The Yellow Kid
Updated: May 15, 2022
"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."
Richard F. Outcault, creator of the Yellow Kid
The reader is immediately drawn to the bald-headed, buck-toothed child. It is the bright yellow oversized nightshirt that captures the attention. He looks out at the viewer at once, a part of and distinct from the swirling chaos tumbling around him. His name is Mickey Dugan, a riff on the Irish and other immigrants living in the slums of Gilded Age New York. Nicked named the Yellow Kid, he and a host of other characters first inhabited the world of Hogan's Alley and then moved onto McFadden's Row of Flats. Both places depicted life among the real New York tenements. The Yellow Kid was not the first comic, but he proved the enduring popularity of comics as an art form and a means of selling newspapers and merchandising. He would usher in a new realm of pop culture.
The Yellow Kid as a comic character debuted in 1895. Like many comic characters, it took time for the Yellow Kid to evolve and refine his singular persona. He was created by Richard Fenton Outcault, an artist from Ohio. Outcault studied art design at McMicken College in Cincinnati and began his career painting scenes upon safe doors. When the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Middle Atlantic States opened in Cincinnati in 1888, Edison Laboratories hired a young Outcault to create illustrations to accompany the electric light display. His work impressed his employers, and they hired him full-time to do mechanical drawings and other illustrations. He was named as the official illustrator of Edison's traveling exhibits. In this capacity, he went to the Paris Exposition of 1889, where he furthered his art training.
Not long after his return, Outcault quit his job with Edison Labs. In 1891, he started doing technical drawings for several different periodicals such as Electric World and Street Railway Journal. Meanwhile, Outcault dabbled in his hobby of drawing comic pictures. He submitted these to various humor magazines, including Puck, Life, and Truth. These comic weeklies ran not only comic illustrations but also humorous stories, satire, and doggerel verse. They often had an irreverent and risque bent to them.
Outcault arrived in New York at a time of explosive growth of the city. There was an influx of not only immigrants but people like Outcault from other parts of the country. Literacy rates were up, and the potential for more readership of newspapers increased. All sorts of newspapers targeted all levels of society and readers, from penny newspapers to more serious efforts such as the New York Times. It was a competitive market, and editors looked for ways to gain an advantage over the competition and garner new readership.
The editor of the New York World, Morrel Goddard, wanted to introduce a weekly Sunday full-color supplement to the newspaper. In 1893, a paper in Chicago had published a color supplement utilizing a new type of printing press. The printing press allowed for printing on two sides of a page at once and better color quality. The World obtained one of these printing presses. At first, it was suggested that the new supplement would focus on women's fashion, but Goddard, keenly attuned to what the public wanted, desired to have it modeled after the comic weeklies. Over time, this comic weekly section of the newspaper would evolve into the "comics." Comics would come to encompass an entire art form.
Cartoons had been part of newspapers before 1893. Most of these were in black and white and were reprints from other sources. Goddard wanted his own cadre of artists, and his comics were to be printed in color. Following the advice of a mutual friend, Goddard reached out to Outcault and brought him aboard the staff of the World. One of Outcault's first cartoons for his new employer in the fall of 1894 was a six-panel strip involving a clown, a dog, and a snake. While on a picnic, a snake swallows the clown's dog. The clown then cuts open the snake to free the dog's legs. The last panel shows the snake walking on all fours. The title of the cartoon was entitled "Origin of a New Species." It was not the first comic strip, as others had been intermittently appearing around this same time, but it did provide a glimpse into the future of this art form. The first color strip, not one of Outcault's, appeared earlier in 1894 as part of the World's Sunday supplement.
Outcault found subjects for his cartoons in the life of the slums and tenements of New York City. This was well-trodden territory for cartoonists of the time period and popular in the comic weekly magazines. Many of Outcault's freelance work included a cast of tenement kids. A small, bald-headed child wearing what appears to be a nightshirt would make recurring appearances in these cartoons. At this time, the kid remained more of a background character. After joining the World, Outcault began refining his tenement locale. He settled on the name "Hogan's Alley" after a popular show tune. The first full-page color "Hogan's Alley" cartoon debuted on May 5, 1895. The bald little boy still remained to the side, his nightshirt blue with a smudge. Yet Outcault's basic premise was on full display. A group of slum kids mocking high society by emulating their manners and events. At first, the cartoon remained somewhat static, but it grew to be more boisterous, more active, and more slapstick after a year of success.
The comic grew in popularity. On January 5, 1896, either by a stroke of genius or by accident, the bald little kid finally took center stage. A new yellow ink was being experimented with. One that stood out among the more muted colors of the printed page. From that time forward, the Yellow Kid became front and center of Hogan's Alley. He looked towards the reader, often pointing to the mayhem swirling around him with an affable buck-toothed grin. Initially, his shirt continued to have the smudge of his early incarnations, but Outcault, reminded of the sandwich boards carried around as advertising, began scrawling irreverent ditties upon the yellow nightgown. The antics of the Yellow Kid and his fellows appealed to young readers. The comic was loved by the growing segment of New York's population who could not speak English. The captions and signs with their political and social references attracted the more literate of the working classes. This diversity and this loyalty had proven that color comics were an effective means of increasing readership. The Yellow Kid became an instant media sensation.
The success of the Yellow Kid did not go unnoticed by rival newspapers. One paper, the New York Journal, wanted to capitalize on the World's success. It bought a new printing press and began work on a color supplement as well. The New York World, at the time, was owned by Joseph Pulitzer. William Randolph Hearst owned the New York Journal. The Yellow Kid was about to be entangled in a larger circulation war between the great newspaper magnates. Hearst managed to entice both Goddard and Outcault over to the Journal. Due to copyright laws, Pulitzer held the rights to "Hogan's Alley." He hired George Luks to continue drawing the Yellow Kid and the rest of "Hogan's Alley." For Outcault to continue drawing the Yellow Kid, he needed to change locales. Late 1876, the Yellow Kid moved to his new home at "McFadden's Row of Flats." Therefore there were two Yellow Kid's appearing in the newspapers. Outcault tried unsuccessfully to gain copyright over the Yellow Kid. This allowed for imitators to crop up in newspapers all over New York.
Hearst and Pulitzer competed with each other over increasing readership for their respective newspapers. Along with dueling Yellow Kid's, the newspaper owners outdid each other in sensationalizing the news. Stories were exaggerated, filled with hyperbole, scandal, innuendo, and often made up to sell newspapers. Owners of more respectable newspapers criticized this tabloid journalism. They often referred to the World and the Journal as those "yellow papers" or "yellow journals." This was a snide reference to the yellow ink used prominently in each paper's star attraction - the Yellow Kid. The term would morph into our lexicon as yellow journalism. This would all reach its peak with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Hearst, in particular, would be criticized for his jingoism and using his newspapers as a propaganda outlet to push for war.
The Yellow Kid's popularity died out about this same time. Some surmise it was because his yellow nightshirt was reminiscent of the Spanish flag. More likely, it was due to overexposure. Besides appearing in two competing newspapers and spawning imitators, the Yellow Kid was one of the first cartoon characters to succeed in mass merchandising. The Yellow Kid appeared on toys, cigarettes, cookie tins, dolls, and in vaudeville shows.
The legacy of the Yellow Kid is more long-lasting. This certainly wasn't the first cartoon or first comic strip, but Outcault laid the foundation for the emerging art form. Previously, strips were either just pictures or had captions under each panel. Outcault introduced the concept of speech bubbles. In the "Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph," the Yellow Kid made his first sequential appearance on October 25, 1896. Outcault deploys speech bubbles exclusively in tandem with the Kid's trademark sayings. One must read the bubbles to understand the action of the comic. This characteristic will define the medium for over a hundred years. Biographer Bill Blackbeard sums up the importance of this innovative technique. "Outcault's experimentation with new ways of combining words and images led him inadvertently to invent what was soon to be called the comic strip."
Outcault would eventually move from the Yellow Kid and create the more famous and enduring Buster Brown and Tige.
R.F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid who Started the Comics: Bill Blackbeard
Yellow Journalism: The Press and America's Emergence as a World Power: Judith Spencer
Outcault, Goddard, the Comics, and the Yellow Kid: R.C. Harvey (The Comic Journal)
The Yellow Kid: Ohio State University Library Collection