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A shmoo is shaped like a plump bowling pin with legs. It has smooth skin, eyebrows and sparse whiskers—but no arms, nose or ears. Its feet are short and round but dextrous, as the shmoo's comic book adventures make clear. It has a rich gamut of facial expressions, and often expresses love by extruding hearts over its head. Cartoonist Al Capp ascribed to the shmoo the following curious characteristics. His satirical intent should be evident:
In a sequence beginning in late August 1948, Li'l Abner discovers the shmoos when he ventures into the forbidden "Valley of the Shmoon" following the mysterious and musical sound they make (from which their name derives). Abner is thrown off a cliff and into the valley below by a primitive "large gal" (as he addresses her), whose job is to guard the valley. (This character is never seen again.) There, against the frantic protestations of a naked, heavily bearded old man who shepherds the shmoos, Abner befriends the strange and charming creatures. "Shmoos," the old man warns, "is the greatest menace to hoomanity th' world has evah known!" "Thass becuz they is so bad, huh?" asks Li'l Abner. "No, stupid", answers the man — and then encapsulates one of life's profound paradoxes: "It's because they's so good!!"
Having discovered their value ("Wif these around, nobody won't nevah havta work no more!!"), Abner leads the shmoos out of the valley — where they become a sensation in Dogpatch and, quickly, the rest of the world. Captains of industry such as J. Roaringham Fatback, the "Pork King", become alarmed as sales of nearly all products decline, and in a series of images reminiscent of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the "Shmoo Crisis" unfolds. On Fatback's orders, a corrupt exterminator orders out "Shmooicide Squads" to wipe out the shmoos with a variety of firearms, which is depicted in a macabre and comically graphic sequence, with a tearful Li'l Abner misguidedly saluting the supposed "authority" of the extermination squads.
After the shmoos have been eliminated, Dogpatch's extortionate grocer Soft-Hearted John is seen cackling as he displays his wares—rotting meat and produce: "Now them mizzuble starvin' rats has t'come crawlin t'me fo' the necessities o' life!! They complained 'bout mah prices befo'!! Wait'll they see th' new ones!!" The exterminator congratulates him.
However, it is soon discovered that Abner has secretly saved two shmoos, a "boy" and a "girl". The boy shmoo, as a Dogpatch native, is required to run from the girl shmoo in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race. (Shmoos are usually portrayed as gender-neutral, although Capp sidesteps this issue to allow the comic plot twist.) When he is caught by her, in accordance with the rules of the race, they are joined in marriage by Marryin' Sam (whom they "pay" with a dozen eggs, two pounds of butter and six cupcakes with chocolate frosting — all of which Sam reckons to be worth about 98 cents). The already expanding shmoo family is last seen returning towards the Valley of the Shmoon.
The sequence, which ended just before Christmas of 1948, was massively popular, both as a commentary on the state of society and a classic allegory of greed and corruption tarnishing all that's good and innocent in the world. The Shmoo caused an unexpected national sensation, and set the stage for a major licensing phenomenon. In their very few subsequent appearances in Li'l Abner, shmoos are also identified by the U.S. military as a major threat to national security.
|“||The Shmoo, as every literate person must know, was one of history's most brilliant Utopian satires.||”|
—The Baltimore Sun, 2002
"Capp is at his allegorical best in the epics of the Shmoos, and later, the Kigmies," wrote comic strip historian Jerry Robinson (in The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, 1974). "Shmoos are the world's most amiable creatures, supplying all man's needs. Like a fertility myth gone berserk, they reproduced so prodigiously they threatened to wreck the economy"—if not western civilization as we know it, and ultimately society itself.
Al Capp offered his version of the origin of the Shmoo in a wryly satirical article, "I Don't Like Shmoos," in Cosmopolitan (June 1949):
- I was driving from New York City to my farm in New Hampshire. The top of my car was down, and on either side of me I could see the lush and lovely New England countryside... It was the good earth at its generous summertime best, offering gifts to all. And the thought that came to me was this: Here we have this great and good and generous thing—the Earth. It's eager to give us everything we need. All we have to do is just let it alone, just be happy with it.
- Cartoonists don't think like people. They think in pictures. Little pictures that will fit into a comic strip. And so, in my mind, I reduced the Earth... down to the size of a small critter that would fit into the Li'l Abner strip—and it came out a Shmoo... I didn't have any message—except that it's good to be alive. The Shmoo didn't have any social significance; it is simply a juicy li'l critter that gives milk and lays eggs... When you look at one as though you'd like to eat it, it dies of sheer ecstasy. And if one really loves you, it'll lay you a cheesecake—although this is quite a strain on its li'l innards...
- I thought it was a perfectly ordinary little story, but when it appeared in newspapers, all hell broke loose! Life, in an editorial, hailed the Shmoo as the very symbol and spirit of free enterprise. Time said I'd invented a new era of enlightened management-employee relationship, (they called it Capp-italism.) The Daily Worker cussed me out as a Tool of the Bosses, and denounced the Shmoo as the Opium of the Masses...
Superficially, the Shmoo story concerns a cuddly creature that desires nothing more than to be a boon to mankind. Although initially Capp denied or avoided discussion of any satirical intentions (“If the Shmoo fits,” he proclaimed, “wear it!”), he was widely seen to be stalking bigger game subtextually. The story has social, ethical and philosophical implications that continue to invite analysis to this day. During the remainder of his life, Capp was seldom interviewed without reference to the nature of the Shmoo story.
The mythic tale ends on a deliberately ironic note. Shmoos are officially declared a menace, and systematically hunted down and slaughtered—because they were deemed "bad for business." The much-copied storyline was a parable that was interpreted in many different ways at the outset of the Cold War. Al Capp was even invited to go on a radio show to debate socialist Norman Thomas on the effect of the Shmoo on modern capitalism.
"After it came out both the left and the right attacked the Shmoo," according to publisher Denis Kitchen. "Communists thought he was making fun of socialism and Marxism. The right wing thought he was making fun of capitalism and the American way. Capp caught flak from both sides. For him it was an apolitical morality tale about human nature... I think [the Shmoo] was one of those bursts of genius. He was a genius, there's no question about that."
The Shmoo inspired hundreds of "Shmoo clubs" all over North America. College students—who had made Capp's invented idea of the Sadie Hawkins dance a universally adopted tradition—flocked to the Shmoo as well. One school, the University of Bridgeport, even launched the "American Society for the Advancement of the Shmoo" in early 1949.
Capp introduced many other allegorical creatures in Li'l Abner over the years—including Bald Iggles, Kigmies, Nogoodniks, Mimikniks, the Money Ha-Ha, Shminks, Abominable Snow-Hams, Gobbleglops and Bashful Bulganiks, among others. Each one highlighted another disquieting facet of human nature—but none have ever had quite the same cultural impact as the Shmoo. According to publisher Denis Kitchen: "For the rest of his career Capp got countless letters [from] people begging him to bring the Shmoo back. Periodically he would do it but each time it ended the same way—with the Shmoo being too good for humanity, and he had to essentially exterminate them again. But there was always one or two who would survive for future plot twists..."
The actual origin of Capp's word "shmoo" has been the subject of debate by linguists for decades, leading to the misconception that the term was derived from "schmo" or "schmooze." However, "shmue" was a taboo Yiddish term for the uterus. It's one of many Yiddish slang variations that would find their way into Li'l Abner. Revealing an important key to the story, Al Capp himself wrote that the Shmoo metaphorically represented the limitless bounty of the earth in all its richness—in essence, Mother Nature herself. In Li'l Abner's words, "Shmoos hain't make believe. The hull [whole] earth is one!!"
The term "shmoo" has entered the English language, defining highly technical concepts in at least four separate fields of science:
|“||Of course, it was merchandised to death. I think they even had shmoo toilet seats.||”|
—Al Capp, Cartoonist PROfiles #37, March 1978
An unexpected—and virtually unprecedented—postwar merchandising phenomenon followed Capp's introduction of the Shmoo in Li'l Abner. As in the strip, shmoos suddenly appeared to be everywhere in 1949 and 1950—including a Time cover story. They also garnered nearly a full page of coverage (under "Economics") in Time's International section. Major articles also ran in Newsweek, Life, The New Republic and countless other publications and newspapers. Virtually overnight, as a Life headline put it, "The U.S. Becomes Shmoo-Struck!"
Shmoo dolls, clocks, watches, jewelry, earmuffs, wallpaper, fishing lures, air fresheners, soap, ice cream, balloons, ashtrays, toys, games, Halloween masks, salt and pepper shakers, decals, pinbacks, tumblers, coin banks, greeting cards, planters, neckties, suspenders, belts, curtains, fountain pens and other shmoo paraphernalia were produced. A garment factory in Baltimore turned out a whole line of shmoo apparel, including "Shmooveralls." In 1948, people danced to the Shmoo Rhumba and the Shmoo Polka. The Shmoo briefly entered everyday language through such phrases as "What's Shmoo?" and "Happy Shmoo Year!"
Close to a hundred licensed shmoo products from 75 different manufacturers were produced in less than a year, some of which sold five million units each. In a single year, shmoo merchandise generated over $25,000,000 in sales—in 1948 dollars, that is. Adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), that would be the equivalent of $215 million in 2007.
|“||There had never previously been anything like it. Comparisons to contemporary cultural phenomena are inevitable. But modern crazes are almost always due to massive marketing campaigns by large media corporations, and are generally aimed at the youth market. The Shmoo phenomenon arose immediately, spontaneously and solely from cartoonist Al Capp's daily comic strip—and it appealed widely to Americans of all ages. Forty million people read the original 1948 Shmoo story, and Capp's already considerable readership roughly doubled following the overwhelming success of the Shmoo...||”|
The Shmoo was so popular it even replaced Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse as the face of the Children's Savings Bond, issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1949. The valid document was colorfully illustrated with Capp's character, and promoted by the Federal Government of the United States with a $16 million advertising campaign budget. According to one article at the time, the Shmoo showed "Thrift, loyalty, trust, duty, truth and common cents [that] add up to aid to his nation." Al Capp accompanied President Harry S. Truman at the bond's unveiling ceremony.
The Life and Times of the Shmoo (1948), a paperback collection of the original sequence, was a bestseller for Simon & Schuster and became the first cartoon book to achieve serious literary attention. Distributed to small town magazine racks, it sold 700,000 copies in its first year of publication alone. It was reviewed coast to coast alongside Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe, (the other big publication at the time).
The original book and its sequel, The Return of the Shmoo (1959), have been collected in print many times since—most recently in 2002—always to high sales figures. (Source: The Shmoo Fact Sheet, deniskitchen.com)
There was also a separate line of comic books, Al Capp's Shmoo Comics (featuring Washable Jones), published by the Capp family-owned Toby Press. Comics historian and Li'l Abner expert Denis Kitchen recently edited a complete collection of all five original Shmoo Comics, from 1949 and 1950. The book was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2008. Kitchen edited a second Shmoo-related volume for Dark Horse in 2011, on the history of the character in newspaper strips, collectibles and memorabilia.
Recordings and published sheet music related to the Shmoo include:
Shmoos were originally meant to be included in the 1956 Broadway Li'l Abner musical, employing stage puppetry. The idea was reportedly abandoned in the development stage by the producers, however, for reasons of practicality. A variation of the character had earlier appeared as a marionette puppet on television. "Shmoozer," a talking shmoo with an anthropomorphic human body, was a recurring sidekick character on Fearless Fosdick, a short-lived puppet series that aired on NBC-TV in 1952.
After Capp's death in 1979, the Shmoo gained its own animated series as part of Fred and Barney Meet the Shmoo (which consisted of reruns of The New Fred and Barney Show mixed with the Shmoo's own cartoons; the two pairs of characters didn't actually "meet"). The characters did meet, however, in the early 1980s Flintstones spinoff The Flintstone Comedy Show. The Shmoo appeared, incongruously, in the segment Bedrock Cops as a police officer alongside part-time officers Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Needless to add, this Shmoo had little relationship to the L'il Abner character, other than a superficial appearance. A later Hanna-Barbera venture, The New Shmoo, featured the character as an (inexplicably) shape-shifting mascot of Mighty Mysteries Comics, a group of teens who solve Scooby-doo-like mysteries. In this series the Shmoo could magically "morph" into any shape at will—like Tom Terrific. None of these revisionist revivals of the venerable character was particularly successful.