Li’l Abner is a satirical American comic strip that appeared in many newspapers in the United States, Canada and Europe, featuring a fictional clan of hillbillies in the impoverished mountain village of Dogpatch, USA. Written and drawn by Al Capp (1909–1979), the strip ran for 43 years, from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977. It was distributed by United Feature Syndicate. Comic strips typically dealt with northern urban experiences before Capp introduced the first strip based in the South. Although Capp was from Connecticut, he spent 43 years writing about a fictional southern town. The comic strip had 60 million readers in over 900 American newspapers and 100 foreign papers in 28 countries. Author M. Thomas Inge says Capp “had a profound influence on the way the world viewed the American South.”
Li’l Abner also featured a comic strip-within-the-strip: Fearless Fosdick was a parody of Chester Gould’s plainclothes detective, Dick Tracy. It first appeared in 1942, and proved so popular that it ran intermittently in Li’l Abner over the next 35 years. Gould was also personally parodied in the series as cartoonist Lester Gooch— the diminutive, much-harassed and occasionally deranged “creator” of Fearless Fosdick. The style of the Fosdick sequences closely mimicked Tracy, including the urban setting, the outrageous villains, the galloping mortality rate, the crosshatched shadows, the lettering style— even Gould’s familiar signature was parodied in Fearless Fosdick. Fosdick battled a succession of archenemies with absurdly unlikely names like Rattop, Anyface, Bombface, Boldfinger, the Atom Bum, the Chippendale Chair, and Sidney the Crooked Parrot, as well as his own criminal mastermind father, “Fearful” Fosdick (aka “The Original”). The razor-jawed title character (Li’l Abner’s “ideel”) was perpetually ventilated by flying bullets until he resembled a slice of Swiss cheese. The impervious Fosdick considered the gaping, smoking holes “mere scratches,” however, and always reported back in one piece to his corrupt superior The Chief for duty the next day.
Besides being fearless, Fosdick was “pure, underpaid and purposeful,” according to his creator. He also had notoriously bad aim— often leaving a trail of collateral damage (in the form of bullet-riddled pedestrians) in his wake. “When Fosdick is after a lawbreaker, there is no escape for the miscreant,” Capp wrote in 1956. “There is, however, a fighting chance to escape for hundreds of innocent bystanders who happen to be in the neighborhood— but only a fighting chance. Fosdick’s duty, as he sees it, is not so much to maintain safety as to destroy crime, and it’s too much to ask any law-enforcement officer to do both, I suppose.” Fosdick lived in squalor at the dilapidated boarding house run by his mercenary landlady, Mrs. Flintnose. He never married his own long-suffering fiancée Prudence (ugh!) Pimpleton (they’ve been engaged for 17 years), but Fosdick was directly responsible for the unwitting marriage of his biggest fan, Li’l Abner to Daisy Mae in 1952. The bumbling detective became the star of his own NBC-TV puppet show that same year. Fosdick also achieved considerable exposure as the long-running advertising spokesman for Wildroot Cream-Oil, a popular men’s hair product of the postwar period.
Although ostensibly set in the Kentucky mountains, situations often took the characters to different destinations— including New York City, Washington, D.C., Hollywood, the South American Amazon, tropical islands, the Moon, Mars, etc.— as well as some purely fanciful worlds of Capp’s imagination: