The History in Yellow

Long before the world was introduced to the cult of Superman (Action comics#1, 1938), Batman(Detective Comics#1, 1939), Captain America( 1941). Long before comics was a way of life to the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X or Millennials; there was a silent history painted with Yellow in the silent dingy alleys of New York.

Who would have thought that a hero would emerge from a queer place and would set the stepping stones not only in comics but also in the world of Journalism.

The hero that we are talking about in this case is Mickey Dugan, your average Joe, just like any other kid who grew up in squalor. Just that he was not your average Joe. He was “The Yellow Kid”.

It all started with Richard Felton Outcult(1863-1928) who created Mickey Dugan. Outcult initially worked for Thomas Edison as a technical artist for the latter’s travelling show where they went from town to town manifesting the utility of Edison’s inventions (primarily the electric bulb).  It was later that Outcult started focusing his attention on cartooning. He drew for the all of the major papers of the day: Judge and Truth.

The Yellow Kid was bald because that’s how they treated lice infections in the day, had bat ears, buck teeth, blue eyes and wore a yellow nighty. The yellow kid was hardly an icon but eventually became one. The Yellow kid wasn’t even yellow initially and neither a major character, just one of the habitants of the alley.  Even with the advent of colour the Yellow Kid was seen wearing a grey nighty.

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The Yellow Kid in Grey coloured nighty

The Hogan’s alley which featured the Yellow Kid first appeared in the pages of Truth magazine and not the New York World contrary to popular belief.  The single panel cartoons that appeared in the Truth magazine became popular so much so that, one of the episodes, Fourth Ward Brownies, was reprinted in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World on February 9th, 1895.  This was the first appearance of the Yellow Kid in a newspaper.   The one thing about the Yellow Kid that got everyone’s attention was the expressive quotes written on his shirt. The quotes changed from panel to panel.  Also, that’s how people advertised back in the day.

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Fourth Ward Brownies

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The Yellow Kid’s first appearance in a Yellow dress

A star was born in November 1895 when Mickey Dugan finally became the Yellow Kid when the character was introduced in a yellow nighty. This was not the first usage of the colour yellow in a newspaper (there are no substantial facts supporting this argument) rather the color yellow was introduced with a new type of yellow ink through the development of different chemical inks.  There is evidence to prove this as in the 1916 book, Training for the Newspaper Trades, Don Carlos Seitz (Business Manager of the New York World) quotes:

“The ” yellow ” phase developed when William J. Kelly, the pressman, whose knowledge of color printing had been obtained printing specimen books for George Mather’s Sons, the ink Makers, complained that he could get no results from the wishy-washy tints turned out by the art department and begged for some solid colors. About this time R. F. Outcault, a clever youth from Sandusky, Ohio, who had recently invaded New York, turned in to the Sunday editor, then Arthur Brisbane, several black and white drawings, depicting child-life in a tenement district called ” Hogan’s Alley.” I carried Kelly’s kick to C. W. Saalburg, the colorist who was painting the key plate of the “Alley,” and being of quick understanding said: ” All right, I’ll make that kid’s dress solid yellow!” ,Suiting the action to the word he dipped his brush in yellow pigment and ” washed ” the ” kid.” For once Kelly was right. The” solid color” stood out above all the colors in the comic. The” yellow kid” arrived. The success of the series led to the capture of Mr. Outcault by the rival Journal newly revived by William R. Hearst, and to a fortune for the artist. The rivalry resulting, for the World’s ” kid ” was long continued by George B. Luks, since a notable American painter, and stamped ” yellow ” on an enterprise that is now common to all news-papers.”

(Quote found on cbr.com, thanks!)

R.F.Outcult drew the Yellow Kid for the New York World from May 5, 1895- Oct 4, 1896 which was a sensation. This caught the attention of another newspaper mogul at the time, William Randolf Hearst. He offered Outcult a truckload of cash, which Outcult gleefully obliged. Outcult drew the character for Hearst’s New York Journal in three series:

  1. McFadden’s Row of Flats (Oct 18, 1896- Jan 10, 1897)

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  1. Around the world with the Yellow Kid (Jan 17, 1897- May 30, 1897)
  2. Ryan’s Arcade (Sept 28, 1897- Jan 23, 1898)

In the meantime Pulitzer hired George Luks who continued to draw the Yellow Kid. So there were two versions of the Yellow Kid in two different newspapers; New York Journal and the New York World.  Though, Outcult’s version of the Yellow Kid was the more popular of the two versions.

Pulitzer and Hearst both got a taste of the Yellow Kid’s star power, which is how both newspapers became associated with the term Yellow Journalism.  The term Yellow Journalism is defined as unprincipled journalism where little research is done and the sole purpose of it is to sell the newspapers.

Media historian Frank Luther Mott listed some defining characteristics of Yellow Journalism as “screamed excitement, often about comparatively unimportant news”.

The Yellow Kid was the holy grail of merchandising back in the day.  The kid showed up on cigarette packets, wafer tins, dolls, cigar boxes etc.  This further justified him as the first successful comic strip character.

Only till the newspaper wars weakened that the Yellow Kid saw a decline. He last appeared on 23rd Jan1898 in a strip about Hair Tonic. Others say that Outcult lost interest in the character.

All this was just the beginning of the story as far as Outcult, Pulitzer and Hearst were concerned.  Outcult went on to create Buster Brown which was far more famous than the Yellow Kid. Joseph Pulitzer went onto found the Pulitzer award; the highly respected US award for achievements in newspapers and journalism. William Randolf Hearst’s life was immortalized in the “greatest movie of all time” Citizen Kane.

By comicclan.com

Image sources: San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, The Ohio State Univeristy Cartoon Research Library via cbr.com

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