At the height of its popularity, it ran in over 900 newspaper in North America and Europe and an estimated 70 million Americans read it every day. The wedding storyline became a major media event, even making the cover of Life magazine. Al Capp became a regular face in television during the height of the strip's popularity in the golden age of newspaper comics, and one of the few cartoonists to remain a public figure in his own right. Eventually, time took its toll, especially in the 1960s when he drifted into becoming a right wing crank sneering at young folk singers and political activists both in his strip and in public speaking appearance, even picking a public argument with John Lennon during his famous Bed-In. In 1971, that public reputation was shattered forever when he was arrested on sex related charges and papers began to drop his strip in droves. In 1974, Capp, feeling the previous five years of his strip were terrible and his health failing rapidly, called it quits. The strip's swan song received even more massive coverage in the press, with many calling it the end of an era. Capp himself passed away in 1979.
During the strip's run, it was adapted into two films, a Broadway musical (which served as the basis for the second film), a radio serial that ran from 1939 to 1940 and five short animated films made by Columbia Cartoons in 1944. While the series itself never became a television show (despite an unsold pilot airing just once on NBC in 1967), Fearless Fosdick, a ruthless parody of Dick Tracy, briefly spun-off into his own 13-episode puppet show that was swiftly canceled, while the Shmoo appeared in two Saturday Morning Cartoon series for Hanna-Barbera in 1979 and again in 198084 (both times sharing billing with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble). A theme park, Dogpatch, USA, opened in 1968, though it was largely unsuccessful for most of its life and closed in 1993 (though most of it is still standing). The strip is also credited with introducing several colloquialisms into the English language, including "schmooze", "irregardless", "druthers", and even the word "schmoo" has entered into at least four separate fields of science. The strip was also the original source of "Sadie Hawkins Day" dances.
Due to sheer length, a comprehensive reprint has yet to reach completion. Through the decades, numerous smaller collections of storylines were released, until 1988 when Kitchen Sink Press attempted the mammoth task of reprinting the series in its entirety, reaching 27 volumes before the company unfortunately went under in 1999, getting the series only to 1961. IDW began another attempt at a reprint in 2010, starting all the way from the beginning and so far having released 7 out of a projected 21 volumes.
United Features Syndicate continues to run free daily reruns of a select number of classic Li'l Abner strips on comics.com (though these are hardly complete, jump from plot to plot without conclusions to many of them, and rerun the same storylines over and over).
Provides examples of:
- Ambidextrous Sprite: A rare non-video game example; Li'l Abner had an odd design quirk where the part in his hair always faces the viewer, no matter which direction Abner is facing. When asked Which side does Abner part his hair on?," creator Al Capp answered, Both.
- Art Evolution: The earliest strips used a far more realistic style to the point that the characters were hardly recognizable.
- Author Tract: When Capp started aging and subsequently got left behind in the generational gap, he would devote a great deal of time firing off Take Thats at left-wing political figures via the strip.
- Breakout Character: The Shmoo species has been incredibly popular in the series. It soon spun off its own comic. Hanna-Barbera gave one of them a series in 1979. It was a Scooby-Doo knockoff but he was the main attraction. The next year he was in the Flintstone Comedy Show in the segment Bedrock Cops.
- Criminal Doppelgänger: Gat Garson was Abner's double. More than that, Garson's parents were identical to Abner's parents...right down to the fingerprints!
- Does Not Like Shoes: Abner himself is one of the few characters who actually wears shoes, virtually everyone else goes barefoot.
- Dub Name Change: In Sweden, the comic, and main character, was named "Knallhatten", a slang term for the percussion cap on rifles which at some point had become slang for the Swedish equivalent of "redneck" or "hayseed".
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The Fearless Fosdick adversary, the Chippendale Chair, is, in fact, a sentient Chippendale Chair.
- Fun with Acronyms: The student group SWINE (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything).
- General Failure: Jubilation T. Cornpone, the founder of Dogpatch. It's implied he was so bad at his job, he's the main reason the Confederacy lost the Civil War!
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Even Al Capp openly wondered how he got Appassionata Von Climax past the censors. Not only did she appear in the strip as one of the many sexually aggressive femmes fatale pursuing Abner, but also as a villain in the musical... meaning her name snuck past the Hays Code as well.
- He-Man Woman Hater: Abner, at least at first. It's not necessarily that he isn't attracted to them, but the second they show any interest in him (which they tend to do) he wants to run away.
- Idiot Hero: This is most blatantly lampshaded on the numerous occasions when Abner survives being shot in the head precisely because the shot was to his head, survives falls from great heights because he happened to land on his head, etc.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: One of the first strips to do this regularly. The strip within a strip Fearless Fosdick was often used to comment on the conventions of the actual strip. Taken Up to Eleven in the story of Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae's marriage, which came about because Abner took a vow to do whatever Fosdick did in his strip, and Fosdick ended up marrying. Notably, this story also poked fun at the perpetual status quo of most comic strips: while Fosdick eventually wakes up and realizes that he wasn't married after all, returning to status quo, the same was not true for Li'l Abner, as Daisy Mae and Abner remained married for the rest of the strip!Daisy Mae: Look! In today's paper, Fearless Fosdick proposed, an' Prudence Pimpleton accepted!
Abner: Haw! It don't mean nothin'! It's th'usual comical strip trick, t'keep stupid readers excited!
(After Abner proposes)
Daisy Mae: Oh, how mizzuble all this is! Th'biggest moment in mah life, an' it's jest a joke fum a comical strip!
- Meaningful Name: Everyone in this strip had a name that either explained or made fun of their character.
- Ms. Fanservice:
- Abner himself might qualify as Mr. Fanservice. He may be a big chaste doofus but he's nonetheless a cute, hunky, young guy with jet-black hair and a great physique.
- Apner's younger brother Tiny manages to be even more of a Mr. Fanservice, being even taller and better built. Early on he looked more comical since he had inherited his father's big nose, but then his nose was broken, he got surgery and he ended up as traditionally handsome as Abner.
- Capp's work pre-dated the expression "fan service," but this strip is a very strong example. The strip didn't rely on Rule of Sexy - it was genuinely humorous quite aside from the eye candy - but unlike almost any other media in The '50s, it reveled in fan service.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Most of the villains and pretty much anyone Capp had a beef with wound up with a name like this. These include Nightmare Alice, Evil-Eye Fleegle, and Fearless Fosdick's syndicate, Squeezeblood Syndicate.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: All celebrity parodies had their names changed, mainly so Capp could use them whenever he wanted. One of the more notorious was Fearless Fosdick author Lester Gooch, a parody of Dick Tracy author Chester Gould. Gooch was frequently portrayed as mentally deranged, and only capable of writing well when he was insane. Another particularly vicious example was "Joanie Phoanie", who stood in for Joan Baez.
- No One Should Survive That: Lil' Abner has survived virtually everything - death by poison gas, bullets to the chest, innumerable cases of falling damage, quicksand, and so on. Rather than rely on unlikely coincidence, Capp preferred Refuge in Audacity.Abner: That were a long fall! Goo' thing ah landed on my haid, or I could have got hurt!
- Not Now, We're Too Busy Crying over You: In a story, this was inverted. Li'l Abner has escaped what seemed like certain death, and goes to Dogpatch to find some of its citizens singing a funeral hymn for their poor deceased Li'l Abner. When he sees this and learns that they're mourning him, he starts singing along in a very sad tone of voice, because who wouldn't feel sad at his own funeral?
- Orphanage of Fear: One storyline in the late 1930s had Abner go to an orphanage after his parents are (supposedly) dead. It exaggerates the whole trope to its ends: he's forced to change into a new "uniform" (rags), the orphanage master gives bare bones to the orphans with lots of food for himself and whips the orphans, but Abner and the orphans ultimately stage a mutiny.
- Our Founder: Confederate General Jubilation T. Cornpone, who in the musical even gets his own song about his "great" deeds in The American Civil War. He was, in fact, such a horrible general that at least according to the musical, Abraham Lincoln credited him with single-handedly helping the Confederacy lose the war.
- Poverty for Comedy: One of the staples of the comic. Everyone in Dogpatch is ridiculously poor and on the brink of starvation, and it's all Played for Laughs. Al Capp himself grew up poor and took a fair bit of inspiration from his childhood — just exaggerated to comical extremes. Taken Up to Eleven with Lower Slobbovia, which makes Dogpatch seem downright wealthy in comparison.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: The Nogoodniks (the evil version of the Shmoos) had "li'l red eyes". They devoured "good" Shmoos, were the sworn enemies of "hoomanity," and wreaked havoc on Dogpatch.
- Show Within a Show: Fearless Fosdick, which eventually became famous in and of its own right.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: A curious example in Tiny, Abner's younger brother. While he never replaced Abner in the strip itself, he did take on the Unresolved Sexual Tension part after Abner and Daisy Mae got married, and notably became the protagonist in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day Race strips.
- 'Tis Only a Bullet in the Brain: Getting shot in the head is a minor injury for Abner, because his head contains nothing that he can't function normally without.
- Torso with a View: Any man or beast that gets shot tends to be left with large clean round holes where the bullet passed.
- Unkempt Beauty: Dogpatch women who weren't either elderly (Mammy Yokum) or positively hideous (Lena the Hyena) tended to fall into this category, but Moonbeam McSwine, who provides the page image for the trope, is worth special mention. Lil' Abner himself is a male example.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: This pretty much defined the first 18 years of the strip when it came to stories about Daisy Mae. Two years after they finally tied the knot, Capp tried to recreate the dynamic by introducing Abner's 15 and a half "y'ars" old brother Tiny, who was then endlessly pursued by Hopeful Mudd and Boyless Bailey.Abner (to Daisy Mae): You don't realize what a handy-cap bein' sane is to a cartoonist!
- Your Heart's Desire: Shmoos were a species discovered by Li'l Abner in the Valley of the Shmoon. They loved humans unconditionally, had a phenomenal rate of reproduction, and provided humanity with everything they needed for subsistence. They gave milk, laid eggs (a few had even mastered laying hard-boiled eggs), and acted as pets and beasts of burden. A human could cause a Shmoo to commit Shmooicide just by looking at it hungrily, at which point its skin could be cut thin for cloth, thick for leather, boiled to harden into a timber substitute; its eyes used for buttons, its whiskers for toothpicks: also, of course, its flesh was boneless, and delicious in several different ways, depending on how you cooked it. As soon as this miracle animal became known to the outside world, American big businessmen attempted to wipe them out, since a solution to world hunger and suffering would have destroyed their profits.