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A shmoo (plural: shmoon, also shmoos) is a fictional cartoon creature. Created by Al Capp (1909 - 1979), they first appeared in his classic comic strip Li'l Abner on August 31, 1948, and quickly became a postwar national craze in the USA.

Description

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 dexterous, as the shmoo's comic book adventures make clear. It has a rich gamut of facial expressions, and expresses love (often) by exuding hearts over its head.

Cartoonist Al Capp ascribed to the shmoo the following curious characteristics. His satirical intent should be evident:

  • They reproduce asexual and are very prolific. They require no sustenance other than air.
  • Naturally gentle, they require minimal care, and are ideal playmates for young children.
  • Shmoos are delicious to eat, and are eager to be eaten. If a human looks at one hungrily, it will happily immolate itself, either by jumping into a frying pan, after which they taste like chicken, or into a broiling pan, after which they taste like steak. When roasted they taste like pork, and when baked they taste like catfish. (Raw, they taste like oysters on the half-shell.)
  • They also produce eggs (neatly packaged), milk (bottled grade-A), and butter — no churning required. Their pelts make perfect bootleather or house timber, depending on how thick you slice it.
  • They have no bones, so there's absolutely no waste. Their eyes make the best suspender buttons, and their whisker make perfect toothpicks. In short, they are simply the perfect ideal of a subsistence agricultural herd animal.
  • The frolicking of shmoon is so entertaining (such as their staged "shmoosical comedies") that people no longer feel the need to watch television or go to the movie.
  • Some of the more tasty varieties of shmoo are more difficult to catch. Usually shmoo hunters, now a sport in some parts of the country, utilize a paper bag, flashlight and stick to capture their shmoos. At night the light stuns them, then they can be whacked in the head with the stick and put in the bag for frying up later on.


The original story

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 Ol' Man Mose, (who apparently shepherds the shmoos when he's not making Sadie Hawkins Day predictions) Abner befriends the strange and charming creatures. "Shmoos", Mose warns, "is the greatest menace to hoomanity th' world has evah known." "Thass becuz they is so bad, huh?" asked Li'l Abner. "No, stupid", answers Mose, 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 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 of 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, as a Dogpatch native, is required to run from the girl in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race. 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 ninety-eight 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.

Analysis

"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", from Cosmopolitan magazine in June 1949:

Superficially, the shmoo story concerns a cuddly creature that desires nothing more than to be a boon to mankind. But subtextually, Capp was stalking bigger game; the story has social, ethical and philosophical implications that are not easy to dismiss. 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."

Capp introduced many other allegorical creatures in Li'l Abner over the years — including Kigmies, Nogoodniks, Bald Iggles, Mimikniks, Money Ha-Has, Shminks, Abominable Snow-Hams 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...."

Etymology

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 female reproductive organ, the ultimate fertility symbol. 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!!"

Licensing history

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 magazine, 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, comic books, records, sheet music, 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 Baltimoremarker 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 one 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 dollars in 2007.

Comic books and reprints

A paperback collection of the original sequence was a bestseller for Simon & Schuster, and became the first cartoon book to achieve serious literary attention. The Life & Times of the Shmoo (1948) 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 continuity 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.

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 volume was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2008.

Recordings and sheet music

Recordings and published sheet music related to the Shmoo include:
  • The Shmoo Sings with Earl Rogers (1948) 78 rpm / Allegro
  • The Shmoo Club b/w The Shmoo Is Clean, the Shmoo Is Neat (1949) 45 rpm / Music You Enjoy, Inc.
  • The Snuggable, Huggable Shmoo b/w The Shmoo Doesn't Cost a Cent (1949) 45 rpm / Music You Enjoy, Inc.
  • Shmoo Lesson b/w A Shmoo Can Do Most Anything (1949) 45 rpm / Music You Enjoy, Inc.
  • The Shmoo Song (1948) Composed by Jule Styne & John Jacob Loeb / Harvey Music Corp.
  • Shmoo Songs (1949) Composed by Gerald Marks / Bristol Music Corp.
  • The Kigmy Song (1949) Composed by Joe Rosenield & Fay Tishman / Town and Country Music Co.


Animation

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, like Tom Terrific. None of these revisionist attempts to revive the venerable character was particularly successful.

In science

The term "shmoo" has entered the English language, defining highly technical concepts in no less than four separate fields of science.

  • It's been used in discussions of socioeconomics, for instance. In economics, a "widget" is any material good which is produced through labor (extracted, refined, manufactured, or assembled) from a finite resource — in contrast to a "shmoo", which is a material good that reproduces itself and is captured or bred as an economic activity (the original shmoo reproduces without requiring any material sustenance). "If shmoos really existed, they would be a "free good." Erik Olin Wright uses the "parable of the shmoo" to introduce discussion of class structure and economics.


  • The shmoo's uncanny resemblance to budding yeast, combined with its near-limitless usefulness, has also led to the character's adoption as a mascot of sorts for scientists studying yeast as a model organism for genetics and cell biology. In fact, the cellular bulge that is produced by an haploid yeast cell as a response to a pheromone from the opposite mating type (a or alpha) is referred to as a "shmoo", because cells that are undergoing mating and present this particular structure resemble the cartoon character. The whole process is known to biologists as "shmooing." The word "shmoo" has appeared in nearly 700 science publications since 1974; it is used in labs studying the bread- and beer-making species Saccharomyces cerevisiae. (Source: Discover magazine, November 2007)


  • Shmoo also refers to a high energy cosmic ray survey instrument utilized at the Los Alamos National Laboratorymarker for the Cygnus X-3 Sky Survey performed at the LAMPF (Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility) grounds. Over one hundred white "shmoo" detectors were at one time sprinkled around the accelerator beamstop area and adjacent mesa to capture high energy cosmic rays emitted from the Cygnus constellation. The detectors housed scintillators and photomultipliers in an array that gave the detector its distinctive shmoo shape.


  • Shmoo also refers to a range safety protection contour.


  • Finally, a "shmoo plot" is a technical term relating to the shmoo-shaped graphical display patterns of test circuits. In electrical engineering, a "shmoo" is a depiction of the effect of varying two or more components. For example, it portrays the effect of increasing voltage (Vcc) vs. reducing clock rate (tCK). This helps in identifying possible failure sensitivity of a device and provides valuable information in problem resolution. In addition, the shmoo curve provides information on the amount of margin to failure, providing confidence level in the effectiveness of issue resolution or screen effectiveness. The term is also a verb: to "shmoo" means to run the test.


In popular culture

  • Frank Sinatra, who was frequently spoofed by Al Capp in Li'l Abner, has a line in the MGM musical On the Town (1949) about cops "multiplyin' like shmoos!" In the 1990 movie Book of Love, the character Crutch wins a stuffed shmoo at a carnival. In the M*A*S*H TV episode "Who Knew?", Colonel Potter (played by Harry Morgan) displays an inflatable shmoo toy in his office that he purchased for his grandson.




  • Some overlapping similarities exist between shmoos and tribbles - the multitudinous alien creatures featured in a 1967 TV episode from the original Star Trek. Like shmoos, tribbles also reproduced at such an alarming rate, they threatened ecological disaster. However, David Gerrold - who wrote "The Trouble With Tribbles" - drew his inspiration from an actual event: Australia's environmentally destructive rabbit overpopulation. Also from 1967, the characters Gleep and Gloop - two protoplastic creatures from the Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning animated cartoon series The Herculoids - were clearly inspired by (and are sometimes mistaken for) shmoos.


  • French artists Etienne Chambaud and David Jourdan have written "Economie de l'abondance ou La courte vie et les jours heureux" a new adventure of Jacques le fataliste et son maître from Diderot, based on the discovery by Jacques of the Shmoo.


  • In the 2006 film Lucky Number Slevin, the character known only as "The Boss" (played by Morgan Freeman) refers to the Shmoo, recounting its original features as a source of plenty, (a monologue taken from an old Li'l Abner comic).


Trivia

  • During the Soviet Union's blockade of West Berlin, Germany in 1948, candy-filled shmoos were air-dropped to hungry West Berliners from transport planes by America's 17th Military Airport Squadron. The commanders of the Berlin airlift had cabled Capp, requesting the inflatable shmoos as part of Operation: Little Vittles. "When the candy-chocked shmoos were dropped, a near-riot resulted...." (Reported in Newsweek - October 11, 1948)




  • 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.marker Treasury Departmentmarker 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 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 Bridgeportmarker, even launched the "American Society for the Advancement of the Shmoo" in early 1949.


  • Shmoos were originally meant to be included in the 1956 Broadwaymarker Li'l Abner musical, employing stage puppetry. The idea was reportedly abandoned in the development stage by the producers, however, for reasons of practicality.


  • Capp also introduced "bad" Shmoos (called Nogoodniks) in a series of Sunday strips in 1949. The nasty cousin of the good-natured Shmoo, Nogoodniks were a sickly shade of green, and had "li'l red eyes, sharp yaller teeth, and a dirty look". Frequently sporting 5 o'clock shadows, eye patches, bandages and other ruffian attributes - they devoured "good" Shmoos, were the sworn enemies of "hoomanity", and wreaked havoc on Dogpatch.


  • Cartoonist Mell Lazarus, creator of Miss Peach and Momma, wrote a comic novel in 1963 - titled The Boss Is Crazy, Too - which was partly based on his apprenticeship days working for Capp on Shmoo Comics at Toby Press. In a seminar at the Charles Schulz Museummarker on November 8, 2008, Lazarus called his experience at Toby "the five funniest years of my life". Lazarus went on to cite Capp as one of the "four essentials" in the field of newspaper cartoonists, along with Walt Kelly, Charles Schulz and Milton Caniff.


For further reading

  • Capp, Al, The Life and Times of the Shmoo (1948) Simon & Schuster
  • Capp, Al, Cosmopolitan Magazine (June 1949) "I Don't Like Shmoos"
  • Al Capp Studios, Al Capp's Shmoo Comics (1949 - 1950) 5 issues (Toby Press)
  • Al Capp Studios, Al Capp's Shmoo in Washable Jones' Travels (1950) (Oxydol premium)
  • Al Capp Studios, Washable Jones and the Shmoo (1953) (Toby Press)
  • Capp, Al, Al Capp's Bald Iggle: The Life It Ruins May Be Your Own (1956) Simon & Schuster
  • Capp, Al, The Return of the Shmoo (1959) Simon & Schuster
  • Capp, Al, Charlie Mensuel #2 (March 1969) (A French monthly periodical devoted to comics)
  • Capp, Al, The Best of Li'l Abner (1978) Holt, Rinehart & Winston
  • Capp, Al, Li'l Abner: Reuben Award Winner Series Book 1 (1985) Blackthorne
  • Capp, Al, Li'l Abner Dailies: 1948 Vol. 14 (1992) Kitchen Sink Press
  • Capp, Al, Li'l Abner Dailies: 1949 Vol. 15 (1992) Kitchen Sink Press
  • Capp, Al, Li'l Abner Dailies: 1956 Vol. 22 (1995) Kitchen Sink Press
  • Capp, Al, Li'l Abner Dailies: 1959 Vol. 25 (1997) Kitchen Sink Press
  • Capp, Al, The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo (2002) Overlook Press
  • Capp, Al, Al Capp's Li'l Abner: The Frazetta Years - 4 Volumes (2003, 2004) Dark Horse Comics
  • Kitchen, Denis, ed. Al Capp's Shmoo: The Complete Comic Books (2008) Dark Horse Comics


References

External links




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