Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Yellow Kid - (1895)

It’s amazing what you can learn from a comic strip. March 2nd marked the day in which a cartoon character was first introduced on a daily basis in the newspaper. That character was known as the Yellow Kid and appeared in the New York World regularly on March 2nd, 1895.

Richard F Outcault's had previously been drawing a comic known as “Hogan's Alley” for Truth Magazine. It was actually his “Fourth Ward Brownies”, published on February 9, 1895 and later reprinted in the New York World February 17th, which began one of the first comic strips in an American newspaper. The character of the Yellow Kid was at first incidental to the strip but in short order he became the focus of the entire strip, which even took his name. His balloons containing the dialogue were not the first to do so; they had long been in use for political cartoons; but his use of them in this manner set the stage for every strip that came after.

The Yellow Kid was emblematic of the slum kid; the child of parents who worked long hours in factories; leaving the children to fend for themselves. In a 1902 interview Outcault is quoted as saying, “The Yellow Kid was not an individual but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition, and was generous to a fault. Malice, envy or selfishness were not traits of his, and he never lost his temper.”

The Yellow Kid had a name; Mickey Dugan. He was bald just as many of the children in the slums were due to the prevalence of lice and the lack of adequate bathing facilities. Most of the apartments of the time had nothing but a sink to wash in, with a toilet down the hall or in the backyard. 

Drawing the Yellow Kid in such a manner drew attention to the dire poverty which so many of the children grew up in at the turn of the 20th Century. His shirt was meant to depict an old hand me down night shirt, which was at first drawn in white or blue. At first the dialogue was printed on the Kid’s shirt as a way of making fun of the myriad “sandwich board” advertisers of the time, but soon this gave way to the more popular dialogue balloons.

Outcault was eventually lured away from the World and went to work for Hearst’s Journal American at a much higher salary. His time at the Journal was marked by a shift in the character from the hapless victim to a more activist; and some say vulgar; character. Hey, he was working for Hearst, right?

The Yellow Kid was never copyrighted by Outcault and so Pulitzer was still able to run the comic in the World; which meant that Outcault was competing with his own character for about a year; from 1896-1897; when the strip appeared in both papers.

The only mention I have seen of the Yellow Kid was in Monday’s paper in the comic strip "Mother Gooses and Grimm"; which I usually skip. It was only the familiar profile of Dick Tracy which drew my attention to the strip. It was the only one that gave a nod to its roots in the work of R.F. Outcault and the adventures of the Yellow Kid. As a result I will be looking at this strip more regularly in the future.

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