Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: Al Capp’s Shmoo: The Complete Comic Books (2008)

Al Capp’s Shmoo: The Complete Comic Books (2008)

1.5/5 Stars (but see my 2019 mea culpa, below)

I never really took to Shmoos, the friendly little critters that first appeared in Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip back in 1948.  Their habit of being eager to lay down their lives to offer a hungry human a good meal just doesn't sit well with me.  But they took America by storm back in their day and they were exceedingly popular. Al Capp's Toby Press created five issues of Shmoo Comics back in 1949 and 1950 to capitalize on the fad. In 2008, Denis Kitchen reprinted the entire run in this handsome volume from Dark Horse Archives. The original comic books retailed for 10 cents each and this new archival collection sells for $49.95. It's a labor of love on Kitchen's part, no doubt, with the pages painstakingly scanned, recolored, and given scholarly annotations. Too bad the comics aren't any good.

Al Capp didn't have a hand in the production of these comic books and neither did the staff who worked with him in Boston on the daily strip. He insisted that the marketable main characters from "Li'l Abner" be kept out of these stories, necessitating the use of Washable Jones, a minor character from the comic strip, as a stand-in for the Shmoos' best friend, Li'l Abner. As Kitchen readily acknowledges, the stories are poorly written and inconsistent, relying frequently on atrocious puns and occasionally on repulsive racial stereotypes.  The artwork is weak, and not close to the high standards of the famous comic strip. So then, why bother? The cultural phenomenon of the Shmoos isn't all that interesting or important, and I imagine few readers will share Denis Kitchen's delight with every obscure aspect of it.

January 27, 2013 Update:  Somehow this book review became a matter of controversy in an obscure forum discussion at the Digital Comic Museum on the subject of The Martin Luther King "Montgomery Story" Comic Book around last August. My reference to "Al Capp's Toby Press" apparently flies in the face of ownership records showing the press by 1954 belonged solely to Elliot Caplin, Al's brother. But I wasn't writing about 1954. The MLK comic was published around 1957 and the artwork may or may not have been created by "Al Capp Organization," whatever that means.

So here's what Denis Kitchen writies on page 10 of the Shmoo book: "Afterward, the entrepreneurial Capp not only controlled the right to license his own popular characters, he actually created and owned his own comic book company. Capp, with his brothers Elliot and Jerry, the same trio that comprised Capp Enterprises, Inc., formed Toby Press, Inc. in 1949." It was a family enterprise and Al Capp's characters were licensed to be used in a more lucrative way than would have been possible with an outside company taking a hefty share of the profits for itself. Al Capp was a part-owner, and his characters were a significant part of the company's profits. So while I suppose it would have been more correct to refer awkwardly to "The Capp/Caplin family's Toby Press," the fact is that licensing profits from Al Capp's characters were the primary reason Toby Press was created, and Capp retained control over how his characters could be used. So for purposes of discussing Shmoo Comics in 1949 and 1950, I think it's not unreasonable to call it "Al Capp's Toby Press."

August 25, 2019 Update:  One and a half stars? What was I thinking? I fear I was too harsh in my 2011 review. The purpose of this book is to make a forgotten cultural phenomenon, the brief run of Shmoo comic books, accessible to the modern reader. Whatever the limitations of that short press run of 1949 to 1950, and there were many, the book allows us to appraise the enterprise for what it was. That is everything a book of this sort can hope to do. So while I would still give the original Shmoo comic books a rating of 1.5 out of 5 stars, I think the reprint edition is a class act. Let's give it 4.5/5 stars. Sorry about that, Denis Kitchen.


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