The Yellow Kid

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

The Yellow Kid is — arguably — the first modern comic strip:

Comics in America started with The Yellow Kid. At least, that’s how the oft-told story goes. But like most oft-told stories, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, that feature didn’t start out as comics, at least not in the modern sense of the word, a sequence of panels carrying a narrative — at first, it consisted of a single large illustration. For another, it wasn’t actually the first — newspaper and magazine cartoons had been growing in prominence ever since the ability to print them existed, and are known to have existed in America as early as the middle of the 18th century. In fact, an entire comic book, The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, appeared in an American paper as early as 1842. For a third, the name of the feature wasn’t The Yellow Kid.

Cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault started drawing funny pictures about New York tenements in 1894, for Truth magazine. The first appeared in that year’s June 2 edition. On Feb. 17, 1895, one of them was reprinted in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World, inaugurating the series from which The Yellow Kid would eventually emerge. By the end of that year, Outcault was doing full-page ones, in color, on a weekly basis, under the title Hogan’s Alley (which appeared on a street sign as early as the very first of the Truth magazine cartoons). Gradually, there emerged a distinctive young character, identifiable by a bald head, huge ears, and a bright yellow nightshirt, which later had his dialog written on it. He wasn’t usually addressed by any particular name (although when that did happen, the name was was Mickey Dugan), but readers came to know him as The Yellow Kid.

I bring this up because, after I linked to that US presidents timeline game, someone I know — Hi, Cate! — put up a newspaper comic strip timeline game, and I was certain that The Katzenjammer Kids was the first comic strip.

In fact, I’m pretty sure The Katzenjammer Kids was the “correct” answer to the Trivial Pursuit question on the subject, and I got it “right” a few years back while playing with a group of unsuspecting non-geeks (or marginal geeks).

At any rate, the popularity of The Yellow Kid led Hearst to hire Outcault away, and George Luks continued using the character in Pulitzer’s World. Both papers became known for The Yellow Kid:

The papers that ran it were often referred to by New Yorkers as the “Yellow Kid” papers or, simply, “the yellow papers”. During the Spanish American War (1898), when their sensational and unreliable reportage reached a fever pitch, that style came to be known as “yellow journalism”.

It was only years later that comics evolved into their more stylized form — with big-headed kids who didn’t look quite so deformed, and who spoke via word balloons, rather than text on their nightshirts.

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