In the pages of the New York World and New York Journal,
the problems facing urban slums became entertainment as well as information, through
which upper and middle classes might wade into and emerge
happy to be so well off. Beginning in the 1890s, historian Keith Gandal
has argued in The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum, the poor started to "serve as a resource for
the ethical revitalization of a middle-class culture that
had begun to doubt itself, its faith in automatic material
progress, and its moral discourse—and that had begun to
react against its 'stifling atmosphere of bourgeois materialism' and Victorian morality.1 Gandal
argues that by turning an examination of slum life into entertainment,
or spectacle, a new form of urban tourism was created.2 The
rich or middle class would imitate the travels of reporters
like Stephan Crane, this time in search for excitement. The
readers of the Yellow Kid could get the same spectacle without
getting dirty, and working class readers could likewise be entertained and learn about upper-class habits as well:
"In essence, a general pursuit of the picturesque in the
slums (not limited to crime reporting and political muckraking)
was institutionalized in the city newspaper in the course
of the 1880s, and in the 1890s the large dailies responded
to the craze for the strenuous life most obviously with the
introduction of the modern sports page and a jingoistic reporting
of the Spanish-American War: and these innovations had much
to do with turning journalism into a big business. . . .
Either way one looks at it, the crucial condition is that
the newspaper was encouraging such a mixture of formerly
Gandal notes that Crane's slum characters are also fascinated
by spectacle—their only escape from their miserable living
conditions.4 As a result,
we see "the old demand for virtuous restraint is sacrificed
to the new objective of excitement."5 The
Yellow Kid clearly offered an alternate glimpse of the tenement
realm as a place of excitement and danger, and was perhaps
able to satisfy poor audiences looking for escape and
rich audiences looking for the spectacle of the slum. The cartoon
strains traditional Victorian morality with its language
and violent content, yet notably it is very popular.
Outcault's drawings work on many levels as a spectacle of
slum life and slum fantasy; they reference real-life spectacles,
such as vaudeville and dime museums, and even commercial
spectacles, such as billboards and modern advertisements.
They cater to the spectacle of violence, with kids being
beaned by golf balls and other projectiles, a horse getting
his nose singed by an errant child in "Moving Day in Hogan's Alley" (World, May 3, 1896), and one child getting a golf ball in his eye in "Golf—The Great Society Sport as Played in Hogan's Alley" (World, Jan. 5, 1896). The series
may be one of the early examples of "cartoon violence"; a grandchild perhaps of violent European fairy tales in
which children are almost—but not quite—eaten alive. Seemingly
the violence would appear more real and abhorrent to adults
if children are showcased, yet the opposite has historically
been the case, perhaps because adults' fears are projected
on children, creating a mismatch of horror and subject. One
frequent theme of the series was a kid falling from a balcony—a
very real and not infrequent tragedy at the time, likely
to be reported on in the same papers in which the Kid appeared.6 Yellow Kid historian Bill
Blackbeard said the children who fall in the comic are never
harmed, but we do see the evidence of real harm befalling
children in at least one cartoon. "The Day After 'the
Glorious Fourth' in Hogan's Alley" (July 7, 1895) pictures
the children as the walking wounded, complete with slings,
missing arms, bandaged heads, and crutches. Here the violence
of spectacle and the spectacle of violence seems all too
real. The July 4 cartoon a year later, "An Old-Fashioned
Fourth of July in Hogan's Alley" (July 5, 1896) notably
offers the day-of activities of firecrackers; in an unhappier
subtext, the people in the background are fleeing a fire
likely caused by the festivities. Still, viewers are not
shown the aftermath of slum violence and chaos. Perhaps because
the violence cut too real, the Yellow Kid grew more fantastical,
using "cartoon violence" set in unreal situations, or decreasing
violence altogether, as we see in the Around the World series
in 1897, where the children are more likely carousing than
hurting each other in a any real way familiar to New Yorkers.
1 Gandal, Keith. The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 10.
2 Gandal 17.
3 Gandal 16-17.
4 Gandal 82-83.
5 Gandal 86.
6 Blackbeard, Bill. Introduction. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1995. 52.