Sunday, July 30, 2006

BOOK: The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo by Al Capp

The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo
by Al Capp, foreword by Harlan Ellison
The Overlook Press, Woodstock & New York, 2002

My familiarity with the shmoo (plural “shmoon) was tangential at best. I vaguely recalled the shmoo as part of two different Flintstone “comedy hour” re-hashes from the late 1970’s. Only slightly less-removed was a passing mention from the television series MASH. In one later episode, Colonel Potter is painting a portrait of a piece of shmoo merchandising and explains to Radar O’Reilly the shmoo craze that is in full swing back in the states.

My first reaction, decades later, upon picking up The Short Life and Happy Time of The Shmoo, a collection of the shmoo story arcs from the Li’l Abner comics of the 40’s and 50’s, was to marvel that so little has been heard of the shmoo since.

For those unfamiliar, shmoon are cute, gourd-shaped blobs that are, depending on one’s outlook, the ultimate boon to or bane of mankind. Shmoon make loving pets, and are happiest serving people; if you are cold, they will cuddle, if you are bored they will stage races and shows for your entertainment. But, their real benefit is they are so damned delicious. They produce the richest milk, cheese and butter imaginable, dozens of eggs in a heartbeat, and require no sustenance but air. Better still, they reproduce like mad, die of sheer happiness when someone looks at them hungrily, and when fried taste like chicken, when roasted taste like pork, when broiled like steak. Their skin makes durable building materials, their whiskers excellent toothpicks, their eyes perfect buttons. A poor family could live a life of luxury for the gift of six shmoon.

And that’s the problem. Nobody has to work for the measly wages industry provides or buy the inflated, dismal products industry sells, and so industry decides the shmoo must die for the good of us all.

The shmoo were interpreted as a symbol of the expendability of industry by some and the expendability of workers by other, and it is this potentially contradictory nature of the shmoo that makes it such a compelling character. Even to the issue of benefit, they are open to interpretation; the residents of Dogpatch are happier after the shmoon arrive, but also fat and lazy. And it seems a question long pondered – is it in the best interest of human beings to have all they desire acquired so easily?

Harlan Ellison’s quixotic and rambling foreword to the collection both confuses and delights, taking wild digressions (as Li’l Abner was wont to) before settling in to assert that it is difficult for anyone that didn’t live through it to understand the magnitude of the shmoo craze.

I have no reason to doubt it, and instead wonder why that mania played itself out, and how one might go about re-igniting critical academic study of the shmoo. Analysis is surely complicated by Capp’s abandonment of political satire in the face of McCarthyism and subsequent shilling for conservative ideology and politicians, but to my mind that only makes this bizarre little character all the more compelling.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 500 words



Post a Comment

<< Home