Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Yellow Kid

Richard F. Outcault was born on this day in 1863 in Lancaster, Ohio.

Originally a painter employed by the Hall Safe & Lock Co. in Cincinnati to paint pastoral scenes on the front of bank safes, Outcault got his big break as a newspaper illustrator freelancing for Electrical World magazine at the 1888 Centennial Exposition. His sketches of an Edison electric light display sufficiently impressed the Franklin Institute to hire Outcault to move to West Orange, New Jersey to work on illustrations for a project on Edison’s life and work. He once startled Edison in his lab late one night when the old inventor was testing his phonograph by singing opera; in the darkness and confusion Outcault whacked the singer with a ruler, thus beginning a lifelong friendship.

He traveled to Paris with Edison in 1889, and on his return became a regular contributor of humorous comics to magazines and newspapers, dwelling on subjects and situations among the urban poor, his single frame comics swarming with motley groupings of kids, dogs and goats in the New York slums. His series called Hogan’s Alley, featuring a little bald, jug-eared, barefoot kid in a soiled nightshirt, became a fixture in the funny pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895, and it became a sensation among World readers.

With the popularity of the series, the World began to print Outcault’s cartoons in color on Sundays, and the little kid in the nightshirt (an Irish lad, not an Asian as is generally assumed, named "Mickey Dugan" by his creator), suddenly became a star, nicknamed the "Yellow Kid" for the color ultimately chosen for his nightshirt. So huge was the Yellow Kid’s popularity, that there were Yellow Kid cigarettes, Yellow Kid crackers, and even a Yellow Kid musical on Broadway. The popularity of Outcault’s street urchin spread across the country as newspapers imitated the World’s Sunday color cartoon supplements.

At the height of Outcault’s popularity, William Randolph Hearst lured him away from Pulitzer to the New York Journal with an outrageous salary increase, giving critics a handy moniker for Hearst’s vulgar, predatory tactics -- "Yellow Journalism." Thereafter, Hearst had a hand in directing the evolution of the Yellow Kid, including sending the Dugans on a ‘round-the-world trip in a highly publicized series of episodes.

By 1898, however, the Kid had become outdated; Outcault returned to the World for awhile and continued the series, but he eventually moved on, creating the Buster Brown comic for the New York Herald, featuring a mischievous boy in a little Lord Fauntleroy suit and his scrappy little dog named Tige.

Although he was not the father of the comic strip form as some have claimed, it would be accurate to say that he was the father of the Sunday funnies, being the artist at the center of the newspapers’ adoption of that tradition. Outcault died on September 25, 1928 in Flushing, New York.

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