John Updike called his work “Voltairean.” The Life editor Wilson Hicks claimed he never worked with a “more difficult person.” John Steinbeck said he was “the best writer in the world.” Goldie Hawn believed her brief and unfortunate encounter with him was preparation for a career in a frequently demeaning industry. Such was the Janus-like character of Al Capp.

Capp’s signature creation, “Li’l Abner,” which ran for forty-three years, was the longest-lived comic strip of all time. With a readership of 90 million, both in this country and in twenty-eight others, it was arguably the most popular as well. But it was hardly just a commercial proposition. Alarming censors, annoying politicians, and tweaking self-important celebrities, “Li’l Abner” was also a vehicle for cutting social commentary.

Very few...

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