Andy Capp: The Full Story.
July 26, 2012 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Even as a kid in the 60s, I found Andy Capp made me feel uncomfortable. I still feel that way, no matter what his peers may think of Smythe and his work.
posted by tommasz at 6:36 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Wow. Is there any kind of honorary degree in comics studies? If so, this deserves it.
posted by thelonius at 6:40 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the memories. I'd forgotten about AC.

More here.

posted by noaccident at 6:46 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a youth in the 60s, I read Andy Capp. It taught me what not to be like: a boozer, a looser, scum with a fag hanging out of his mouth. I also learned a little bit about the dialect of the English underclass. It was not particularly uplifting.

I compare this with Mr. Tweedy, who was hapless, and the folks from Dogwood, who created an impression that is hard to shake: hicks and hillbillies, and their lifestyles.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:49 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

He’s known as Andre Chapeau in France

posted by argonauta at 6:49 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is weirdly intense. It's only page three and I already feel invested in Flo's redemption.
posted by postcommunism at 6:55 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

That mixture of aggression and affection is very characteristic of Flo and Andy’s relationship, as Andy demonstrates in an October 1963 strip where he threatens to clobber Flo one minute and declares “I love yer” the next.

"One of these days, Alice..."
"Baby, you're the greatest."
posted by Sys Rq at 7:02 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

The full story?

A damnable lie, sir!
posted by Egg Shen at 7:03 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

My mother was Scottish, and her father had been too much like Andy Capp for her to find much humor in the comic strip.

But my lifelong fascination with real ale probably started with seeing Andy getting wasted drinking several of those big, dark pints in quick succession.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 7:04 AM on July 26, 2012

the folks from Dogwood, who created an impression that is hard to shake: hicks and hillbillies, and their lifestyles.

Surely you meant Dogpatch?

As a kid I couldn't help but notice that both Al Capp and Andy Capp were on the comics page. Seemed like that should've meant something.

At and age where you're always looking for clues and signs of how the adult world works, I wondered if maybe Andy Capp of London somehow meant Handicap of London, but I coujld never suss it out.

Later I realized that a lot of what happens in (adult) culture is just coincidence.

Tsk. The time. *hic*
posted by Herodios at 7:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

More to the point, Andy Capp of London was an almost one-note caricature of a specific lifestyle and class (frozen in time) with no character or plot development.

Li'l Abner was *gasp* almost entirely allegorical (like Pogo), where literally anything could happen *shudder*.

Although I did enjoy the real-world Kickapoo Joy Juice when it came out.
posted by Herodios at 7:24 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If she was Scottish your mother probably wasn't fond of Geordies like Capp anyway, Fritz.

I feel a sort of nostalgic fondness for him, but it's based mainly on the fact that he seems to have been around all my life: I don't really understand his wider popularity or longevity.

He has nothing to do with London, btw, Herodios, but the pun in the name is certainly intentional, and it's a bit disappointing that the translatioins seem to make no attempt at rendering it.
posted by Segundus at 7:27 AM on July 26, 2012

I never thought about it, but Andy Capp's name seems like it's got to be a pun now: the word 'handicap' but with the 'H' left off in the British style.

I had no idea the strip was so popular. I've heretofore seen it as being in the same category as Blondie, as one of those relics of the comics page. I've never thought it was really very funny, the art iscomposed mostly of petrified talking heads, and it carries the added drawback of being stylized to the point where I wouldn't have doubted it if someone had told me it was made of clip art. And now I find out it's one of the very greatest comic strips of the age. Huh, it's a funny old world.
posted by JHarris at 7:32 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

He has nothing to do with London, btw, Herodios

I see that now, having read the material here.

But in The Cincinnati Post & Times-Star (yes, three rags in one!) in the 1960s, the strip was quite clearly labeled "Andy Capp of London", so that's how I've remembered it.

Strange: It must've been a marketing decision by the paper or comics syndicate, probably to do with arrival in the States of the Beatles and the 'British Invasion'.
posted by Herodios at 7:46 AM on July 26, 2012

I never thought about it, but Andy Capp's name seems like it's got to be a pun now: the word 'handicap' but with the 'H' left off in the British style.

That's deliberate - one of the recurrent gags in the strip focused on Andy's gambling habit, which often centered on handicap horseracing.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:48 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I need someone to explain this strip to me.

The cop is walking him home from the pub and is helping him rehearse his wife-placating routine. Andy is so drunk that he forgets he is talking to the cop, not the actual wife. Or something.
posted by thelonius at 7:56 AM on July 26, 2012

I have known of Andy Capp for at least 45 of my 51 years, and I NEVER made the "handicap" connection. Thanks for pointing out how unobservant I am.
posted by Curious Artificer at 7:58 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I need someone to explain this strip to me. Since it's listed in the 'rear view' category I assume it's some sort of butt joke, but for the life of me I can't figure it out.

Outsmarted by a mediocre comic strip. If only it was the first time.
He's being sweet to his wife, telling her how much he loves her. Then he tells the obvious truth that he doesn't think about her all the time, considering it might be a little dangerous to do so while crossing the road. She takes this as a slight, and he apologizes by saying that his answer was just a "momentary lapse". The joke is that her expectations are a little absurd, but he's not going to argue the point.
posted by Jehan at 8:11 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The cop...

posted by Floydd at 8:11 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

...or you could read the last line as sarcastic, but it's up to you.
posted by Jehan at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2012

Andy stands over her with one hand thrust casually into his trouser pocket and the other leaning against the wall. He’s looking Flo straight in the eye, and the smile on his open mouth suggests he thinks this is all pretty funny. “Look at it this way, honey,” he says. “I’m a man of few pleasures and one of them ‘appens to be knockin’ yer about.”
Yeah, there it is. The strip is an anachronism, and the casual sexism and misogyny is certainly of its time. So we can't (fairly) criticise it in terms of modern mores.

But there is no real reason to celebrate the strip beyond "he worked hard, had decent caricature drawing and inking skills, created a well-known character."

They were the bad old days for a reason. I'm sorry, but I don't really consider his oeuvre an international treasure, though I feel that way about Peanuts and Mickey Mouse, too.

It was a thing in the past. Let it be.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I’d sketched this little man as a working class type wearing a cloth cap, so I thought Capp would be as good a name for him as any. Cap? Capp? Fred Capp, perhaps? Then, as an afterthought, I drew his face with the cap pulled down well over his eyes. [...] I thought about his character. What would he be like? Perhaps he would be a dead lumber. The type who is a right little handicap to his wife.

Handicap? .... Andy Capp! I had it!”
                             SSSHOOOP!! i-tica-tica-tica-tica-tica-tica-tica-tica-tica-tica. . .
posted by Herodios at 8:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Isn't that a bobby hat in silhouette? Does Flo have a huge nose like that?

Maybe I am in over my head here.
posted by thelonius at 8:16 AM on July 26, 2012

Isn't that a bobby hat in silhouette? Does Flo have a huge nose like that?
The first pane has her in side view, where you can see her headscarf over her the back and top of her head, and hair sticking out the front.
posted by Jehan at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2012

I'm still digging my way through this, and haven't read Andy Capp in a very long time, but that is definitely Flo, and I think "crossin' the road" may mean going to the pub.
posted by Dojie at 8:21 AM on July 26, 2012

Teach the controversy!
posted by thelonius at 8:30 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Allowing for a touch of condescension, Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (published in 1957, the same year as Andy Capp first appeared in the Mirror) helps to explain the strip's appeal to working-class readers:
Like his wife, a working-class man often seems to me almost physically recognisable. He tends to be small and dark, lined and sallow about the face by the time he has passed thirty. The bone-structure of the face and neck then shows clearly, with a suggestion of the whippet about it.

There is often a kind of roughness in his manner which a middle-class wife would find insupportable. A wife will say how worried she is because something is amiss, and 'the mester will be mad' when he gets home; he may 'tell yer off' harshly or in a few cases may even 'bash' you, especially if he has had a couple of pints on the way to work. Or middle-aged wives will say to a younger one, ' 'e's good to yer, i'n't 'e?', meaning that he is not likely to become violent in word or act, or that he does not leave his wife alone almost every night, or that he will 'see 'er out' if she gets into difficulties with the housekeeping allowance. This is in part a heavy peasant crudeness in personal relations and expression, and clearly does not necessarily indicate a lack of affection, or a helplessness on the wife's part. The man who is able to growl is also able to defend; he has something of the cock about him. Hence, rough boys are admired; the head-shaking over them is as proud as it is rueful -- ' 'e's a real lad', people say.
Andy Capp's popularity must have had something to do with the fact that, even by 1957, this traditional working-class masculinity was on the way out (or feeling increasingly threatened). I suspect there was always an element of nostalgia about it; this was how the Mirror's readers remembered their parents, not necessarily how they themselves behaved or even wanted to behave.

But to me (product of a middle-class suburban upbringing) the idea of celebrating Andy Capp -- the boozing, the wife-beating, the I'm-all-right-Jack self-satisfaction -- seems totally bizarre. The nearest middle-class equivalent would be The Gambols, and who on earth would want to be George and Gaye, with their pathetic empty lives?
posted by verstegan at 8:31 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

He’s known as Andre Chapeau in France
Uh, no, in France he's also known as Andy Capp. I see this little tidbit repeated everywhere but it's false. In fact, the French hit song Andy, by the pop duo Rita Mitsuko, is supposed to be about Andy Capp (called Andy Cap in the lyrics).
posted by elgilito at 8:31 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's the August 20, 1957 wife beating comic referenced in the article.
posted by Nelson at 8:40 AM on July 26, 2012

Andy Capp was always the one strip I skipped lo those many years ago when I read newspaper comics. Even Family Circus or Ziggy were fine, but I just didn't understand Andy Capp at all.
posted by kmz at 8:56 AM on July 26, 2012

As a kid in the 80's I loved comics and I LOVED Andy Capp. The wife beating and boozing didn't really register with me, I suppose. I just thought they were entertaining slices of life from England that were far different than my upbringing in rural TN.

Why have I never had a friend named Chalkie?
posted by josher71 at 9:35 AM on July 26, 2012

This is a great essay, thanks for posting it. It's interesting that the outright domestic violence of the 1950s was itself sanitized in the 1960s, and eventually it appears it is pretty much only Flo bopping Andy on the head by the end. I get that it is objectionable but reading it as a historical document seems to be the point, not whether domestic violence is funny per se (it isn't).

It's not really flagged anywhere in particular, so, just for the record, you can scroll through about 2,500 Andy Capp cartoons, including the earliest ones, at the British Cartoon Archive. (previously - there are tens of thousands of UK cartoons in that archive, which is quite brilliant).
posted by Rumple at 9:50 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The wife beating and boozing didn't really register with me, I suppose.

Napping with one's face turned towards the back of the sofa still strikes me as a vision of the Good Life.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:58 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't say I was ever a fan of the strip, but our cat has taken to making a big production of arranging herself pointedly on her cushion to nap with her back to us, and when I told my husband, "Oh, look, the cat's giving us Andy-Capp back again," he knew exactly what I meant.
posted by BrashTech at 10:03 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The wife beating thing definitely bugged me, but attitudes were definitely very different in the 1950s. This was driven home to me recently when I was watching Andy Griffith reruns with my daughter (she has suddenly become a huge fan and all the episodes from the pilot on are on Netflix). In one of the very first episodes he is showing some big city VIP around the jail. When the VIP comments on the lax security, sheriff Taylor comments that they never get any real criminals, just "speeders, jaywalkers, wife-beaters and such". My jaw dropped to hear folksy Andy Taylor casually dismiss domestic violence like that, but if he could, I guess Andy Capp/Reg Smythe could too.
posted by TedW at 10:08 AM on July 26, 2012

>The wife beating thing definitely bugged me, but attitudes were definitely very different in the 1950s. This was driven home to me recently when I was watching Andy Griffith reruns with my daughter.

There is wife-beating humor in I Love Lucy, too. Like the episode where Lucy buys a $500 dress and is concerned that Ricky will get upset, so she intentionally gets a sunburn. "When he sees how much pain I'm in, he wouldn't dare give me a black eye!" she says. The line is straight, no laughter. It's not meant to be a joke.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 10:13 AM on July 26, 2012

I had no idea this was still running. The newspaper I grew up reading ran it in my childhood, but I assumed it had vanished years ago. And as with many other mefites, the humour of the strip eluded me. Of course, it along with all the other unfunny strips it had long ago dropped -- both putative humour (Broom Hilda, Drabble) and the soap strips (Mary Worth, Rex Morgan M.D.) -- will apparently continue until the heat death of the universe.

By the way:

The only structure honouring Smythe in his native Hartlepool is a 2007 statue of Andy on the Headland, which looks nothing like him and took the council nearly a decade of timid mithering to organise.

This is it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:35 AM on July 26, 2012

Huh, that looks a lot like him to me.
posted by josher71 at 10:40 AM on July 26, 2012

Firmly in Beetle Bailey/WIzard of Id territory, imho.
posted by DarkForest at 11:10 AM on July 26, 2012

Thank you for the interest, everyone. And please do read the piece if you haven’t already done so. Let me see if I can briefly tackle a few of the points raised so far.

To Tommasz and Midnight Skulter:
It’s the fact that Smythe turned such an unblinking gaze on aspects of the real world which are anything but comfortable or uplifting which adds to the strip’s interest for me. Others may differ, of course.

To Sys Rq, TedW and Thermonuclear.jive.turkey:
The Honeymooners example occurred to me when I trying to think of equivalent gags from American TV, but it’s good to have the Andy Griffiths and I Love Lucy examples too. Obviously, I’m a lot more familiar with British TV and radio, so it had to be the Hancock’s Half Hour episode for me.

To Ed Shen:
I do mention the fries. And as Homer Simpson once said when experimenting with Andy’s sleeping position: ““That Andy Capp was on to something”. (Make Room For Lisa, 1999)

To Fritz Langwedge:
Smythe’s own father was a pretty unreliable character himself, so Reg had good reason to feel the same way your mother did. He knew full well the pain that men like Andy cause, but seemed to have a paradoxical affection for them too. There's a little bit of Andy in most men - even modern men - and that's where Smythe found his jokes.

To Herodios:
Many Brits are equally confused about where Andy lives. One of the things I wanted to establish in the piece was how firmly the strip is actually rooted in Smythe’s own home town of Hartlepool – indeed, in a very specific neighbourhood of that town. Al Capp, incidentally, was a big fan of Andy’s strip, and rated Reg Smythe as one of the best cartoonists in the world (see below). I don’t know how successful my article’s been in convincing you the strip is far less “one-note” than it might appear, but it certainly represents my best shot at doing so.

To Item:
Not a butt joke, but an example of Smythe’s fondness for picturing his characters from the back. I have some analysis of this and Smythe’s own explanation of what he felt it achieved in the piece. Jehan’s explanation of the joke itself is spot-on.

To Jharris:
I’d argue that the pared-down nature of Smythe’s drawings and the fact that he could conjure such a convincing world from so few lines makes him a better cartoonist not a worse one. Al Capp made this point a couple of times in his 1973 Saturday Evening Post article about Reg and Andy, which I quote in my piece.

To Smart Dalek and Dojie:
I fear you’re both over-thinking things a little. It’s true that Andy likes the horses, but “handicap” as a pun on his name is used in the more general sense of the word. “Crossing the road” is simply Andy pointing out that it would be dangerous to dwell on his love for Flo while negotiating heavy traffic. The only slang use I’m aware of for that term refers to changing one’s sexual orientation, but I don’t think that’s what Andy had in mind.
To Clvrmnky:
Obviously, the oldest Andy Capp strips are now a report from a by-gone age, but the depiction they offer of that age’s habits is interesting nonetheless. I don’t want to reduce Smythe’s work to an exercise in social anthropology, but any non-fantasy strip that’s survived so long will begin to serve that additional function too. Again, for me, that makes Andy more interesting, not less. You rule out Peanuts, but I’d be interested to know if there are any vintage newspaper strips which you feel would be worth discussing in the way I’ve tackled Andy here? If so, what are they, and what it is they have which you feel Andy Capp lacks?

To Verstegan:
Hoggart’s is a shrewd analysis, I think. The writer behind Andy’s live action sit-com makes a similar point in my piece, pointing out that Andy’s Hartlepool was starting to disappear even in 1957. In simple craft terms, I think you’d find it hard to argue that The Gambols was anything like as well-written or well-drawn as Andy Capp, and it’s Smythe’s far greater skill in those areas which makes his work worth celebrating in the a way The Gambols is not.

To Elgilito:
I took the Andre Chapeau information on trust from one of the published sources I consulted in researching the piece. If it’s wrong, I’ll certainly see about correcting it. Unfortunately, your link above doesn’t seem to be working, so perhaps you could post it again? One thing I’d still love to know is how translators preparing Andy for foreign markets go about finding a local equivalent of the Tyneside dialect and all the class assumptions it conveys in the original strip. Unfortunately, I never managed to find a translator who’d worked on Andy to interview.

To Josher71:
Andy’s life would have been very alien not only to readers in Tennessee, but in many other parts of America too. That makes it all the more remarkable that the strip achieved such huge success in the US, and did so with no attempt to soften or explain itself there. You’re right about the statue insofar as it has all the signifiers that tell us it’s supposed to be Andy, including the cap, the muffler and the pint, but I would challenge you to find a single Smythe (or Mahoney) drawing from any period of the strip’s history that makes Andy look like that. It’s another example of Nick Hiley’s point in my essay about it being impossible to accurately depict Andy as a three-dimensional solid, I think.

Again, thanks for all the interest. If we get another 40 comments, maybe I'll weigh in again.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:12 PM on July 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

Thanks for the extra insight, Paul. Loved the piece.
posted by josher71 at 1:37 PM on July 26, 2012

I suppose, in regard to the statue, that I'm reacting to the claim that it looks "nothing" like Andy. There are definitely enough signifiers but the point of three dimensional representation stands.
posted by josher71 at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2012

You rule out Peanuts, but I’d be interested to know if there are any vintage newspaper strips which you feel would be worth discussing in the way I’ve tackled Andy here? If so, what are they, and what it is they have which you feel Andy Capp lacks?

It's not that I feel that these strips have something that Andy Capp "lacks," for I think a discussion of the history of a comic strip is not necessarily connected to that strip's quality. (And for the record, I think Paul Slades wonderful article makes me appreciate Andy Capp a lot more.)

But on what strips would be good to read about, there are several, although many are not what I'd call "good." But the weirdness of newspaper comics being long-term media that get passed from artist to artist and change with the times, sometimes becoming something very different from what they were originally, I find that stuff endlessly fascinating.

Take Blondie for example, that's a strip that changed utterly fairly early in its run. I've sometimes mused about writing a story that tried to bring the characters back to their roots; Dagwood's billionaire oil tycoon father is on his deathbed and wants to make amends with his son and coincidentally pass along the fortune. Will Blondie's old golddigger personality reassert itself? Has she just been using Dagwood for all these years waiting for this inevitable day? How will they handle the fact that Blondie is still a knockout despite being a flapper in the 1920s?

Then there's Snuffy Smith, a strip that was originally about an entirely different character, Barney Google (with the goo-goo-googly eyes). Actually, I've noticed recently that Google has reappeared in the strip at least once in recent years, so maybe they're playing with this themselves, although I kind of doubt it.

B.C. could be the subject of a really interesting history lesson. It's easy to forget now but B.C. was once hot stuff, one of the better strips on the comic page by a good margin, and that it got at least one television special. Then its quality went down, and its Jesus factor went up.
posted by JHarris at 5:59 PM on July 26, 2012

a 2007 statue of Andy on the Headland, which looks nothing like him
You think that's bad, here's a statue of Linke Loetje in the Netherlands.
posted by unliteral at 8:31 PM on July 26, 2012

Paul Slade: here is the correct link to the French version (another link with scans of the translation). Andy Capp was originally published in France by a comics magazine named Charlie Mensuel, that also published the Peanuts (hence the name Charlie).
posted by elgilito at 9:19 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My parents read the Mirror, so Andy Capp was a constant fixture throughout my '70s/'80s childhood, albeit one I hardly ever laughed at. Even so I’m grateful for this article pointing out the niceties in a strip I often read, but seldom appreciated. I recall my dad’s dad, a flat-cap-wearing collier of the same generation as Smythe, & about as working-class as could be, found Andy amusing.
posted by misteraitch at 3:31 AM on July 27, 2012

Just for the record, I've now removed the Andre Chapeau reference, as that does indeed seem to be an urban myth. The foreign names I've got up there now are all ones I've seen with my own eyes on the covers of various Andy collections around the world.

Thanks for pointing out the error, Elgilito. I'm always glad to correct these little cock-ups when I can.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:21 AM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

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