Sketches of city urchins rapidly evolved into cartoons that publications fought over, says Jonathan Sale


he Yellow Kid, who featured in the first-ever newspaper strip, was not at first yellow nor in a newspaper nor in a comic strip. “The kid who started the comics”

soon managed all that – in fact twice over – as he appeared in two papers on opposite sides of the same circulation war. This downmarket forerunner of Charlie

Brown was fathered by Richard F Outcault, a technical illustrator who, fascinated by the tough kids hanging about in New York’s slums, in 1895 began a series of humorous, detailed sketches for Truth magazine. Sometimes, these included a small boy with his head shaved to discourage lice, ears at 90 degrees to his skull and a ragged nightshirt. This child had initially a walk-on – or loaf-on – part. New York World proprietor Joseph Pulitzer (as in the prize) soon spotted the artist’s talents and signed him up. On February 17 1895, his paper reprinted from Truth a black-and-white single- panel sketch, after which Outcault’s lively work became a regular feature in the World. In May the cartoon entitled “At the circus in Hogan’s Alley”, with shabby children aping the antics of the big top, was glorified with colour printing. According to legend, the lad owed his colour and hence his name to the fact that Pulitzer’s new printing press had trouble with the yellow register and needed an image on which it could experiment – such as the boy’s large nightshirt. The snag with this theory is that the garment in question was, in the first colour outing,

16 | theJournalist

definitely blue. But hey – in those evocative words uttered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane: “Print the legend.” Which I have just done. In the same spirit, I can pass on another legend that some say is only a myth: it was the Yellow Kid who inspired the use of the term ‘yellow journalism’ as a shorthand way of referring to the popular press.

“I STILL treasure the rejection strip from the Beano, ” says cartoonist and NUJ member Steve Bell. As a kid, Steve was a

fan of the comic, but as a grown-up illustrator, his offerings didn’t make it to those wacky pages. He had to console

himself with Time Out, City Limits, the New Statesman and now ‘If’ in The Guardian, where he also does big political cartoons. Not to mention

The Journalist for which he does The Owners. “I start the week’s If

strip not knowing where the story is going to go,” he says. “I do the Monday

panel on the previous

In due course, the nightshirt definitely was

printed in what a critic called ‘a jaundiced ochre’ and its wearer was promoted to become the star of Hogan’s Alley, as the series was named. Readers loved its comically violent escapades, its Dickensian depictions of urban slum life (in one cartoon, the Kid’s family get evicted from their home) and its inspirational slogans spelled out in large letters on the trademark nightwear. October 25 1896 was a great day for the Yellow Kid and for cartooning. Instead of being confined to a single, large frame, in “The Yellow Kid and his new phonograph”, he was given a sequence – a strip cartoon plus speech bubbles. Spoiler alert: the wise words emanating from the newfangled device turned out to come from a parrot inside it. So great was his popularity that a rival

proprietor, William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal (on whom Citizen Kane was based) made Outcault an offer, which he accepted, to bring the Yellow Kid over to his newspaper. Pulitzer then bought the cartoonist back with more cash, whereupon Hearst made an even higher and finally successful bid. Pulitzer then moved to his plan B; he had lost the cartoonist but not the bitter battle in the gutter press over a guttersnipe. He still owned the copyright to Hogan’s Alley, so hired another artist to continue drawing the Yellow Kid for his New York World. (Do keep up!) For a while, there were two ochre urchins leaping around in the two feuding papers. Outcault had the last chortle, as he had retained the copyright to the actual character – and hence the commercial rights.

Cartooning makes a sharp political point

Thursday, then on the Monday I do strips for the rest of the week.” ‘If’ is in its 40th

satirical year. “The fax made a huge

difference. In the early days, when I did six panels, I would bike down to Brighton station on Thursdays and send them Red Star to The Guardian in London. Then they would be sent to the Manchester office, which handled the feature pages.

The Falklands war

gave Bell some wonderful characters: talking penguins, chatty sheep, an albatross and Kipling the dissident sailor. As readers of The Journalist will remember: “Murdoch has been a constant feature since my early days – not in a good way.” A recent PG

Wodehouse theme will run and run: “Somebody sent me an email saying ‘Starmer reminds me of a butler.’ I don’t want to damage Starmer and he, ie Jeeves, comes off best. I can rip the shit out of ‘Wooster’!” That is, Boris Johnson. Top hole, Steve!


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