With his jug ears, two buck teeth, beady blue eyes, and yellow nightdress, the Yellow Kid hardly looks like an icon for comic and commercial success, but that’s exactly what he became in late nineteenth-century America. Created by middle-class artist R.F. Outcault, who later went on to draw the even more successful Buster Brown comic strip, the series of images in which the Yellow Kid appeared presented a turn-of-the-century theater of the city, in which class and racial tensions of the new urban, consumerist environment were acted out by a mischievous group of New York City kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Outcault managed to mock all classes in his comic, offering a safe environment to laugh at American foibles, while still excluding African-Americans from the joke. Americans embraced the Yellow Kid during a time when commerce became central to the American way; the comic grew popular on the pages of two of the leading newspapers, and even influenced another “clean” newspaper editor to name the papers’ explicit reporting of New York City urban life “yellow-kid journalism,” further demonstrating upper-class anxiety over the vulgarization of newspapers and entertainment. But in fact, many Americans across the country read or knew about the Yellow Kid, although yellow journalism may have been especially popular with the working class or anyone who identified with “the little guy,” whom it so often claimed to champion.
The Yellow Kid was a sensation: he inspired theater and vaudeville shows across the country and was used to sell products directly licensed by Outcault and even used to attract shoppers to stores. Widely hailed as the first comic strip, the Yellow Kid was one of the first popular characters in a comic strip, but was not entirely original. A closer look at his contemporaries and predecessors reveals that the panel format with word balloons—which Outcault only sometimes used as a dialogue tool—was already in use in many illustrated magazines of the day. Outcault did stretch these methods in unique ways—peppering his drawings with text that showed both the burgeoning commercial world (billboards and signs), and the Yellow Kid’s own thoughts (printed on his shirt, as if he is a sign himself). His drawings heavily incorporate ideas from vaudeville, a popular form of urban entertainment, and indeed the Yellow Kid offered its own urban drama—a variety show on one brightly colored page.
Outcault's satiric bite became muted, however, as the series continued, perhaps because he was trying to reach a wider audience. The Kid pointed out serious problems with tenement life and class divisions in its first installments, but devolved into fantasy slapstick that left the American urban environment as the Kid's star turn ended in 1898. The upper class's attempts to control the urban environment, which Outcault so often portrayed, may have wandered into his drawings, making for a milder vision of the poor that was tamed, as was the Kid's real life counterparts, by acceptance and endorsement of a consumer society.