The Yellow Kid

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The Yellow Kid

The Yellow Kid by Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928) is generally held to be the character that gave birth to American comic strips. The Kid, later named Mickey Dugan by Outcault, was a smallish figure dressed in a nightshirt who roamed the streets of New York in company with other urchins. The Yellow Kid was not a comic strip, rather he appeared as a character in a series of large single panel color comic illustrations in the New York World with the more or less continuous running title Hogan's Alley. The World published the first of these illustrations, At the Circus in Hogan's Alley, on May 5, 1895. The newspaper's readers, it seems, singled out the Kid as a distinctive character and his popularity led other artists to create similar characters. In short succession these actions gave rise to the comic strip.

Outcault was born in Lancaster, Ohio and studied design in Cincinnati before joining the laboratories of Thomas Edison as an illustrator in 1888. By 1890 Outcault combined employment as an illustrator on the Electrical World, a trade journal, with freelance cartoon work for illustrated humor journals such as Puck, Judge, Life, and Truth. The Kid's genesis lay in the genre of city urchin cartoons made popular by these journals. In particular Outcault drew inspiration from Michael Angelo Woolf's work.

A prototype Yellow Kid appeared in Outcault's "Feudal Pride in Hogan's Alley" published in Truth June 2, 1894. This small figure in a nightshirt cropped up in several other Outcault cartoons before blossoming into a larger more familiar, but as yet unnamed, Kid in Outcault's "Fourth Ward Brownies" published in Truth February 9, 1895 and reprinted in the World February 17, 1895. The Kid appeared again in Outcault's "The Fate of the Glutton" in the World March 10, 1895. In these two appearances the Kid's nightshirt had an ink smudged handprint a distinctive feature of the later World panels. After the May 5 episode the World published ten more "Hogan's Alley" panels in 1895. The Kid appeared in them all. On January 5, 1896 the Kid was center stage in a yellow nightshirt and thereafter became the focus of each panel.

The Yellow Kid became the mainstay of the World's comic supplement during 1896, but in mid October Outcault moved his strip from the World to William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Hearst had infamously bought the talent of the World to staff the Journal and naturally enough poached Outcault for the launch of the comic supplement on October 18, 1896. Thereafter the Kid appeared in tabloid page size illustration under the running title "McFadden's Row of Flats" before departing on a world tour in 1897. Beginning October 25, 1896 the Kid also began to appear in an occasional comic strip like series of panels under the running title of "The Yellow Kid," which was Outcault's first use of that name in a comic supplement. Outcault stayed with Hearst's Journal for a little over a year. The last Yellow Kid comic feature appeared in the Journal January 23, 1898. Outcault then returned to the World, producing a series of "Hogan's Alley"-like panels featuring an African-American character.

Outcault's shift of the Yellow Kid from the World to the Journal raised issues of copyright. The World continued to publish a version of the Kid drawn by George Luks. Prior to leaving the World Outcault had sought copyright protection for his creation in a letter to the Library of Congress on September 7, 1896. He had also attached the label "Do Not Be Deceived None Genuine Without This Signature" above his signature in the World's September 6, 1896 episode of "Hogan's Alley." Later advice from W. B. Howell of the Treasury Department, which policed copyright laws at that time, advised Outcault that he had failed to secure protection on the image of the Kid because he had only included one illustration instead of two in his application. Outcault did however secure protection for the title "The Yellow Kid."

Two minor controversies have marked the history of the Yellow Kid. Until the late 1980s accounts of the origins of comic strips generally accepted that the Yellow Kid's nightshirt was colored yellow as a test of the ability of yellow ink to bond to newsprint. But Richard Marschall argues in his America's Great Comic Strip Artists that this could not have been the case since yellow ink had been used earlier. Likewise Bill Blackbeard gives a detailed account of the World's use of color in his introduction to The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration that makes clear the testing yellow ink theory is incorrect. The Yellow Kid is often cited as the origin of the term "yellow journalism." However, the historian Mark D. Winchester has demonstrated that the term yellow journalism came into use during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to describe the war hysteria whipped up by Hearst and Pulitzer. The Yellow Kid was transformed into a symbol of yellow journalism during this campaign rather than giving his name to it. The distinction is subtle but crucial.

—Ian Gordon

Further Reading:

Blackbeard, Bill and Martin Williams. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.

Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Harvey, Robert. The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Howell, W. B., "Assistant Secretary, Treasury Department to W.Y.Connor, New York Journal, April 15, 1897," reprinted in, Decisions of the United States Courts Involving Copyright and Literary Property, 1789-1909. Bulletin 15, Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1980, 3187-3188.

Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic Strip Artists. New York, Abbeville Press, 1989.

Outcault, Richard. The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, Massachusetts, Kitchen Sink Press, 1995.

Winchester, Mark D. "Hully Gee, It's a War!!! The Yellow Kid and the Coining of 'Yellow Journalism."' Inks, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1995, 22-37.