Although the Yellow Kid is no longer celebrated as the first pace-setting and medium-defining character in the history of American newspaper comics, the circumstances under which the ochre urchin appeared shaped and directed the history of the medium for generations. Richard Outlcault may not have invented the newspaper comic strip, but he created a character that established comics in newspapers by demonstrating convincingly the commercial appeal of comics, both for selling newspapers and for merchandising, thereby paving the way for the artform’s future development.
Poetically enough for a man who would eventually make history by appealing to the taste of great masses of people, Richard Felton Outcault was born in the heartland of the country, the great midwest—Lancaster, Ohio to be exact—on January 14, 1863 to well-to-do parents, Jesse P. Outcalt (as the name was spelled until Richard changed it) and Catherine Davis. To nurture an artistic bent, Richard attended the school of design at McMicken College in Cincinnati, 1878-81. After graduating at the age of 18, Richard earned a modest income painting pastoral scenes on the doors of office safes.
In 1888, the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Middle Atlantic States was held in Cincinnati, and one of the exhibitors, Edison Laboratories, needed some illustrations for its electric light display and hired Richard to do the work. His work more than passed muster, and when Edison subsequently hired him to do mechanical drawings as well as illustrations, Richard moved to Edison’s headquarters at West Orange, New Jersey. Edison named him the official artist for the company’s traveling exhibit and sent him to France for the Paris Exposition of 1889-90, where Richard supervised the installation of the Edison exhibits. He also studied art at one or more of the schools in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank. It was during this time that Richard changed the spelling of the family name, adding a second “u.”
Upon returning to the United States, Outcault continued working for Edison and made frequent trips to Lancaster, where he courted the granddaughter of a leading banker, Mary Jane Martin. They had a Christmas wedding, marrying on December 25, 1890, and they moved to New York and settled in Flushing, Queens.
We don’t know when Outcault quit Edison—perhaps his function disappeared when (or if) the traveling exhibit no longer traveled; whatever the cause, he pursued a career as a draftsman by taking work making technical drawings for Electrical World and Street Railway Journal. A colleague at Edison knew the Electrical World editor and introduced Outcault to him.
In his spare time, Outcault also began to indulge a penchant for comedy, submitting comic pictures to the weekly humor magazines Puck, Judge, Life and the somewhat more risque Truth. After a couple years at these endeavors, Outcault’s career took an unanticipated turn: he became a full-time cartoonist, thanks to Morrill Goddard and Roy L. McCardell.
Goddard, the Sunday editor of the New York World, was looking for a comic artist to provide the content of the paper’s newest venture, a weekly full-color comic magazine supplement for the paper’s Sunday edition.
Morrill Goddard is not a name we readily associate with the comics. In fact, it is a name that crops up only occasionally in histories of American newspapers and in biographies of some of the press barons who built their fiefdoms on the work of journalists like Goddard. And wherever his name appears, it never gets more than a paragraph. Sometimes, only a sentence. Goddard is nearly unknown because the man had a passion for anonymity. All that we know about him is divulged herewith—in connection with what we have been calling “comics” for generations.
But the “comics” are not necessarily comical, the obvious meaning of the word to the contrary notwithstanding. Bugs Bunny, Batman, Dagwood, Mary Worth. Whether in pulpy pamphlets or newspapers, comics are sometimes funny and sometimes quite serious. So why call them “comics”? The reasons for the anomaly are evident in the history of the medium, a history over which Goddard hovers consequentially albeit largely unacknowledged.
Newspapers had published cartoons before 1893, but it was in the spring of that year that the New York World started publishing cartoons in color in a Sunday supplement that became embroiled in a circulation war, which, taking place in the nation’s largest city where the media set a pace for the rest of the country, had ramifications beyond the city limits.
The World had been publishing a comics section since 1889, but the cartoons were in staid black-and-white. In Chicago, the Inter Ocean newspaper had launched its Illustrated Supplement on June 23, 1892—an 8-page tabloid with full-color cover and back page. Initially, it boasted illustrations but no comics. Late that summer, Charles Saalburg produced a single-panel cartoon entitled The Ting Lings; it ran for about three months.
“The Inter Ocean Illustrated Supplement was,” saith Richard Samuel West in Society is Nix, an anthology of Sunday funnies 1895-1915, “the first color newspaper supplement issued in America.” And when the World’s founding publisher Joseph Pulitzer saw it, he arranged to purchase the same kind of press the Inter Ocean used. And by the spring of 1893, the World was ready to produce its Sunday supplement in color.
Goddard, the Sunday World’s editor, was an intense man with exacting journalistic standards. At the time of his death in July 1937, his assistant of 26 years, Abraham Merritt, wrote a elegiac obituary in Editor & Publisher (July), confessing that soon after he started working for Goddard, he began to think his boss was the greatest of editors. “There might have been some hero worship in it then,” he admits, “but now, after a quarter of a century, I no longer think he was the greatest editor of his day. I know he was.”
Goddard “abhorred all sham and pretense,” Merritt writes. “He took a grim joy in pricking the balloon of some inflated personality. He had a passion for accuracy … [He was] a constant challenger of what he considered ‘mischievous fallacies’” masquerading as truths or facts. Goddard, Merritt went on, “combined in one extraordinary synthesis creative and executive genius of the highest order. He had the unique power of being able to project himself into the minds of all classes of people, discover and be interested in what interested them and reflect that interest in the pages of his paper.”
Devoted single-mindedly to his profession, Goddard was essentially defined by his dedication. His was a simple, unprepossessing personality. “I know of no man,” Merritt said, “who, occupying the position he did, being what he was, had so little egotism, who was so devoid of what he called ‘high hat bunk.’”
In his personal conduct, demanding though he was of subordinates and reporters, Goddard was deliberately self-effacing and was virtually unknown by the public at large. He never had a photograph taken. “Once,” Merritt says, “when I inadvertently snapped him while on one of his boats, he made me destroy the film. ‘Nobody is interested in me,’ he’d say. ‘All they’re interested in is my product.’”
His product for most of his long life was the newspaper Sunday supplement that he edited at William Randolph Hearst’s Journal/American. “It was,” Merritt asserts, “the main and almost the only interest in his life.” But Goddard had a life before Hearst. Hearst had found him at Pulitzer’s New York World, where, on May 21, 1893, Goddard had produced the first Sunday comics supplement in color.
THE IDEA OF A COLOR Sunday “magazine” had been under discussion at the World since 1891, according to Roy McCardell, who wrote about it in Everybody’s Magazine for June 1905. But no satisfactory printing press could be found. The Inter Ocean press, however, was admirably suited to the purpose: West described it as “a perfecting press that printed on both sides of the paper at once, it was more efficient and less expensive than chromolithography,” the earlier but unsatisfactory option for daily newspaper production. With a press that could print color accurately now at their disposal, the World’s editors thought the color supplement should be devoted to women’s fashions, “but just about that time, Goddard, city editor of the World, was made Sunday editor.” And Goddard “was emphatically against the fashion supplement.”
As city editor, Goddard had pioneered a lively carnival midway style of journalism, and for the proposed color Sunday supplement, he opted for something with greater mass appeal than female wardrobe. In achieving his goal, he unwittingly conspired in the coinage of a word that has ever since denominated newspaper comics—making no sense at all for most of the time.
Goddard “went in for the weird and wonderful in everyday life,” says McCardell, “and if things were not so weird and wonderful enough for him, he made them so.”
In his Life of Pulitzer, Denis Brian retails several stories about Goddard’s inventive circulation-building enterprise: “Dartmouth graduate Goddard … persuaded a leading Episcopal clergyman to live in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement for six weeks and report his impressions, which started with a sizzling: ‘I would rather live in hell than Hell’s Kitchen.’ … Considered the leading practitioner of the ‘crime, underwear and pseudo-science school of journalism, Goddard illustrated a science feature on anatomy with the shapely legs of actresses and showgirls.’” On another occasion, Goddard concocted “a hilarious account of a raunchy stag party thrown by architect Stanford White, in which, for dessert, a naked model ‘covered only by the ceiling,’ as the World put it, stepped from a papier-mache pie. … Goddard had spread an eye-catching sketch of the shapely dessert across two pages.”
In a widely available history of journalism, The Press in America, Edwin Emery observes that Goddard “jazzed up his page spreads, exaggerating and popularizing the factual information. Scientists particularly were the victims of the Sunday newspaper’s predilection for distortion and sensationalism, and the pseudoscientific stories of yellow journalism made the men of science shy away from newspaper coverage for the next 50 years.”
In an article, “The Fourth Current,” in Collier’s (February 18, 1911), one of Goddard’s staff explained their typical treatment of a story:
“Suppose it’s Halley’s comet. Well, first you have a half-page of decoration showing the comet, with historical pictures of previous appearances thrown in. If you can work a pretty girl into the decoration, so much the better. If not, get some good nightmare idea like the inhabitants of Mars watching it pass. Then do a quarter of a page of big-type heads—snappy. Then four inches of story, written right of the bat. Then a picture of Professor Halley down here and another of Professor Lowell up there, and a two-column boxed freak containing a scientific opinion, which nobody will understand, just to give it class.”
And it was Goddard’s “professional opinion,” McCardell avows, “that American humor, not fashion, ought to have a colored pictorial outlet.” To give the World class, we might say.
Goddard’s plan for the World’s color Sunday supplement was to make it in the image of the weekly humor magazines of cartoons and humorous verse then enjoying enthusiastic readership in New York and around the country—Puck, Judge, and Life.
Offering comical drawings and amusing short essays and droll verse, these magazines were dubbed “comic weeklies” in common parlance—or, even, “comics.” So when the World launched its imitation “comic weekly” as a supplement to its Sunday edition, it was lumped together in the popular mind as another of the “comics.” “Comics” denoted the vehicle not the artform.
With the comic weeklies having prepared a readership, the World’s color comic supplement was popular at once. And then, with the World showing the way, papers in other cities began publishing humorous Sunday supplements full of funny drawings in color and risible essays and diverting verse. In a relatively short time, obeying the dictates of demand, newspapers eliminated the essays and doggerel and concentrated on comical artwork, which was increasingly presented in the form of “strips” of pictures portraying hilarities in narrative sequence. It was but a short step to the use of comics to designate the artform (cartoons and comic strips) as distinct from the vehicle in which they appeared (the Sunday supplement itself). Once that bridge was crossed, meaning deteriorated pretty rapidly.
Storytelling (or “continuity”) strips arrived in the 1920s, and even when, in the 1930s, the stories they told were serious, they were called “comics” because they looked like the artform called comics and they appeared in newspapers with all the others of that ilk. Finally, when comic strips began to be reprinted in magazine form in the 1930s, the now-generic term was applied to those magazines, too; in the new format, comic books quickly emerged from comics (although the latter persisted as an alternative name for the former).
And that’s how an incongruous name for the media of cartoon art came about.
At first, Goddard was forced to reprint cartoons from the comic weeklies because many of the most desirable cartoonists were under contract with the magazines and obliged to give them first refusal rights.
At the time, McCardell was on the staff of one of them, Puck, and Goddard, in quest of work that would be original with the World, approached him, asking if he knew any artists who could do comic work who were not contracted to any of the weeklies. McCardell directed Goddard to Outcault at the Electrical World, who, by reason of his freelance comic contributions to Truth, might be amendable to a more permanent position as staff cartoonist at the World rather than as a draftsman at the technical journals.
Following McCardell’s advice, Goddard contacted Outcault. If he didn’t hire him immediately, he did soon after the first couple of Outcault efforts, which proved he could produce humorous art with the best of them.
Outcault did his first original work for the World with a full-page, six-panel comic strip about “Uncle Eben’s Ignorance of the City,” published September 16, 1894. A month after this comic debut, Outcault produced another full-page comic strip. Published November 18, its title, had it been published a few weeks earlier, could have been prophetic.
The comedy in the strip arose from the antics of a clown and his dog and an anaconda; when the dog is devoured by the giant snake, the clown cuts open the serpent’s belly to permit the dog’s legs to emerge and then leads the creature off. The page was entitled “The Origin of a New Species.”
Had Outcault’s cartoon been the first of its kind, it would, indeed, have been the origin of a new species, namely the comic strip. Newspaper comics had been cropping up for several years. Mostly, they were single-panel cartoons, but in the early 1890s, comic strips occasionally appeared—as they had in humor magazines intermittently for years. The first comic strip to be published in a newspaper was, to the best of my knowledge, published on October 1, 1893, a year before Outcault’s “Origin of the Species.” I’ve never seen the strip, but those who have say it was “a non-political narrative sequence of comic pictures” by Tom E. Powers. It appeared in the Inter Ocean.
In the World, the first comic strip in color was published in the January 28, 1984 edition of the Sunday supplement; it was by Mark Fenderson, and a scan of it appears near here. Both of these firsts precede both of Outcault’s.
For the next 13 months, Outcault produced cartoons for weekly publication in the Sunday supplement. He exploited two subjects, both well-trod ground in the cartoons of the day, both familiar to him from the work he’d done for Truth. According to Richard D. Olson, an Outcault scholar, in his online essay “R.F. Outcault, the Father of the American Sunday Comics, and the Truth about the Creation of the Yellow Kid,” Outcault focused on African-Americans living in the imaginary town of Possumville or Irish children living in New York City tenements in which, it is estimated, half the city’s population lived. I haven’t seen any of the Possumville cartoons, but Outcault’s street kid comics are plentiful.
Tenements of the day were three- or four-story buildings with 4-6 apartments on each floor. The apartments each had two or three small rooms, one outfitted with kitchen facilities. Most had at least one window. Toilets were outhouses in the backyards of the buildings. Baths were taken in a tub in the kitchen. Because electricity didn’t invade the premises until well into the 20th century, illumination was achieved by candle. Except in the hallways and stairwells. Those were not lighted at all. And since the building’s only windows were in the apartments, the hallways were dark. Pitch black dark. It’s no wonder—with the crowded rooms and the darkness of the halls— kids played in the streets and alleyways.
Residents of the tenement sections of town were mostly immigrants only lately arrived in the country. And because ethnic and racial minorities looked different, they seemed inherently “funny”: after all, they “looked funny.” And cartoonists, depending partially upon visual comedy, deployed stereotypical images for laughs. They also mined the uninformed and uneducated lives of the same immigrants for the same purpose. Cartoons about tenement kids—slum kids—were often to be found in the weekly humor magazines.
One cartoonist, Michael Angelo Woolf, specialized in cartoons about slum kids. He started getting cartoons published in Life in the mid- to late-1880s; by the next decade, his kid cartoons were being published everywhere, Bill Blackbeard tells us in his R.F. Outcault’s the Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of th Kid Who Started the Comics. Unlike the work of many of his inky-fingered colleagues, Woolf’s cartoons “sensitively depicted their subjects as individuals, whatever their race or ethnicity.” His “sympathies were with the poor, and race was incidental.” But “his gentler images did not supplant the naive brutality of most cartoons on immigrant themes.”
Because his work was so popular, imitators sprang up immediately. Cartoons about slum kids proliferated, and by the time Outcault was in New York at the Electrical World, looking for subjects to cartoon for the comic weeklies, he found Woolf as a model. Several of his cartoons for Truth depicted tenement kids, and in one of them, published June 2, 1894, he drew a little bald kid, who showed up several times thereafter, always wearing a gown-like garment that was probably his nightshirt.
Blackbeard explains: “Baldheaded kids were not uncommon in the Manhattan slums of that decade: shaving a child’s head was the fastest and cheapest way to get rid of head lice. For economy’s sake, young children often were sent into the streets to play in cut-down nightshirts or older sisters’ dresses. The combination of dress and shaved head apparently amused Outcault.”
By the fall of 1894, Outcault was cartooning for Goddard’s Sunday supplement, as we’ve seen. In early 1895 on January 13, Goddard printed one of Outcault’s baldheaded street urchin cartoons in black-and-white. On February 17, Goddard picked another of the Outcault bald kid cartoons, this time reprinting it from Truth’s black-and-white issue the preceding week, February 9. Then on May 5, Goddard used two Outcault slum kid cartoons—one in color.
Outcault had evidently been thinking about his tenement locale, refining the notion. Taking inspiration from a popular song (“Down in Hogan’s Alley” was the opening line of “Maggie Murphy’s Home,” a musical number in Edward Harrigan’s play, “O’Reilly and the Four Hundred”), Outcault titled his May 5 color cartoon “At the Circus in Hogan’s Alley.” And soon thereafter, his weekly cartoon series, continuing in color, was called Hogan’s Alley, and in it, Outcault burlesqued city life by focusing on its cluttered and squalid slums, which he infested with a manic crowd of assorted raggedy urchins, juvenile toughs, and enough stray dogs and cats to start a pound.
Every week, in the midst of these nondescript ragamuffins, one stood out: he had a head as round and naked as a billiard ball, surmounted on either side by giant ears, and his only raiment was a long, dirty nightshirt on which Outcault would later letter some impertinent comment about the mayhem at hand.
The kid, whose name, it developed, was Mickey Dugan (which Outcault sometimes spelled “Micky”), started appearing more and more often in the Sunday supplement. He was in view twice more in May 1895; once in July and again in September; thrice in November and twice in December. In 1896, Hogan’s Alley and the bald kid were published two or three times a month until June, when they appeared every week—which they did the rest of the year until October, when Outcault jumped ship to Hearst’s Journal.
It was the kid’s first appearance in 1896 that sealed his fate. For the first time, in that cartoon for January 5, his nightshirt was yellow. And it was yellow again thereafter. Coloring the shirt yellow as undoubtedly the most brilliant if unheralded strategic maneuver in New York newspapering in months. The nightshirt’s bright, golden, gleaming gorgeous yellow stood out in the drawing, which was otherwise colored in the somber hues of the tenement’s cluttered alleyways. The glaring color attracted readers’ eyes, drawing attention to the bald kid. He was, without question, the Yellow Kid, distinguished from the mob by the color of his garb. And that, in turn, made him the star of the show, the one kid who stood out and was therefore someone readers could look forward to seeing, week after week.
For weeks at first, the yellow nightshirt was smudged with a single handprint (where the Kid no doubt wiped his hand once, leaving a mark that lasted for weeks). But then, in May 1896, the handprint was displaced by—words. Soon thereafter, the Yellow Kid was talking to his readers, his saucy speeches imprinted on his nightshirt.
By reason of his nightshirt, the Yellow Kid quickly became a star attraction of Hogan’s Alley and of the Sunday World. Who could miss that garish yellow shirt in the midst of the otherwise earth-toned alley? No matter what the disturbance in Hogan’s Alley, its comedy rift with hearty vulgarity, violence and casual cruelty, the Yellow Kid was there, his vaguely Oriental visage baring its two teeth at the reader in a grin at the same time vacuous and knowing—the leering capstone above whatever irreverent commentary was emblazoned on the signal flare of his yellow billboard shirtfront. People bought the Sunday World to find out what mischief the Yellow Kid was up to this week, thereby demonstrating and establishing the commercial value of comics to newspapers by boosting circulation, which, in turn, assured the subsequent maturation of the comic strip form.
Despite undeniable popularity of the Yellow Kid, Hogan’s Alley never appeared on the cover of the World’s comics supplement; most of the time, it was on the back cover, the other full-color page in the publication. At first, the feature appeared mostly at a half-page size, but it ran full page on its twentieth appearance on May 24, 1896, a dimension it repeated for most of the rest of its run in the World.
So popular was the Yellow Kid that he became the first merchandized comic strip character, appearing on cracker tins, cigarette packs, ladies’ fans, buttons, and a host of other artifacts of the age. Whether Outcault got any money from this ancillary activity is a matter of conjecture. Some say he reaped a fortune; others, myself included, doubt that he enjoyed anything like a windfall income. I say he lost out because he didn’t own the Kid and had no right to merchandising revenue.
Outcault had tried to copyright the Yellow Kid: he submitted an application to the Librarian of Congress on September 7, 1896. (In his compendious Yellow Kid volume, editor and comics historian Blackbeard prints the application, which includes a drawing of the Kid.) But it’s not clear that his request was ever granted. He submitted two additional applications, which indicates that at least the first two applications hadn’t produced the desired result. Brian Walker, in his encyclopedic The Comics, doubts that Outcault obtained legal ownership: “Records at the Library of Congress indicate that his request was never officially granted due to an irregularity in the application process. Consequently, he was never able to prevent widespread exploitation of his character by other artists and manufacturers of Yellow Kid products.”
Mark D. Winchester investigated the matter extensively and reported the results in “Litigation and Early Comic Strips: the Lawsuits of Outcault, Dirks, and Fisher” published in the Ohio State University journal, Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, May 1995. Winchester searched indices, including Lexis and Westlaw databases, for plaintiffs or defendants in cases involving Outcault, Hearst or Pulitzer. He found cases involving those people but none of them were about copyright or ownership of the Yellow Kid. Winchester concludes that no such lawsuit ever existed—despite numerous allegations by comics historians, who, Winchester says, are usually referring to previous assertions, none of which are supported by documentation. In short, the legendary landmark lawsuit that presumably resulted when Outcault took the Yellow Kid to a rival newspaper, Hearst’s, is just that—legendary, a myth.
But even if Outcault didn’t own the Yellow Kid, he still might have enjoyed some income from the merchandising of the character.
Winchester points out that copyright law, as interpreted at the time, “protected specific drawings but did not protect an artist/creator from the use by someone else of established characters. … At the turn of the century, a cartoonist was viewed as performing work for hire, selling services and a product to a larger corporate entity and being duly compensated by the corporation. Cartoon art was not distinguished from other forms of illustration and was subject [only] to the protections offered for drawings and photographs that appeared in newspapers.”
In other words, a newspaper owned the drawings/photographs it published. The World, then, owned the Yellow Kid images that were printed in the paper. But only those images.
As we shall soon see, when Outcault joined Hearst’s New York Journal and took the Yellow Kid with him, another artist continued to produce the Kid at the World, and in the ensuing circulation battles, each of the two newspapers used representations of the Kid to seduce people into buying their paper in order to follow the Yellow Kid’s adventures therein. This, presumably, precipitated the lawsuit of legend and myth. Despite claims by comics historians that the suit resulted in a landmark decision, no such decision has ever surfaced with respect to the Yellow Kid.
In today’s litigious American society, Winchester notes, “it seems unthinkable that either [newspaper] would let the other freely use the character of the Yellow Kid without the threat of legal action.” But he was unable to find any cases involving the Yellow Kid.
There may have been a threat of legal action that resulted in an out-of-court settlement, but Winchester couldn’t find anything about that either. Or maybe the case was settled in a lower court that didn’t publish its opinions.
Common practice in those days probably precluded the need for legal action. The World held propriety rights to the specific cartoons it published because every day’s newspapers were registered and copyrighted. The likeness of a cartoon character, however, was not, strictly speaking, protected by this sort of copyrighting. (And since it was the likeness of the Yellow Kid that Outcault sought to copyright with his three applications, no wonder his requests weren’t successful.) Consequently, Outcault or any other artist could draw the Yellow Kid for another publication as long as he didn’t copy the printed (published) copyrighted picture line-for-line.
The owner of a copyright—in the Yellow Kid’s case, Pulitzer’s New York World— could license the subsidiary rights for the purpose of commercial exploitation. Persons who wanted to develop ancillary products would apply to the copyright owner—the World. And we may assume that the World would grant such application in exchange for a share in the revenue. And the World might share that revenue with Outcault. So the cartoonist might have enjoyed some increase in income due to the merchandising of the Yellow Kid. But his share probably wasn’t enough to make him a wealthy man. Although it might have. We simply don’t know.
As for the “landmark decision” that everyone assumes came about because of the Yellow Kid, something close to it came about with Outcault’s Buster Brown, which we’ll look at when we get to that part of the cartoonist’s career.
In any event, the successful merchandising and licensing of the Yellow Kid established the importance of comics in a capitalistic society, which is one of the reasons the Yellow Kid serves as a benchmark in the history of comics.
William Randolph Hearst, California newspaper mogul behind the success of the San Francisco Examiner, arrived in New York in mid-1895—but without his middle name. He was known as William (or Will) Hearst until he ran for Congress in 1902, when he began using his middle name in order, doubtless, to project a dignity he associated with national political office. When he won election, the name stuck forever.
Hearst had just bought the Morning Journal, an underdeveloped newspaper that had been founded in 1882 by Pulitzer’s brother Albert, who had sold it in 1894. In the ensuing year, the Journal’s circulation had dropped from 135,000 to 30,000 and its reputation (as a “spicy sheet” called the “chambermaids’ delight”) was the worst in New York, saith Ben Procter in his Hearst biography, William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863-1910. To Hearst, who had coined the expression “The impossible is only a little more difficult than the possible,” the sad little paper was a perfect candidate for purchase: it’s price was low and it had more room for improvement than another other New York paper.
An admirer of Pulitzer’s World (which he’d tried successfully to emulate at the Examiner), Hearst immediately set about doing what he’d done in California to make his paper there the lively enterprise that it was. Hearst almost never developed talent: his preferred method was to discern talent at other publications and then hire it away. In New York, he set up a bureau for the Examiner, audaciously taking the eleventh floor of the World building for offices. And then he started reconnoitering the journalistic landscape for likely prospects.
He learned that the Sunday World’s circulation had increased from 266,000 in 1893 to 450,000 by the end of 1895. Supposing, correctly, that Goddard’s color Sunday supplement was chiefly responsible for the growth, Hearst started shopping for a color press. Even before the press was installed, he approached Goddard and offered him the job at a substantial salary increase to produce a similar Sunday enterprise at the Journal.
In his Hearst: An American Phenomenon, John Winkler rehearses a likely conversation, which began with Goddard expressing some doubt: “I don’t want to change a certainty for an uncertainty,” he supposedly told Hearst, “—frankly, I doubt if you will last three months in this town.”
In rebuttal, Hearst, “smiling faintly,” reached into his vest pocket, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, and tossed it across the table to Goddard; it was a Wells Fargo & Company draft for $35,000.
“Take all or any part of that,” Hearst said. “That ought to convince you I intend to remain in New York quite some time,”
Goddard was persuaded but protested that his staff was what made the World’s supplement so successful; so Hearst hired Goddard’s entire Sunday staff. Including Outcault. And the crowd-pleasing Yellow Kid, especially the Yellow Kid.
Learning of Goddard’s impending defection, Pulitzer lured him back with a counter offer, but Hearst opened his checkbook again and outbid him.
The wholesale theft of his Sunday staff enraged Pulitzer, and he declared “all-out war” against the Journal, Procter says. “Upon learning that renegotiations with Goddard had taken place in the offices of the San Francisco Examiner on the eleventh floor of his own building, Pulitzer cancelled the lease and ordered an immediate evacuation of the premises, stating that ‘I won’t have my building used for purposes of seduction.’”
Outcault, however, didn’t leave the World right away: he had to wait until Hearst had his color press operational so his jaundiced juvenile could be deployed on Hearst’s behalf. In the meantime, Outcault probably wrote that application for copyright on the Yellow Kid, anticipating that, in his new situation, he might need to own his creation. That, as we’ve seen, went nowhere.
But this setback did not much diminish the cartoonist’s delight at his new opportunity. Just before his first cartoon was published in The American Humorist, Outcault wrote to a fan:
“I have signed a contract with the biggest paper in the U.S., and that’s the New York Journal. We are going to have the most magnificent colored supplement that ever happened, and as I am receiving more than twice as much money, I will make my pictures more than twice as good.”
Meanwhile, Hearst began touting his Sunday supplement, which was entitled The American Humorist. To create the impression that his color supplement would be greater than the World’s, Hearst famously described it as “eight pages of polychromatic effulgence that make the rainbow look like a lead pipe.”
By October 1896, the new color press would be ready. Outcault was ready to move, and Pulitzer had hired George Luks to continue an ersatz Hogan’s Alley. Luks did his first Yellow Kid for the October 11 supplement, and the next week, October 18, Outcault debuted at The American Humorist. On the day before, Hearst made a formal announcement (formal but loud): “The Yellow Kid—Tomorrow, Tomorrow!”
Because Pulitzer’s World could claim the copyrighted Hogan’s Alley title, at the Hearst paper, Outcault’s feature was called McFadden’s Row of Flats. Hearst, perhaps not quite as confident of the Yellow Kid’s appeal as he seemed, hired Edward W. Townsend, author of treacly books about slum children (the most popular, Chimmie Fadden), to accompany Outcault’s cartoon with stories in prose. Hearst clearly assumed that Townsend’s tales and Outcault’s Yellow Kid would be an unbeatable combination. Probably so. But the Townsend’s texts were stand-alone stories betraying no connection with whatever the Yellow Kid and his cohorts were up to on the rest of the page.
In contrast to the almost negligent treatment Hogan’s Alley received at the World, at the Journal, McFadden’s Flats was almost always allotted a full page in The American Humorist although it appeared on the cover only twice. There is, however, another testimony to the Yellow Kid’s popularity.
Hearst had competed with the World for newsstand sales from the very beginning, when he dropped the price of the Journal to a penny, undercutting the World by a cent. Circulation competition for both papers splashed the Yellow Kid (both Outcault’s and Luks’) and his vacant grin on posters at newsstands and on the sides of the papers’ delivery wagons. The hapless waif became the most conspicuous combatant in the battle for readers and newspaper buyers. McCardell says that those watching the warfare from the sidelines took to calling the two papers “the Yellow Kid journals” or “the yellow journals.” And the kind of sensation-mongering journalism the warring papers practiced was, by association, dubbed “yellow journalism.”
A mild, low-key objection to the delivery-truck-poster origin of the term “yellow journalism” rages. For some observers, the link is too tenuous.
To resolve the issue, Mark Winchester, on the case again, looked in magazines and newspapers mid- to late-1890s for possible overt connections and reported the results in November 1995 in Inks (Volume 2, Number 3). He was unable to find a definite link between Outcault’s character and the pejorative term, but by the time the United States was on the eve of the Spanish American War in the spring of 1898, the term was in wide use and the connection to the Yellow Kid seemed to be accepted by most people.
“By early 1897,” Winchester writes, “‘yellow journalism’ was coined as a descriptive phrase to characterize New York’s sensational newspapers [chiefly the World and the Journal], but it was not the phrase of choice nor was it differentiated from several other expressions in use at the time.” Among the other terms, “new journalism” and “freak journalism.”
In the summer of 1897, in an editorial, the New York Times talked about “our yellow friends,” “our esteemed friends of the yellow variety,” “our yellow contemporaries,” “yellow newspaper,” “yellow journalist,” and “yellow journals.”
“But the term did not see widespread usage,” Winchester says, “until the World and the Journal began publishing sensational reactions to the February 15, 1898 sinking of the battleship USS Maine” in Havana’s harbor. In the ensuing weeks, the yellow journals strenuously urged the U.S. to go to war with Spain over the incident, deploying the most sensational and scandalous reportage to create a national furor. Ever since the Cuban insurrection began in March 1895, New York newspapers had vigorously protested the brutal repressive measures Spain employed to put down the rebels (the Journal deliberately enhancing actual facts with lurid reports of fictional atrocities). And the sinking of the Maine brought yellow journalism’s protest to a fever pitch.
Both before and after Congress resolved in mid-April to authorize intervention in Cuba, newspapers other than the two yellow journals published editorial cartoons about the situation, using the Yellow Kid, who quickly “became an icon of yellow journalism,” Winchester says—cementing the link between Outcault’s character and yellow journalism. The connection made in the cartoons between the Kid and sensational journalistic practices would not have had the intended rhetorical impact had the reading public not already connected the two during the months of the circulation battles between the World and the Journal that began in the fall of 1896.
“It appears that McCardell’s synopsis may be the basis for most later references to this link,” Winchester writes. “The existing records indicate that yellow journalism was initially coined to describe the Yellow Kid controversy [i.e., the competition for readers] between Pulitzer and Hearst. This connection, while noteworthy in the late 1890s, has largely become a matter of folklore, with a variety of origins attributed for yellow journalism persisting to the present day. It is not surprising that the namesake of the phrase was forgotten in the enormity and power of the epithet, but this connection must not be lost since it provides a fuller understanding of the Pulitzer-Hearst struggles and an indication of the impact of Richard F. Outcault’s character.”
But Winchester’s argument is scarcely needed. The publication of editorial cartoons about the newspaper coverage of the Cuban situation effectively end any contention: they testify emphatically to the validity of McCardell’s synopsis.
At Hearst’s Journal in the fall of 1896, Outcault’s duties began expanding immediately. He started doing two Yellow Kid cartoons a week, one large, the other smaller (usually a half-page). The smaller cartoons typically carried the Yellow Kid’s name in a titular headline. The first of these appeared October 25, just a week after The American Humorist was launched. It featured no variation on the mob scene in the full page cartoon; instead, the Yellow Kid appeared by himself five times, each successive drawing adding narrative detail to his encounter with a phonograph. He and the phonograph converse, the Yellow Kid mostly on the front of his nightshirt; the phonograph through its speaker.
The cartoon was the first time the Yellow Kid had appeared in sequential drawings, and in his Yellow Kid book, Blackbeard, noting the interdependence of words and pictures, proclaims the cartoon “nothing less than the first definitive comic strip in history.” I agree that it is a comic strip: after all, it fits my definition exactly. For me, comics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa.
Whether the Yellow Kid’s phonograph comic strip is “the first” in history though, I dunno. Comic strips had appeared in numerous other places before this specimen, but most of those had been either pantomime pictorial sequences or had text captions underneath the pictures. Somewhere there is surely a earlier pictorial sequence with words lettered within the picture or in speech balloons. Some as yet undiscovered where. Still, until that where is here, visible among us, we must appreciate Blackbeard’s reputation as a scholar of the medium and must therefore grant him his claim. And we must then add to Outcault’s achievements in comics the production of the first “definitive” comic strip.
Most of the subsequent small Yellow Kid cartoons were also strips, the first having established the pattern.
In November 1896, Outcault’s duties expanded again. Starting on the 14th (and continuing until May 7, 1897), he contributed a column with Yellow Kid illustrations to the paper’s editorial page. Posing as pages from the Yellow Kid’s diary, the feature appeared often but irregularly, commenting on current cultural or seasonal activities. On January 20, 1897, the diary records the Yellow Kid’s visit to Britain’s Queen Victoria. It was the beginning of the Kid’s fabled 4-month tour of Europe.
Hearst sent Outcault and The American Humorist editor, Rudolph Block, on a junket around Europe, hoping the travelogue would boost readership of the paper among the somewhat higher echelons of the New York social classes. Competing with the World, the Journal had courted immigrant readers; now, Hearst was looking for an audience a few rungs up the social ladder.
For the next four months (concluding May 30), Around the World with the Yellow Kid displaced McFadden’s Row of Flats as the title of Outcault’s feature, the cartoonist drawing his weekly cartoons and composing diary entrees while on the road and sending them to New York by ship. Townsend’s text was replaced with reports by Block about the sights and doings in the European countries they visited, all written in the slum street lingo spoken by the Yellow Kid and his friends in the cartoon.
After a couple installments through February 14 (none alluding to the European trip), the secondary, half-page Yellow Kid disappeared.
The Yellow Kid returned to the U.S. on May 30,1897. And then, he vanished from the paper for four months until returning to its pages again on September 25. No explanation has been discovered for either his disappearance or his return. He just came back. (Oddly, Luks’ Yellow Kid disappeared for most of August and September, returning to the World’s pages the week after Outcault’s Kid returned to the Journal. Who knows what to make of this coincidence. A conspiracy between cartoonists for higher pay? A joint fishing expedition?)
Upon returning at the end of September to The American Humorist, the Yellow Kid cartoon is never again entitled McFadden’s Flats and the accompanying text is abandoned as is the full-page format. Henceforth, until Richard Olson’s last recorded appearance of this Yellow Kid sequence on January 23, 1898, the title of the half-page cartoon varied, sometimes deploying “Yellow Kid” in a headline; sometimes (beginning November 7, 1897), Ryan’s Arcade. Luks’ Yellow Kid in the World ended a few months before Outcault’s, on December 5. Clearly, the popularity of the Yellow Kid was fading as 1897 came to a close.
As demands grew more incessant for the U.S. to intervene on behalf of oppressed Cubans against the occupying Spanish military, the Yellow Kid’s popularity went into steady decline. Reader interest had been diverted to Cuba. But Outcault had found another job.
Hearst had expanded into the evening newspaper market in 1896, launching the Evening Journal on September 28. It was part of the growing Hearst empire and had an editorial staff completely separate from the morning Journal. Soon after starting the new paper, Hearst introduced in it a daily page of comics—single and multiple-panel cartons, columns of jokes and short humorous pieces. In early 1898 as the Yellow Kid was slowly taking his last bows, Hearst invited Outcault to be editor of the page. Outcault accepted, and in addition to locating cartoonists and humor writers and selecting which of their works to publish, he contributed many cartoons of his own. Some of his cartoons were set in tenement neighborhoods but the Yellow Kid was never there. But animals were—and African-Americans.
Strange as it seems to today’s students of journalism history, Outcault was doing cartoons for the New York World while editing the daily comics page at the Evening Journal. Apparently, Blackbeard speculates, “the end of Luks’ competing Yellow Kid left Outcault free to work for both papers without objections from either publisher.”
For the World, he created Casey’s Corner, a series in which African-Americans were the residents. The first of the series was published February 13, 1898, and it featured “the New Bully,” a portly but fierce-looking black man. During the ensuing weeks, the New Bully “whipped the Casey Corner gang into military readiness as forcibly enlisted members of the Huckleberry Volunteers,” Blackbeard writes, “a group allegedly eager and ready to fight for the Cuban rebels against the Spanish troops. These cartoons satirized the real civilian volunteer groups then preparing for the coming conflict.” (Teddy Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders reported for training in San Antonio, Texas, in early May, but the group was made up of volunteer units that had been assembling since the Maine exploded.)
Beginning April 8,1898, Outcault moved this ragtag bunch from their birthplace at the World to the Evening Journal; Hearst, it seems, had no objection to this maneuver as long as no World-owned titles (Casey’s Corner, “New Bully”) made the move.
For the next two weeks, Huckleberry Volunteers ran conspicuously at the top of the comics page in Hearst’s paper and pioneered yet another comics format. Each daily appearance consisted of a single panel, usually about as crowded a scene as the old Hogan’s Alley, accompanied beneath by verses from a staff writer, Paul West, whose rhymes added little to the meaning of the pictures. Each panel was a link in a continuing story, the next day’s panel taking up where the preceding day’s panel had left off. To Blackbeard, the cartoonist was again pioneering in comics history: “Outcault drew the first daily, narrative, sequentially linked comic strip [panels] in history.” The first “continuity” comic strip.
The series lasted only 11 days, ending April 22, the day after President William McKinley ordered a blockade of Cuba. Congress declared war on April 25, but before that, Outcault, like many others, had seen the storm clouds gathering. Before his Huckleberry satire had run many days, he’d probably decided to abandon the mockery once real battlefield hostilities seemed likely to endanger real lives. But on April 16, he brought the Yellow Kid out of retirement to take command of the Volunteers once they land in Cuba. In Outcault’s final comment on the war, May 4, the Yellow Kid is standing by himself, no surroundings or companions, his shirt proclaiming, joyously, “Say, we can all have kassels in Spain soon.” He correctly anticipated a short war: it was officially over August 12, 1898.
By the next year, Outcault, presumably still editor of the Evening Journal’s comics page, was freelancing cartoons to several other newspapers. He sold two short-lived features to the Philadelphia Inquirer—The Country School and The Barnyard Club. And for the New York Herald, he created another short-lived comic, Buddy Tucker, a hotel bellhop, and a longer-running series, Pore Lil Mose.
The first black title character in comics, observed Don Markstein in his online Toonopedia, the 7-year-old Mose was “a pure stereotype, with big, white eyes and big white teeth grinning out of his dark, fuzzy-topped face, from which a constant stream of grammatical solecisms flowed.” Despite the stereotypical portrayal, Mose was as often a prankster as he was put-upon, but he invariably proved himself courageous and resourceful if still a child. Then on May 4, 1902, Outcault started another cartoon feature in the Herald that would bring him fame and fortune greater than had been generated by the renowned Yellow Kid. Mose ended three months later.
The title character in Outcault’s new Buster Brown was a Little Lord Fauntleroy incarnation with shoulder-length curly hair and knee pants, a city kid but not a slum waif. The 12-year-old scion of a well-to-do family, residing, Blackbeard tells us, in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, Buster appeared in a full-page comic strip of 10-12 panels.
Although not as vulgar and violent as the Kid, Buster, a single child, was nontheless an incorrigible scamp. Every weekly installment involved him in some juvenile mischief and ended with his heartfelt resolution to reform, a moral aspect of the feature that appealed to readers who were parents, some of whom had been muttering darkly about the various misbehaviors being modeled for their children in the Sunday funnies—the Katzenjammer Kids in particular: their tricks on the Captain and the Inspector often looked more like physical assaults than boyish pranks.
Apart from his fashion-plate mother (in whom many saw Outcault’s wife, Mary Jane), Buster had only two friends: Mary Jane, his well-behaved sweetheart, and Tige, an American pit-bull terrier with a Cheshire cat grin who frequently winks conspiratorially at the reader. He also talks, usually to us but sometimes to Buster; adults in the strip, however, can’t hear him. Tige is said, by Don Markstein at least, to be the first talking pet in American comics. And he is undoubtedly one of the chief reasons for Buster Brown’s popularity.
Due as much to his moral posing as to his shenanigans, Buster became a national fad, and Outcault licensed his name to promote a vast array of products—everything from musical instruments to raisins, from cigars to sheet music, and clothing, stockings, garters, belts and sweaters. And shoes. In 1904, Outcault went to the St. Louis World’s Fair and sold licenses to some 200 companies to use Buster Brown to advertise their products.
One of those firms was the Brown Shoe Company, which had seemingly purchased rights to the name before the Fair because the brand was introduced to the public there. Henceforth, children’s shoes bearing the character’s name were called Buster Browns. Inside the shoes, authenticating the brand, was a picture of Buster and Tige. (Radio commercials in the late 1940s began with a dog’s barks, followed by a boy’s voice, saying: “That’s my dog Tige. He lives in a shoe. I’m Buster Brown and I live in there, too.”) For girls’ footwear, the Brown Company licensed Buster’s girlfriend’s name, and the shoes are called Mary Janes. (Whatever happened to Buster Browns? Mostly, you and I outgrew the shoes and didn’t notice anymore, but the brand is still going strong.)
Despite all this licensing, Outcault didn’t own the copyright to Buster Brown. And this wasn’t the first time he’d sold licenses that he didn’t own: on February 4, 1898 (just two days before the last Yellow Kid in the New York Journal), he and someone named Connor (no first name has ever surfaced) assigned the (nonexistent) copyright for McFadden’s Flats and the Yellow Kid to McLaughlin Brothers (for what purpose, the Copyright Division of the Library of Congress has no record, Winchester tells us).
Outcault may not have owned the copyright to Buster Brown, but his experience in circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer had apparently convinced him that ownership was mostly mind over matter rather than legal documents. Although no evidence of any legal resolution exists to the presumed struggle over ownership, Outcault and Hearst had cautiously changed the name of the feature from Hogan’s Alley to McFadden’s Row of Flats in deference, no doubt, to some unwritten custom of the time. That custom would finally get formal legal standing in Outcault’s next courtroom bout over ownership.
Outcault ended Buster Brown in the Herald on December 31, 1905, and two weeks later, launched it again at the Hearst works in the Journal, which was now called American, a name change the explanation of which affords us the opportunity for a fascinating diversion, wandering down one of history’s dimmer back alleys.
Hearst had been highly critical of President McKinley, attacking him throughout his first term and continuing into his second, which began in March 1901. (Through 1933, the inauguration took place on March 4; in 1937, it was on January 20 by Constitutional amendment, the 20th.) In an editorial published only days after McKinley’s second inauguration, Hearst’s stalwart editor at the Evening Journal, Arthur Brisbane, had discussed the dubious beneficial consequences of past political assassinations, saying: “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”
Six months later, McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American with an anarchist bent; McKinley died eight days later on September 14, 1901.
Yellow journalism’s critics, who were legion, quickly concluded that Hearst’s New York papers were complicit in the crime, says David Nasaw in his biogaphy of Hearst, The Chief. Those papers had poisoned the mind of the assassin (ignoring the fact that Czolgosz couldn’t read English), making Hearst an accessory to the crime. His newspapers had “saturated political journalism with bile and violence,” creating “a climate that inflamed the assassin’s mind,” resulting in the killing of the President of the United States. Hearst was thereby accused of committing not only murder but treason.
“For perhaps the first time in his life,” Nasaw continues, “Hearst was forced onto the defensive. As a rather blatant attempt to establish his patriotic bona fides, he changed the name of his New York morning paper to the American and Journal, later dropping the Journal entirely from the title.”
So the Hearst paper to which Outcault brought Buster Brown was the American. But the New York Herald continued publishing the strip, hiring other artists to continue it, and Outcault sued the Herald to get them to stop the imitation Buster Brown. This time, court records exist. And Mark Winchester found them.
In Inks (Volume 2, No. 2, May 1995), Winchester reports: “The New York Herald Company, in turn, sued the Star Company (the parent publishing company of the New York American) for the trademark of the Buster Brown title and the right to continue the feature employing any artist of their choice.”
The decision—and this is the “landmark decision” that so many comics historians allege came out of a court battle between Pulitzer and Hearst over the Yellow Kid—was a judgement worthy of Solomon. Because the Herald copyrighted every issue of the paper, it owned the title Buster Brown as well as the individual pictures as published in the copyrighted paper. “But the characters in general (including elements of likeness, costume and demeanor) were not tangible enough to merit copyright nor trademark. Outcault and the Star Company were free to use the character of Buster Brown but not the name or the title.”
Henceforth, in his strip for the American, Outcault never used “Buster Brown” in the feature’s title. He used a picture of Buster instead of his name. For instance, in the title “Strange Things Do Happen To,” Buster’s face appears at the end of the sentence.
This case, Winchester goes on, “further decreases the likelihood of the Yellow Kid case. Because Outcault was the creator of both the Yellow Kid and Buster Brown, it seems inconceivable that any legal action initiated on behalf of the former would not have been applied to the latter case. There were no references [in the Buster Brown action] to a prior case involving the Y ellow Kid, and Outcault did not claim rights awarded in an earlier case.” He cited no precedent. Therefore, “it seems extremely unlikely,” Winchester concludes, “that there was a Yellow Kid case.”
Moreover—to tie up another loose legal end—in his brief, Outcault, while contending that he held creative rights to his characters, admitted “he never copyrighted them and did not acquire any right to the title in connection with newspaper publication.” His right, he asserted, was to a “common-law title.”
Although the court refused to “entertain the idea of character (including likeness and temperament) as a significant element of cartoon art” (and therefore copyrightable), Winchester observes that “Outcault’s suit is notable as one of the first efforts for what is now termed ‘creator’s rights.’”
Outcast would continue producing an untitled Buster Brown comic strip for at least another fifteen years—until 1921, according to Don Markstein in Toonopedia—although Outcault had well before then left the strip’s production mostly to assistants so he could concentrate on merchandising his creations, to which end, he founded an advertising agency that operated out of Chicago at 208 South Dearborn Street (to litter this account with yet another precise but happily irrelevant detail).
Even before establishing the ad agency, Outcault had more work on Buster Brown than satisfactorily drawing the strip. McCardell reported: “More than any other comic-supplement character, Buster had made a hit. A lawyer and two secretaries are said to be employed constantly by Mr. Outcault to keep track of the ‘business end’ of Buster Brown [merchandising]; there is even a successful Buster Brown play. And in Buster’s every effort, Mr. Outcault profits. He lives in Flushing, Long Island, and has an income of some seventy-five thousand dollars a year—for which he has to work, remember.”
The cartoonist would continue suing to protect his creation. Says Winchester: “The Outcault Advertising Company was successful in prosecuting [more than 30 lawsuits] involving companies’ infringements on Outcault’s copyrighted artwork”—the infringements consisting, I assume, of copying representations of Buster Brown in the newspaper that was copyrighted. In short, Outcault behaved as if he owned Buster Brown even though he legally had only the right to draw the character.
And he wasn’t finished with the Yellow Kid either. The Kid shows up in Buster Brown strips twice in 1907 and twice again in 1910. Announcing his first appearance on July 7, 1907, the strip is headlined “The Yellow Kid, He Meets Mary Jane and Tige and [picture of Buster].” It’s “virtually a scenic tour of the Kid’s old neighborhoods,” says Blackbeard in his Yellow Kid tome. And it ends with Buster falling out of bed like Winsor McCay’s Nemo, implying that the events transpiring up to then have all been a dream.
Clearly, the Yellow Kid occupied a fond niche in Outcault’s memory. In a 1902 interview conducted when the Kid’s newspaper home had been abandoned for at least four years, Outcault talked affectionately about the character:
“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.”
In about 1914, Outcault proposed starting the Buster Brown League, an organization for boys as yet too young to join the recently founded (1910) Boy Scouts of America; but the proposal came to nothing. Outcault devoted the last decade of his life to painting, retiring entirely from the newspaper comic strip field, which he was so instrumental in creating. He died September 25, 1928, after an illness of about ten weeks, a New York Times obituary reported.
In the normal course of popular culture’s growing amnesia about various random aspects of history, as the Yellow Kid slipped from the pedestal he once occupied as the progenitor of comics, so did Outcault fade from prominence in the history of the medium. But after plowing through the preceding paragraphs, we can have little doubt (can we?) that Outcault belongs in the ranks of the great cartoonists.
Disputation about where the first newspaper comics appeared and who drew the first ones has fomented for years. Was it the New York World or, as it has lately be asserted, the Inter Ocean in Chicago that published the first Sunday color comics? Was Outcault the first with a regularly appearing comics feature? Or was it Charles Saalburg with The Ting Lings in the Inter Ocean? Wherever and whoever will eventually emerge undisputed with the accolades, the World seems both judicious and accurate in its editorial published in 1928 when Outcault died:
“To say that the late R.F. Outcault was the inventor of the comic supplement [a generous but erroneous attribution of early comics history] is of course to ignore the social factors that lead up to all inventions. … But it is due Morrill Goddard … to say that he saw in the early nineties that the time was ripe for ‘comic art,’ and it is due Mr. Outcault to say that his talent made the most of the opening” (quoted in A History of American Graphic Humor, Vol. 1: 1865-1938  by William Murrell).
Whether the evolution of the term “comics” followed precisely or only generally the lines I’ve sketched (the Oxford English Dictionary is not explicit in its etymology), it is certain that a confusing coinage has been in wide circulation for most of the history of the medium. And it is also certain that we call the artform “comics” rather than the less confusing “cartoon strips” or (for comic books) “paginated cartoon strips” because of Goddard’s inspired deployment of the World’s Sunday supplement as an imitation of weekly humor magazines.
And in making “the most” of the opening Goddard provided, Outcault’s Yellow Kid demonstrated the value of comics. The circulation battle in which two Yellow Kids competed for readership established irrefutably that comics were a popularly enjoyed feature of newspapers and contributed substantially to their financial well-being. And the merchandising of the Yellow Kid (and, later, Buster Brown) added another dimension to the commercial value of comics. In court cases later, Outcault was probably the first to run up the flag for creator’s rights. He may have also produced the first comic strip in which words and pictures blended for meaning in a narrative sequence of pictures. Whether his first in this regard directly inspired others to do the same thereby establishing the medium’s most distinctive aspect is open to debate. But he indisputably explored further the medium’s potential by linking from day to day separate comic strip panels to create a continuing weeks-long story.
Outcault may not be the father of American comics: success, as the wag saith, has many fathers, and the eventual emergence of the artform in all its manifestations clearly proclaims success. But it was the popularity of Outcault’s principle creations that made the rest possible, so Outcault’s comedic genius—his understanding of his audience as well as his artistic skills—seems as indisputable as his pioneering achievements.
Outcault was the medium’s first pioneer, and in that alone—quite apart from the quality of his cartooning— he deserves his ranking among the greats.
We’ll give McCardell, who knew Outcault, the last words, not as grandiose as the sentences just unveiled, but profound nonetheless–:
“Outcault served his apprenticeship to art in Paris and returned with the regular art-student’s outfit—a beret or soft cap and a velveteen painting jacket. To this day, in his hours of ease—when not drawing Buster Browns or royalties therefrom—he dons this cap and jacket and strums student songs on the banjo. He is preparing himself for the stage, or says he is; but is also fond of baseball and takes his children to the wild parts of Flushing and instructs them in the mysteries of ‘Three Old Cat,’ as he used to pay it in Ohio when he was a ‘Buster’ boy himself.”
The chief source of information about Outcault and the Yellow Kid is R.F. Outcault’s the Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of th Kid Who Started the Comics, edited and introduced by Bill Blackbeard (1995). Some details of Outcault’s life are rehearsed in the Dictionary of American Biography and in several of the standard histories of the comics, chiefly Ron Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present, and Brian Walker’s The Comics: The Complete Collection (2004); and in “The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown” by Gordon Campbell in Cartoonist Profiles, No.51 (September 1981). Outcault’s obituary appears in the New York Times, September 26, 1928.
In “Opper, Outcault, and Company: The Comic Supplement and the Men Who Made It,” Roy L. McCardell traces the history of the Sunday comic supplement and Outcault’s part in it in Everybody’s Magazine, June 1905, reprinted with my annotations in Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, Volume 2, No.2, May 1995. In the next issue of Inks (Vol. 2, No.3, November 1995), two articles deal in depth with aspects of the Yellow Kid’s history: in “Richard Felton Outcault’s Yellow Kid,” Richard D. Olson, who has made himself an expert on the Yellow Kid, provides a short biographical introduction followed by a list, publication by publication, issue by issue (all scrupulously dated) of the character’s appearances; and in “Hully Gee, It’s a War!!! The Yellow Kid and the Coining of ‘Yellow Journalism,’” Mark D. Winchester reports on his extensive search for a connection between the character and the pejorative term. In the aforementioned previous issue of Inks (May 1995), Winchester examines the “Litigation and Early Comic Strips: the Lawsuits of Outcault, Dirks, and Fisher,” determining that many of the references to alleged “landmark cases” are mythological. Richard Samuel West’s discussion of the launch of the Inter Ocean Illustrated Supplement is in his article, “Secret Origins of the Sunday Funnies” in Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip, 1895-1915, edited and published by Peter Maresca (2013). And Don Markstein’s online Toonopedia sheds some light on the history of Buster Brown and the shoes that bear his name. Finally, we have Richard D. Olson’s online essay “R.F. Outcault, the Father of the American Sunday Comics, and the Truth about the Creation of the Yellow Kid.”
Other general journalistic references include The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw (2000), William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863-1910 by Ben Procter (1998), Hearst: An American Phenomenon, John K. Winkler (1955), A History of American Graphic Humor, Vol. 1: 1865-1938 by William Murrell, and Life of Pulitzer by Denis Brian (2001).
The Yellow Kid gave his name to a magazine that published 15 issues in the late 1890s; original art for several covers is archived at the Bird Library of Syracuse University, but only one of the pictures was ever published as the magazine’s cover. Buster Brown inspired minor theatrical productions, an early short film, and several books reprinting the strip or based upon it: Buster, Mary Jane and Tige (1908), Buster Brown, the Busy Body (1909), Real Buster and the Only Mary Jane (1909), Buster Brown in Foreign Lands (1912), Buster Brown—the Fun Maker (1912), Buster Brown and His Pets (1913) and Buster Brown’s Resolutions and Buster Brown’s Pranks (both, n.d.).