The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage
Introduction Origins of the Kid Class Warfare on the Urban Stage Race and Ethnicity Selling the Kid The Death of the Kid
"In at the Death."
"The City Boarder Thinks He Would Like to Mow."
"Another Tragedy."
"Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-wow."
"A Presentation."
"The Brownies Foot Race."
"The Ting Lings Go a Fishing."
Click on images above for a larger view, description, and source information.

Origins of the Kid: Street Arab, Slum Life, and Color Presses


Puck - sample pageDespite the Yellow Kid's reputation as the first newspaper comic strip, the mechanics of comic strips were in use well before the Kid's debut in illustrated magazines. Beginning in 1865, the German comic Max and Moritz showed an early panel-by-panel comic strip, and serialized fiction, such as that by Charles Dickens, often featured illustrations alongside text.1 Illustrated New York City journals had been in existence at least a decade before the Yellow Kid took hold, including the Police Gazette (1876), Puck (1876; started as a German-language publication), Judge (1871), and Life (1883).2 Puck was priced at 10 cents and offered colorful illustrations of political and social commentary, one popular topic being the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City; wordless cartoons that showed the passage of time, such as one in a February 1899 issue that showed a man guiding his milk wagon when his horse gets spooked by a bull (he ends up selling butter)3; sketches of characters with the dialogue and punch line below; a series of panel-less cartoons with dialogue underneath the "strip," such as one 1893 episode showing a mischievous boy trying to harm a parrot with firecrackers4; and paneled cartoons, some with words below the panels, some without. One of the latter demonstrates a lion attacking an African, only to have his plot turned back against him to meet a premature death.5 Life magazine contained similarly formatted cartoons—and many even had word balloons as early as 1893, well before Outcault employed them.6

18th century cartoonPolitical cartoons (more) offered an early version of the comic strip; they were usually a one-panel view employing signs or words within the drawing to help convey the picture's meaning. One drawing by Benjamin Franklin showing a snake divided in an attempt to unite the colonies against Britain shows an early example of the dialogue or word balloon; as comic historians Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams note, the balloons were fairly common in 18th-century caricatures, and graphics grew common in publications by the mid-19th century.

"Gallantry."Perhaps a more obvious visual predecessor of Outcault's work are the cartoons of Michael Angelo Woolf, who also drew Irish street urchins, albeit for more gentle laughs. Woolf's drawings first appeared in the early illustrated magazine Wild Oats in the 1870s.7 His drawings also later appeared in Life magazine around the same time as Outcault began his career in freelance drawing. One cartoon, "Gallantry," shows a street urchin bearing a little girl on his back while the other wheeled her across the puddle: "No, Miss, we couldn't think of letting you cross through this dreadful mud and slush!"8 Another shows a boy and a girl dressed as adults; the girl asks his parents to consent to their marriage because the boy is too "weak-livered" to ask.9 Unlike the Yellow Kid, adulthood and gentility are not mocked, but rather represent something worth imitating. Woolf also did not offer a recognizable returning character with each cartoon—but other artists did so before Outcault. Palmer Cox's "The Brownies" appeared in the children's magazine St. Nicholas in the early 1880s, and were later revived in books and comic strips; the Brownie cameras were named after them. 10 In Chicago the Inter-Ocean's "Ting-Ling Kids" ran from 1893 into 1897 and featured Asian children who were, like the Yellow Kid, bald, except they had a braid on the back of their heads. The artist who drew the kids, C.W. Saalburg, later worked at the same newspaper as Outcault, and may have influenced his work there.11
Back  Next

1 Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic-Strip Artists. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989. 20.

2 Craven, Thomas, Florence Weiss, and Sydney Weiss. Cartoon Cavalcade. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1943. 7.

3 "A One Horse Power, or a Pint's a Pound the Whole World Around." Puck 5 Feb. 1899: 405.

4 "A Fourth of July Tragedy." Puck 28 June 1893: 291.

5 "An Involuntary Capture." Puck 28 June 1993: 299.

6 "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-wow." Life 15 June 1893: 380.

7 Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. 25.

8 Woolf, Michael Angelo. "Gallantry." Life 29 June 1893: 412.

9 "A Coming Right Down to Business." Life 18 May 1893: 316.

10 Gordon 26-27.

11 Marschall 24.