Fearless Fosdick

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Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick is featured in a Li'l Abner Sunday sequence from April 3, 1960. To see this image at full resolution, go to Hairy Green Eyeball.

Fearless Fosdick is a long-running parody of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. It appeared intermittently as a strip-within-a-strip, in Al Capp's satirical hillbilly comic strip, Li'l Abner (1934–1977).

Li'l Abner's "ideel"[edit]

Fearless Fosdick made his debut in an August 1942 Li'l Abner Sunday sequence, as the unflappable comic book idol of Abner's (and of every other "100% red-blooded American boy!") An object of undying hero worship, hayseed Abner mindlessly aped his role model—even going so far as submitting to marriage against his will.

Cartoonist Al Capp (1909–1979) would often use Li'l Abner continuity as a narrative framing device, bookending the offbeat Fosdick sequences. Abner himself serves as a rustic Greek chorus—to introduce, comment upon and (sometimes) comically sum up the Fosdick stories. Typically, an anxious Abner would race frantically to the mailbox or to the train delivering the morning newspapers, to get a glimpse of the latest cliffhanger episode. The next panel would reveal Abner's POV of the feature under an iconic logo: Fearless Fosdick by Lester Gooch. Subsequent installments would reinforce Abner's obsessive immersion in the unfolding Fosdick continuity while at the same time recapping the story-within-a-story. While oblivious to the surrounding "real" world (e.g., walking off a cliff or into the path of an oncoming train, or inadvertently ignoring one of Daisy Mae's perilous predicaments), Abner would be, as ever, fully engrossed in the Fosdick adventure. Eventually, Capp would dispense with Abner's introductory panels altogether, and the strip would carry a subheading reminding readers they were now reading Li'l Abner's "ideel," Fearless Fosdick.

Occasionally Fosdick's adventures would directly affect what happened to Abner, and the two storylines would artfully converge. The story-within-a-story often ironically paralleled and/or parodied the story itself. Also, by having the comically obtuse Abner “explain” the strip to Daisy Mae, Capp would use Fearless Fosdick to self-reflexively comment upon his own strip, his readers, and the nature of comic strips and "fandom" in general, resulting in an absurd but overall structurally complex and layered satire.

"Capp's Fearless Fosdick sequences proved over the years to be some of his most popular," according to M. Thomas Inge. "Fearless Fosdick remains the only comic strip-within-a-comic strip to achieve its own following."[1]

Setting and themes[edit]

Fearless Fosdick is set in an unnamed, crime-infested American metropolis similar to Chicago. Its urban setting stands in stark contrast with Li'l Abner's rural Dogpatch. Fosdick lives in squalor at the dilapidated boarding house run by his dour, pitiless landlady, Mrs. Flintnose. He never married his own long-suffering fiancée Prudence (ugh!) Pimpleton, but Fosdick was directly responsible for one of the seminal events of the strip—the famous marriage of his biggest fan, Li'l Abner, to Daisy Mae in 1952.

As the only grownup member of the local Fearless Fosdick kiddie fan club, Abner had unwittingly vowed to do everything Fosdick does, not realizing that Fosdick's comic strip marriage was only a dream. (Ironically, Abner had previously told Daisy Mae that cartoonists often employ plot contrivances like dream sequences and impending weddings as sucker bait, to fool their gullible readers!)

In addition to being fearless, Fosdick is "pure, underpaid and purposeful," according to his creator. "Fearless is without doubt the world's most idiotic detective. He shoots people for their own good, is pure beyond imagining, and is fanatically loyal to a police department which exploits, starves and periodically fires him," Capp told Pageant magazine in May 1952. Although Fosdick is the hero of all red-blooded American boys, Daisy Mae detests him with venomous passion. All throughout Li'l Abner, the neglected Daisy Mae finds herself in the ironic position of being jealous of a "stoopid comical strip character!" When Capp was asked (in a Playboy interview conducted by Alvin Toffler in 1965) about the specific gender makeup of his readers, he responded by using Fosdick as an example of the (perceived) inherent differences between the male and female sense of humor:

Whether most of the readers are male or female depends on when the survey is taken... During a Fearless Fosdick sequence, I lose 20 million women. They stop reading right away... Men enjoy Fosdick's bad aim, for example. In order to scare off a guy who's selling balloons without a license, Fosdick will shoot three or four innocent housewives through the head—all in the line of duty, of course. Men enjoy this sort of humor, but housewives don't seem to see anything funny about it!

—Al Capp, Playboy, December 1965, pp. 89–100

Although Fearless Fosdick began as a specific burlesque of Dick Tracy, it eventually grew beyond mere parody and developed its own distinctive, self-contained comic identity. Like all of Capp's creations, Fosdick gradually evolved into a broad, multileveled satire of contemporary American society. Mixing equal parts slapstick, black humor, irony, and biting social criticism, Fearless Fosdick provided a running commentary on, among other things: the lowly lives of policemen, the capriciousness of the general public, and the thankless role of society's "heroes"—as well as the superficiality of modern pop culture and the compulsive nature of its avid fans. Capp would return to these themes again and again in Fearless Fosdick.

Supporting characters and villains[edit]

Fearless Fosdick soon developed its own regular supporting cast, separate from Li'l Abner and the rest of the Dogpatch characters. Joining Fosdick's intermittent adventures were:

The early strips referred to grotesque Dick Tracy-inspired public enemies with absurdly satirical names like "Banana Face," "Spinach Face" and "Hamburger Face." (One villain, "Carrot Top," could not be tracked by bloodhounds, as he had no blood. His head was a genuine carrot. But Fosdick tracks him to his doom—with a rabbit.) Over the years, other nemeses included:

The "hole" story[edit]

Fosdick is so tough that on the rare occasions he isn't wearing his black suit, he pins his badge to his bare chest. The ramped-up comic violence depicted in Fearless Fosdick is (usually) bloodless, over-the-top and deliberately surreal. Perpetually ventilated by flying bullets, an iconic Fosdick trademark was the "Swiss cheese look"—with smoking bullet holes revealing his truly two-dimensional cartoon construction. The impervious detective considers the gaping holes "minor scratches" or "mere flesh wounds" however, and always reports back in one piece for duty the next day. (When the Chief once said, "Fosdick! We thought you were dead!" Fosdick replied, "I was—but it didn't prove fatal. Only a mild case.")

Virtually indestructible, Fosdick's famous iron-jawed profile adorned both Consolidated B-24 Liberator and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft during World War II, joining the other Li'l Abner-inspired wartime nose art mascots—Earthquake McGoon, Moonbeam McSwine, Daisy Mae, Lonesome Polecat, Hairless Joe, Silent Yokum, Sadie Hawkins and Wolf Gal.

Supposedly starting as a patrolman in 1923 and finally making detective grade in 1948, Fosdick is perennially underpaid at $22.50 per week. (A running gag in the strip has Fosdick getting rehired after being fired from the force. He has to start over again at an apprentice rate, which is half his regular onerous salary).

Fosdick has notoriously bad aim and even worse judgment. Oblivious to more obvious felonies being committed in broad daylight in the background (such as murders, assaults and bank robberies), Fosdick would bypass them to shoot someone who walked on the grass or sold balloons without a license. He regularly shoots dozens of innocent bystanders and apprehends the wrong individuals—while the real criminals go free. A darkly comic running gag in the series is the stoic, stone-faced image of a determined Fosdick standing amidst a still-smoking pile of bullet-riddled pedestrians—the inevitable collateral damage of any Fosdick crimefighting endeavor. "When Fosdick is after a lawbreaker, there is no escape for the miscreant," wrote Capp in the introduction to Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick: His Life and Deaths (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."

Gullible, dense and impossibly inept, public servant Fosdick is duty-bound and literal-minded to the point of being a menace to the citizens he is sworn to protect. Typically guileless Fosdick logic occurs in "The Case of the Poisoned Beans" (1950), a quintessential Fearless Fosdick continuity. In the story, the ever-vigilant detective goes about town shooting anyone he sees eating "Old Faithful" brand beans in an attempt to prevent them from consuming a toxic can he knows to have been tampered with. Throughout the story, the absurdity continues to mount—along with the astronomical body count—to its outlandish (and characteristically sardonic) dénouement.[5]

No one is spared Capp's merciless satire in "The Case of the Poisoned Beans"—from the venality of the justice system to the crookedness of a complicit media (which refuses to air public safety warnings for fear of offending its sponsor, Old Faithful Beans); from the corruption of big business to the fickleness and stupidity of a complacent public. The diabolical plot, which concerns urban terrorism and product tampering, presaged the 1982 Tylenol case by more than 30 years. "Capp makes Fosdick's police brutality acceptable, even funny, because Fosdick acts out of misguided goodness. He is, like Abner, an innocent," wrote Max Allan Collins in 1990. He's also a victim of the system himself. According to Capp, "Fosdick is underpaid only in terms of money. His superiors and his community are lavish with things worth more than money, such as hollow praise and chances to risk his life." Capp dedicated a book of reprinted Fosdick continuities to "all underpaid cops, because there are no other kind."

Chester Gould's reaction[edit]

Newspaper editors began clamoring for Fosdick to star in his own strip, something Capp briefly considered.[6] Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy, reportedly did not find Capp’s parody particularly funny. This isn't surprising, since Fearless Fosdick lampoons every aspect of Dick Tracy, all grossly exaggerated for comic effect, from Fosdick's impossibly square-jawed profile to his propensity for creating mayhem beyond all reason. The style of the Fosdick sequences closely mimics Tracy—including the urban setting, the outrageously grotesque villains, the galloping mortality rate, the thick square panels, the crosshatched shadows, and even the lettering style.

Gould was also probably less than enamored of his own unflattering portrayal in the character of Fosdick's "creator," the diminutive and occasionally mentally deranged cartoonist Lester Gooch. (Even Gooch's bogus "autograph" in the panels of Fearless Fosdick is a parody, a direct takeoff of Gould's own famously flamboyant signature.) Gooch toiled for the abusive and corrupt "Squeezeblood Syndicate," a dig at Capp's own real-life syndicate, United Features, which owned Li'l Abner until Capp successfully wrested back ownership in 1948.

Whatever Capp really thought of Dick Tracy, he always went out of his way to praise Gould and his strip in conversation and in print, invariably referring to it as "Chester Gould's magnificent Dick Tracy." [7] In The World of Li'l Abner (1953), Capp even credited Dick Tracy (along with Little Orphan Annie) with directly influencing Abner, prompting his early decision to add suspense to the humorous feature. "The greatest tribute paid to Chester Gould by another famous comic strip artist and storyteller and his creation was, of course, Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick," wrote author and Dick Tracy expert Garyn G. Roberts in 1993.[8] "In short, Fearless Fosdick was a great deal of fun, but must be taken seriously as a loving tribute to Chester Gould and Dick Tracy."

To his great credit, Gould never publicly objected to Fearless Fosdick, or made any attempt to interfere with Capp's continuing the feature during the 35 years in which it appeared. Gould and Capp met only once, according to Capp (interviewed in Cartoonist PROfiles #37, March 1978). It was reportedly a friendly meeting, and Gould took the occasion to thank Capp for doing what he called "full-time press agentry for another comic strip." Capp readily agreed. Unlike Gould, Max Allan Collins, who took over the helm of Dick Tracy when Gould retired, thoroughly enjoyed Fearless Fosdick [9] and even wrote an appreciative foreword to a recently published collection of Fosdick cartoons.

Besides Dick Tracy, Capp spoofed many other comic strips in Li'l Abner, including Steve Canyon, Superman (at least twice; first as "Jack Jawbreaker!" in 1947 and again in 1966 as "Chickensouperman!"), Mary Worth, Peanuts, Rex Morgan, M.D., Little Annie Rooney, and Little Orphan Annie. Although they proved fertile sources of parody—most memorably "Little Fanny Gooney" (1952), "Rex Moonlight, M.D." (1956),"Steve Cantor" and "Mary Worm" (1957)[10]—no other strip seemed to provide Capp with the same bottomless well of inspiration as Dick Tracy. Later comic strip parodies were mostly one-shot affairs. They never achieved quite the same degree of repeat success or sustained popularity as Fearless Fosdick.

Licensing and advertising[edit]

Fearless Fosdick TV show[edit]

Fearless Fosdick proved popular enough to be incorporated into a short-lived television program in the early 1950s. A puppet show based on Fosdick premiered on NBC-TV on Sunday afternoons, and even made the cover of TV Guide for the week of October 17, 1952. (The TV show also sparked the permanent switch in the strip from Fosdick's early Dick Tracy yellow fedora to his later trademark bowler hat, when Capp felt the three-dimensional puppet looked too close for comfort to the genuine article.) Created for television and directed by puppeteer Mary Chase, Fearless Fosdick was written by Everett Crosby and voiced by John Griggs, Gilbert Mack, and Jean Carson. The storylines and villains were mostly separate from the comic strip and unique to the show. Thirteen episodes were produced featuring the Mary Chase marionettes. Presumed lost for many years, vintage kinescopes of the show have reportedly begun to resurface.[11] (According to publisher Denis Kitchen: "There are currently efforts underway to release these exceedingly rare Fosdick episodes on a set of DVDs. Stay tuned...") Two of the half-hour episodes (The Haunted House and Lonely Hearts) are housed at the Library of Congress, in the J. Fred and Leslie W. MacDonald Collection. To view the complete "Lonely Hearts" episode online, see the External links citation below.

Wildroot Cream-Oil[edit]

Fosdick was also licensed for use outside the strip in an advertising campaign for Wildroot Cream-Oil, a popular men's hair tonic of the postwar period. Fosdick's image on tin signs and counter displays became a prominent fixture in barbershops across America in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, as well as in animated TV commercials. A long-running series of print ads appeared in newspapers, national magazines (such as Life, Boys' Life, and Argosy), and comic books (including Archie Comics, Gang Busters, All-Star Western, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Mystery in Space, House of Mystery, All-American Men of War, and The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis). Scores of comic strip-format ads were produced, usually featuring Fosdick's farcical triumphs over his archvillain nemesis "Anyface." Anyface was a murderous, shape-shifting scoundrel whose plastic facial features could be molded into any identity—or any animal, object or appliance. (However, he was always given away in the last panels by his telltale dandruff and messy, unkempt hair.) The ads would invariably end with Fosdick advising readers to "Get Wildroot Cream-Oil, Charlie!"

Fearless Fosdick and Bomb Face (May 30, 1943)

The Wildroot jingle, Wildroot Charlie—instantly familiar to radio listeners in the 1950s—was performed by everyone from the Bil Baird puppets to Nat King Cole, who once sang it on Woody Herman's radio program:

Get Wildroot Cream-Oil, Charlie!
It keeps your hair in trim
Y'see it's non-alcoholic, Charlie
It's made with soothing lanolin!
You'd better get Wildroot Cream-Oil, Charlie!
Start using it today
You'll find that you'll have a tough time, Charlie
Keeping all those gals away!

Although Li'l Abner was heavily merchandised in the 1940s and 1950s (especially the Shmoo), Fosdick products are relatively rare and highly valued by collectors. There was a rubber Halloween mask manufactured by Topstone, and a chalkware statue of the character was issued by Artrix Products in 1951. Various Wildroot tie-ins and giveaways also appeared, such as window decals, matchbook covers, and collegiate book jackets. More recently, Dark Horse Comics issued a limited edition Fearless Fosdick statue in 2001 (complete with a cannonball-sized hole through his midsection), #17 in their line of Classic Comic Characters figures. Various nostalgic reproductions of Wildroot advertising tin signs have also been recently available.

Influence and legacy[edit]

Fearless Fosdick was almost certainly Harvey Kurtzman's major inspiration for creating his irreverent Mad magazine, which began in 1952 as a comic book that specifically parodied other comic books and strips in a similar style and similarly subversive manner. By the time EC Comics published Mad #1, Capp had been doing Fearless Fosdick for nearly a decade. Parallels between Li'l Abner and the early Mad are unmistakable: the incongruous use of mock-Yiddish slang terms, the nose-thumbing disdain for pop cultural icons, the rampant and pervasive sick humor, the pointedly subversive tone, the total disregard for sentiment and the extremely broad visual styling. Even the trademark comic signs that clutter the backdrops of Will Elder's panels would seem to have a precedent in Li'l Abner, in the headquarters of Dogpatch entrepreneur Available Jones. Tellingly, Kurtzman resisted parodying either Li'l Abner or Dick Tracy in the comic book Mad, despite their prominence. (Both Li'l Abner and Dick Tracy were later satirized in EC's Panic, "the only authorized imitation of Mad," edited by Al Feldstein.)

Producer/director Ralph Bakshi worked with Al Capp for a year at Terrytoons on an unproduced animated cartoon adaptation of Fearless Fosdick in the late sixties. Said Bakshi in 2008 at the ASIFA Animation Archive in Hollywood:

Capp is one of the great unsung heroes of comics. I've never heard anyone mention this, but Capp is 100% responsible for inspiring Harvey Kurtzman to create Mad magazine. Just look at Fearless Fosdick—a brilliant parody of Dick Tracy with all those bullet holes and stuff. Then look at Mad's "Teddy and the Pirates," "Superduperman!" or even Little Annie Fanny. Forget about it—slam dunk! Not taking anything away from Kurtzman, who was brilliant himself, but Capp was the source for that whole sense of satire in comics. Kurtzman carried that forward and passed it down to a whole new crop of cartoonists, myself included. Capp was a genius. You wanna argue about it? I'll fight ya, and I'll win!

—Ralph Bakshi, April 2008

Elements of Fearless Fosdick can be gleaned in Bob Clampett's classic Warner Bros. cartoon The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), as when avid "fan" Daffy Duck makes a panicked dash to the mailbox to retrieve the latest comic book, just like Li'l Abner often did. Later, after Daffy portrays his alter ego "Duck Twacy" in a manic nightmare sequence (complete with bullet-riddled corpses and "impossible" villains with names like "Jukebox Jaw," "Pickle Puss," "88 Teeth" and "Neon Noodle"), he "wakes up" in a rural, Dogpatch-like setting—on a pig farm.

Cartoonist/illustrator Frank Cho, a Li'l Abner fan, occasionally references Fearless Fosdick in his comic strip Liberty Meadows in the guise of "Fearless Detective Richard Stacey." Fosdick has also turned up in Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith. Johnny Hart, creator of B.C. and The Wizard of Id, also cited Fearless Fosdick as one of his early inspirations. Comedian Chuck McCann portrayed a decidedly Fosdick-like Dick Tracy parody character, complete with stage makeup, named "Detective Dick H. Dump of Bunko Squad" on his irreverent WNEW-TV kids show in the sixties.

Beyond the strip-within-a-strip[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Representative samplings of Fearless Fosdick have been collected in two reprint anthologies, both published by Kitchen Sink Press.[13] All titles are by Al Capp:

Fosdick also appears sporadically, but memorably, in:

Among Fosdick's initial appearances in Li'l Abner are:

Footnotes[edit]

External links[edit]