plenty." At the same time, Capp is enough of a satirist-- even though the sequence as a whole is more comedy than satire-- to paint human beings almost in the light of cannibals, despite the invariable willingness of the Shmoos to be eaten.




Capp clearly knew that he, as much as the businessmen in the strip, needed to put an end to the Shmoos so that his comic strip could return to what passed for "normal." Thus the artist has a squad of hitmen descend upon the hillbillies and use high-powered guns to wipe out all known Shmoos in Dogpatch. However, two Shmoos-- one male and one female-- remain.

At this point, most sane artists would have the couple speed back to their hidden valley to repopulate, never to be seen again. Instead, in one of his daffiest sequences, Capp decided to intermingle the successful Shmoo-myth with the other famous trope of the ABNER strip: the Sadie Hawkins Day Race.

As some readers of the blog may know, this annual competition featured a literal "manhunt. " Dogpatch bachelors are given a head start, after which they're chased down by the unmarried women of Dogpatch-- who range from the ghastly to the gorgeous-- and any man who gets caught has to marry his captor. From the genesis of the strip, this provided Capp with an excuse to have incorrigible bachelor Abner chased down by assorted women, particularly the smitten Daisy Mae, who alone truly loved the big hillbilly lout.

This time, Abner is chased not only by Daisy, but also by an unnamed woman  who looks almost exactly like Abner, though she's apparently not related to him.To complicate Abner's predicament, he has charge of the male Shmoo, while Daisy has custody of the female one-- and while Abner doesn't want (consciously) to be caught by Daisy, the male Shmoo certainly wants to be caught by his opposite number. Many slapstick antics ensue, and Capp almost seems to be competing with himself by wedging in pleasant but irrelevant appearances by two of his most buxom female creations: Moonbeam McSwine and The Wolf Gal, Finally the two surviving Shmoos are united and sent off to breed, while Abner escapes marriage by the usual hairsbreadth.

I've saved the best for last, even though it's actually the first part of "Music." When Abner hears the mysterious, never-explained music, he draws near a place called the "Valley of the Schmoon." Later in the story Capp uses the same plural for "Shmoo" that I've been using here, apparently he used "Schmoon" as a plural in the first few strips just so he could make a couple of goofy puns with the made-up word (like talking about"the light of the silvery schmoon.") I neglected to mention that before entering the Valley, Abner encounters a threshold guardian who tries to keep him from entering.

"She's a big one!! Fire is a-flashin' fum her eyes, an' she's a-flexin' her (gulp) MUSCLES."

The guardian-- whom Abner addresses as "Large Gal"-- forbids Abner to enter the Valley. When Abner insists on entering, the statuesque woman-- clad for the most part like the usual hillbilly-- attacks him. Abner won't fight a woman and so gets knocked out. Daisy Mae comes running up, trying to save her beloved, but the valkyrie tosses Abner into the valley, apparently assuming that the fall will kill him, Abner survives, and goes on to find his way to the Shmoos, and that's the last anyone sees of "Large Gal."

So why did Capp bother to introduce Large Gal at all? She only extends the sequence about three strips, and her sole plot-function is to make Abner's quest a little more suspenseful by offering brief opposition. It's not impossible that Capp simply wanted an excuse to introduce yet another buxom female into the strip: throughout the run of LI'L ABNER Capp rarely ever missed an excuse to perform his version of Raymond Chandler's famous advice, though in Capp's case the advice was more like, "When in doubt, have a hot girl come through the door."

And yet, there are three interesting psychosexual touches to Large Gal's appearance. The first, in line with the above quote, is that Abner is initially intimated by her "muscles"-- which would not be that unusual in the modern days of women's bodybuilding, but which was a pretty rare sight in 1948. The second is that even as Large Gal prepares to execute Abner by tossing him off a cliff, she praises his manhood, calling him "a fine young specimen," and the third is that Daisy Mae associates Large Gal's aggression with romance: "Ef yo' don't want him-- toss him mah way!" Further, given that Abner's near-murder results in him leading a swarm of ambulatory penises out of a vaginal valley, I think I'm justified in saying that Capp distilled some uniquely weird underthoughts into his most pervasive comic myth: that of animals who ceaselessly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of humankind, and who must be slaughtered to prevent their interference in human commerce.

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