By Michelle Ann Abate
The importance of Richard Felton Outcault to the development of newspaper comics in the United States is well established. On February 17, 1895, the cartoonist published the first installment of his new series, Hogan’s Alley. Set in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, the comic chronicles the antics of a group of raucous working-class children. The kids were led by a scrappy young boy whose given name was Mickey Dugan but who quickly became known by the nickname “The Yellow Kid” after the mustard-colored nightshirt that he commonly wore. Hogan’s Alley was just one of many titles to appear in the new full-color Sunday comics supplement that Joseph Pulitzer launched in his New York World newspaper, but it was by far the most successful. From the first installment, audiences delighted in the rowdy, and often mischievous, antics of The Yellow Kid and his pals. Before long, Hogan’s Alley “was read avidly by nearly a million readers” (Bolton 16). This tremendous popularity prompted William Randolph Hearst, who owned a rival newspaper, to lure the cartoonist away with a lucrative contract. The first installment of The Yellow Kid in Hearst’s New York Journal ran on October 18, 1896. That said, Pulitzer’s publication held the rights to the name “Hogan’s Alley,” so Outcault’s cartoons appeared under a new title: “McFadden’s Row of Flats.” Complicating matters further, the New York World continued to publish weekly installments of Hogan’s Alley, assigning the series to another staff cartoonist, George B. Luks. Over the next few years, comics starring The Yellow Kid appeared in both publications simultaneously. Far from causing oversaturation, the existence of both Hogan’s Alley (by Luks in the New York World) and McFadden’s Row of Flats (by Outcault in the New York Journal) delighted audiences who could enjoy new installments featuring their favorite comics character not once each week, but twice.
The Yellow Kid quickly grew so popular that even two newspapers couldn’t contain him. Outcault’s scrappy protagonist became “the first merchandized comic strip character, appearing on cracker tins, cigarette packs, ladies’ fans, buttons, and a host of other artifacts” (Harvey). Colin McEnroe, in fact, has identified more than 80 different commercial items to which The Yellow Kid lent his likeness, either through official licensing or unauthorized piracy. Given this situation, Christina Meyer identifies the character “as a precursor to the rise of transmedia franchise in the twentieth century” (53). By the time Outcault retired The Yellow Kid in early 1898 to pursue other professional endeavors—namely, his equally successful new comics character Buster Brown—“his work made him a fortune and turned him into a national celebrity” (Saguisag 1).
In the same way that The Yellow Kid is associated with the commercial origins of comics in the United States, he is also associated with a specific demographic: working-class Irish immigrants. From his name “Mickey Dugan” to his residence in New York’s Lower East Side, Outcault’s protagonist “was meant to serve as an ethnic marker to identify the comic figure as an Irish immigrant child living in New York City” (Meyer 83). Far from an association that was externally imposed, it was also one that was internally supported. Together with having a common Irish surname, the first name of Outcault’s central character was a well-known derogatory term for individuals from Ireland. Lest any doubts remain about The Yellow Kid’s heritage, when the character and his pals stop in Ireland during their around-the-world tour, he refers to the country as “de land of me 4 fadders.” Given this situation, Outcault’s work featuring The Yellow Kid has been viewed in both past and present criticism as “offer[ing] historical insight into how Irish immigrants and their children were viewed and accepted by middle-class Americans just prior to the turn of the twentieth century” (Bolton 16).
While The Yellow’s Kid’s ethnic identity is now seen as Irish, the cartoonist’s original audience perceived him differently—or, at least, in a less culturally homogenous way. An article that appeared in 1897, for example, described the comics character as a “Chinese-Irishman” (qtd in Meyer 84). Many other critics and fans made similar observations, commenting that The Yellow Kid looked “Oriental” (McEnroe). Far from an unusual or even unfounded assertion, this viewpoint was understandable. Both to audiences in the 1890s and to those examining Outcault’s work today, Mickey Dugan possesses a variety of physical features that echo common caricatures of Asians in general and the Chinese in particular: he has buck teeth, squinty eyes, and big ears, as shown in fig. 1. Even the color that Outcault selected for his protagonist’s signature nightshirt can be viewed through this lens. Although the bright yellow hue has often been regarded as a way for the cartoonist to make his central character more visible amidst his densely packed panels (Blackbeard 113), the color yellow has also long been used as a chromatic signifier for Asians. The Oxford English Dictionary notes, in fact, that this practice dates back to the sixteenth century in the West (“yellow”). When these features are taken collectively, Outcault’s The Yellow Kid evokes a subject that occupied the national imagination along with its print media during the closing decades of the nineteenth century: The Yellow Peril.
This article remembers and recoups this way of viewing The Yellow Kid. Seeing Mickey Dugan as Chinese—or, at least, as Chinese-Irish—not only restores the original socio-cultural context for this figure, it also changes the way we read, understand, and interpret him in the present day. The Yellow Kid’s possession of various stereotypical visual signifiers of Asian identity introduces an additional and alternative form of ethnic caricature to Outcault’s panels. At the same time, it also precipitates a wholesale shift in the racial politics operating in the series. While Outcault’s work has long been seen as engaging with issues of immigration, nativism, and xenophobia, it has done so within a specific context: the plight of Irish Catholics in New York City. If Mickey Dugan’s heritage is Chinese in addition to Celtic, then his engagement with questions of assimilation, difference, and Americanness extends beyond immigrants from Europe; it also encompasses demographic groups from Asia. Appearing in the wake of both the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the even more restrictive Geary Act (1892) in the United States, as well as against the backdrop of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 – 1895) and the build-up to the Boxer Rebellion (1900) in China, The Yellow Kid calls attention to the increased visibility of the Chinese in the United States—along with the increased backlash to their presence. Reconnecting Mickey Dugan with fin-de-siècle perceptions of him as Chinese adds a new level of complexity to Outcault’s depiction of urban pluralism along with the polyvocality operating in the series as a whole. Finally, and just as importantly, the way in which The Yellow Kid evokes and engages The Yellow Peril also invites us to consider the complicated cultural work being performed by the racial and ethnic caricatures that were a core facet of early American comics.
From Allies to Antagonists: The Irish and Chinese in Nineteenth-Century New York
The issue of Chinese immigration is commonly framed as a concern on the West Coast, where passenger ships from China arrived to ports like San Francisco and Seattle. However, New York City—where Outcault’s comic was both published and set—possessed a visible and vibrant Chinese community. As Stephen Paul DeVillo has written, “There had been a Chinese presence in New York since the 1850s . . . formed of visiting sailors and the stranded members of a bankrupted performing troupe” (120). The Chinese population in New York grew rapidly over the next few decades. In 1880, the New York City census reported that “only 747 Chinese immigrants lived in the city” (Wang 17-18). A decade later, that number jumped to 2,048 (Wang 19)—an increase of nearly 300%.
Chinese immigrants in New York existed in close proximity to the many other racial and ethnic groups in the city, including the Irish. The first Chinese arrivals in Manhattan in the 1850s formed “a tiny community living in the Five Points” (DeVillo 120). This area, of course, was known “as a place in which the races mixed indiscriminately” (Tchen 130), a feature that was a source of cultural vibrancy as well as notorious conflict. As the Chinese population in New York City grew, so did their presence in this section of Lower Manhattan. By the 1870s, minstrel performers in the Bowery “regularly referred to Chinese as part of the Five Points scene” (Tchen 143).
Unsurprisingly, when Chinatown began to emerge in New York City, it arose around this area. By the 1880s, the neighborhood spanned three streets in Lower Manhattan: Pell, Doyers, and Mott (Ostrow 9). Each of these thoroughfares extended like a spoke from the hub of the Five Points on Chatham Square and the Bowery. Moreover, as Chinatown grew, so did its geographic proximity to the Five Points. Eventually, the ethnic enclave did not simply share a border with the existing neighborhood, it began to overtake it. In fact, by the mid-1890s when Outcault’s comic series began, Chinatown had become such a well-known locale in New York that it was a popular tourist destination for white visitors (Ostrow 11). The area was a great place to get a delicious meal, and it was also a locale where Westerners could gawk at “Oriental exoticism”: men wearing conical hats with their hair in a queue; sidewalk markets with unusual fruits, vegetables, and seafood; and, of course, opium dens.
The geographic proximity of Chinese immigrants in Chinatown and the Irish in the Five Points afforded many opportunities for personal as well as professional interaction. First and foremost, the two groups lived and worked side-by-side: they occupied the same tenement buildings and they also took jobs as domestic laborers who cleaned homes and did laundry (Tchen 138-140). As John Kuo Wei Tchen has discussed, intermarriage between the Irish and Chinese was not uncommon (70-80). Such interracial pairings were so numerous, in fact, that they were regarded as a threat to white hegemony in general and white racial purity in particular. During the Draft Riot of 1863, in fact, Chinese men who had married Irish women—or who were just known for associating with them—were targeted by white mobs. As Najia Aarim-Heriot has written, “After the general exodus of blacks from the Fourth Ward, the Chinese residents were next to meet the wrath of the crowd. Urged by a speaker who described the Chinaman as a ‘modification of the Negro,’ the rioters turned against the few Chinese peddlers suspected of having liaisons with white women” (74).
Coupled with possessing social, economic, and marital connections, the Chinese and the Irish were also regarded as sharing another kinship during the nineteenth century: their status as Other. As Manhattan lawyer and prolific diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in 1857, “our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese’” (qtd. in Lee, America 58). He was not alone in such views. The Chinese and the Irish were regarded as similar because they were so religiously, culturally, and racially different from white, native-born, American Protestants. For this reason, as Erika Lee has discussed, “The case made against Chinese immigration recycled many of the same arguments used against Irish Catholics: Chinese immigrants undercut American workers. They were criminals who filled state’s prisons and asylums. They operated in secret through their own societies; they followed their own laws” (America 75-76). Many political cartoons in years leading up to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act made similar points, either framing the Chinese as the “new Irish” or suggesting that the Chinese would align themselves politically with the Irish and thereby strengthen the already powerful (as well as powerfully corrupt) Democratic party.
While the Chinese became increasingly stigmatized, marginalized, and even ostracized from mainstream American culture as the nineteenth century progressed, the Irish experienced the opposite trajectory. By the postbellum era, this demographic group was able to obtain a level of social acceptance and political power. When this occurred, working-class Irish Catholics did not strive to uplift the fellow immigrant group with which they had been long associated; instead, they worked to further denigrate them. Both on the West Coast and on the Eastern seaboard, the Irish were at the forefront of anti-Chinese efforts in the years following the Civil War. In the 1870s, in fact, an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney coined a xenophobic imperative that would soon become a national rallying cry: “The Chinese Must Go!” (Lee, America 81). This mantra began as the motto for the Workingmen’s Party of California, a political movement founded by Kearney. The opening line of the organization’s mission statement provided a clear indication of their political agenda: “Treason is better than to labor beside a Chinese slave” (Lew-Williams 45). As Lee has pointed out, Kearney and the other Irish members of the Workingmen’s Party were engaging in a longstanding practice in the United States: demonstrating their newly established Americanness—as well as affirming their equally nascent whiteness—by engaging in racism against another minoritized group (America’s Gates). Given this situation, although the Irish were not solely responsible for the wave of anti-Chinese attitudes that emerged in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, they were enthusiastic participants in it.
Hogan’s Alley Leads to Chinatown: Mickey Dugan as 米奇 杜根
While the connections between Irish and Chinese immigrants during the nineteenth century are not widely remembered today, these details would have been far more familiar to R. F. Outcault’s original audience. The cartoonist’s readership lived during a time when the Irish and the Chinese were commonly compared to one another—as well as when many Irish immigrants marshalled Sinophobia to draw a sharp distinction. For these reasons, even if The Yellow Kid had not been rendered in a corporeal way that recalled popular caricatures of the Chinese, he would have possessed a geographic, cultural, and historical link with this immigrant community. Regardless of whether Mickey Dugan’s stance towards the residents of nearby Chinatown was one of solidarity or antipathy, his Irish name would have suggested to Outcault’s 1890s audience that he likely had both personal interactions with and political opinions about this demographic group.
Outcault’s decision to draw his protagonist with squinty eyes, buck teeth, and big ears greatly amplifies such links. Rather than tacitly and indirectly evoking the Chinese by having a protagonist with an Irish name, the manner in which the cartoonist rendered his character does so directly and explicitly. Mickey Dugan’s Irish name combined with his possession of facial features that traffic in Chinese caricature suggest that he may be the product of intermarriage between the two groups. Viewed from this perspective, The Yellow Kid may have been known as “Mickey Dugan” by his Celtic relatives on the Lower East Side, but use the moniker 米奇 杜根when in the company of his other parent in Chinatown.1
Mickey Dougan, of course, was not the only element from the era’s print culture that engaged with Chinese immigrants, Chinatown, or China as a whole. These issues were the frequent focus of media attention throughout the 1890s. The decade, for example, began with the publication of Jacob Riis’s landmark work of investigative journalism, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements in New York (1890). The book has a full chapter dedicated to Chinatown. The portrait that Riis paints of both the neighborhood and its inhabitants is far from complimentary. “Stealth and secretiveness are as much part of the Chinaman in New York as the cat-like tread of his felt shoes,” he observes in an opening paragraph. From there, Riis’s portrayal steadily worsens, as Chinatown is largely framed as a haven of gambling, opium smoking, and prostitution. How the Other Half Lives presents Chinatown as so riddled with vice and criminality that Riis deems both the neighborhood and its inhabitants as beyond reform. “For any other form of dissipation than that for which Chinatown stands there is recovery: for victims of any other vice, hope. For these there is neither hope nor recovery; nothing but death—moral, mental, and physical death,” Riis writes in the closing remarks to the chapter.
Such disparaging attitudes about the Chinese not only led to the Chinese Exclusion Act being renewed in 1892 for another ten years, but also to its regulations being expanded. Known as the Geary Act, the new legislation “added provisions and clarifications that expanded the federal government’s powers to enforce immigration laws” (“Geary Act”). First and perhaps foremost, “The Geary Act required Chinese people in the United States to carry a Certificate of Residence, a precursor of the green card system, to prove that they had legally entered the country. Chinese residents who were already living in the United States were required to register in order to receive their certificates” (“Geary Act”). Just as significantly, the Geary Act also made unauthorized immigration—or residence in the United States—a criminal offense: “Chinese residents caught without such documents were subject to detention and deportation” (“Geary Act”). As Lee has observed, “No other immigrants were required to hold documents proving their lawful residence or be subjected to what would later be called ‘show me your papers’ practices, until 1928, when immigrant identification cards were first issued to new immigrants arriving for permanent residence” (America 97). These new provisions “extended enforcement of immigration controls into the interior of the United States” (“Geary Act”). In this way, although the Chinese were physically excluded from the nation’s shores in the fin de siècle, they occupied the ideological center of its immigration policy.
These restrictions notwithstanding, in the years following the Geary Act, newspapers around New York City routinely featured stories about illegal immigration from China: arrivals having forged documents, bribing border officials in upstate New York, committing perjury during interviews with U.S. customs, and being smuggled in from Canada. By January 1898, J. T. Scharf published an article in the North American Review arguing that the current immigration policy needed to be strengthened. His essay was excerpted in The New York Times. The Chinese exclusion laws “do not meet the evil,” Scharf asserted in his opening paragraph, “but rather aggravate it by offering opportunities for their evasion through perjury, chicanery, and frauds” (Scharf A11).
In the same way that immigrants from China were in the news, so, too, was the nation of China itself. In the months directly preceding Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley, the First Sino-Japanese War was still taking place on the continent of Asia. Print media throughout the United States reported on the violent and bloody battles between soldiers from the Qing dynasty and the Japanese military in Korea. News of the massacre that took place at Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou District) on November 21, 1894, in fact, was initially published in the New York World, the paper where The Yellow Kid would debut the following year.2 The First Sino-Japanese War ended on April 17, 1895—exactly two months after the inaugural installment of Hogan’s Alley—but Chinese diplomatic and military conflicts over territory did not cease. From clashes in Formosa (now Taiwan) with Japan, tensions with Russia over its desire to build a railway through Manchuria, frustration with the United States over Catholic missionary efforts, to disputes with France, Germany, and Great Britain over ports like Kiao-Chau Bay, Wai-Hai-Wei, and, of course, Hong Kong, these tensions would serve as catalysts for the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.3
As even this brief discussion indicates, Outcault’s The Yellow Kid was created and consumed in an environment where Chinatown, Chinese immigration, and the nation of China were part of ongoing national conversations as well as the public consciousness. This original historical context would have rendered Mickey Dugan’s possession of features associated with Chinese caricature even more recognizable to—and resonant with—the cartoonist’s original audience. Margaret E. Brady, in fact, has commented on this issue. Writing in 1950, Brady reflected that Outcault’s character was as well known for “his guttersnipe antics” as he was for his “slightly oriental face” (662). The fact that Mickey Dugan is a working-class Irish immigrant has been the subject of extensive critical analysis. That this character was long regarded as Chinese in addition to Celtic exerts an arguably even more profound—and yet wholly unexplored—influence. For generations, The Yellow Kid was read as possessing a link to Chinese identity; moreover, doing so changes the way that we read this character along with many of the panels in which he appears.
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Arguably the most noticeable aspect about the treatment of the Chinese in Outcault’s comics featuring The Yellow Kid is their near complete absence. Characters of Asian descent play a minimal and even negligible part in both Hogan’s Alley and McFadden’s Row of Flats. Although Outcault’s series is set in a highly diverse locale and also presents a wide array of peoples and cultures—African Americans, Germans, Jews, and, of course, the Irish—the Chinese are not among them. In spite of Chinatown’s geographic proximity to the Lower East Side, along with the numerous social, cultural, and economic points of contact between the two neighborhoods, none of the recurring characters from the series are Chinese. Outcault’s large-scale drawings are densely populated with both adults and children. Chinese figures, however, are only rarely depicted in the crowd.
Hogan’s Alley ran a full ten months, in fact, before the first Chinese character (other than the Kid himself) appeared in a panel. Then, when Outcault did include one, in “The War Scare in Hogan’s Alley,” shown in fig. 2 (March 15, 1896), he presented the figure in a highly stereotypical way: two toddlers are fighting in the left corner of the drawing and one of the youngsters has his hair styled in a queue. Four months would pass before another figure who echoed Chinese caricature appeared in Outcault’s work again. In the foreground of the panel “Hogan’s Alley Children Spend a Day in the Country,” shown in fig. 3 (July 19, 1896), a child is drinking milk from the udder of a cow through a long tube that recalls a hookah—a common sight in opium dens at the time. Significantly, the youngster bears a striking resemblance to The Yellow Kid: he also has a shaved head and is wearing a long nightshirt. In many respects, he could be the protagonist’s younger brother. Isolated figures who appear in the background of a few additional panels—such as the youngster in the striped swimsuit sitting atop the wave in “Hogan’s Alley Folk in the Surf” (June 14, 1896) or the baby being held over the fence with a smoking cigarette in its right hand in “The Bicycle Meet in Hogan’s Alley” (June 21, 1986)—could possibly be as viewed as Asian in general and perhaps Chinese specifically. However, their identities are more speculative than certain. The inclusion of figures from what Outcault’s readership would have called “the Orient” is rare rather than routine.
In fact, of the roughly 100 comics featuring The Yellow Kid that Outcault published in New York World and New York Journal in the 1890s, only one panel engages with the Chinese in any direct or substantive way: “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley,” shown in fig. 4. Appearing on September 6, 1896, the comic was topical. Akin to a variety of other installments that showcased a current event taking place in New York City, the panel marked the arrival of the Chinese dignitary in Manhattan as part of his tour of North America. In many respects, “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley” is a typical Outcault comic: it is comprised of a large, single-panel drawing that takes place outdoors and it is densely packed with both figures and action. Additionally, echoing Outcault’s previous comics featuring equestrian shows, sailing races, and kennel club events happening in the city, the scenario being presented in the fictional comic mirrors the factual occurrence that it is commemorating. Li Hung Chang’s arrival in New York was celebrated throughout the city. He was welcomed by the mayor of New York, and then honored over the next few days via civic ceremonies, state dinners, and formal receptions.
Outcault’s comic echoes these events. In the same way that Li Hung Chang was feted at City Hall, he is celebrated in Hogan’s Alley. The neighborhood throws a big, boisterous parade, complete with a marching band and choir, to mark his arrival. Meanwhile, seemingly every resident in the area is either participating in the festivities or enjoying them from the sidelines: families are standing out on their fire escapes and kids are perched atop a wooden fence. Significantly, a few of these figures—based on their facial features —appear to be Chinese. Moreover, in a possible nod to the fact that fireworks were invented in China, clusters of pyrotechnics dot the sky above the crowd. Furthermore, paper lanterns of various sizes, colors, and designs also adorn the buildings and are being carried by various characters.
As the guest of honor, Li Hung Chang appears at the front of the procession: he sitting atop rolling cart pulled by a goat that is led by The Yellow Kid. As Bill Blackbeard and other critics have noted, the diplomat is represented in a surprisingly realistic way. In marked contrast to the satirical portrayal of other political figures, Li Hung Chang is not drawn in an exaggerated, cartoonish way that lampoons him (Blackbeard 50-52). Instead, both the visage of the figure and the calligraphy above his head that bear his name are rendered in a manner that is accurate or, at least, respectful (Blackbeard 50-52). From an aesthetic standpoint, the drawing is closer to portraiture rather than caricature.
Outcault’s comic “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley” contains another signature element of the cartoonist’s work: verbal commentaries on signs, banners, speech balloons, and exposition boxes around the composition. As always, many of these remarks are political and even satirical. A price tag hanging off of The Yellow Kid’s arm, for example, offers the following pointed commentary about the upcoming presidential election: “Vote at least once for Bryan.” Meanwhile, a sign affixed to a fence in the background of the drawing weighs in on nation’s current banking system. It announces a new ballad from Park Row. The tune is called “Did you ever get the money that you loaned? Or where are all your friends?”
As one might expect, some of the verbal commentary embedded in Outcault’s panel engages with the comic’s subject matter. An ad pasted to a building near the top of the composition, for example, offers a coded commentary about the equally oppressive practices in the West and the East regarding standards of beauty for women. In remarks that can be seen as linking foot-binding in China and corset-wearing in the United States, the sign says “Be sure to get the ‘Rediculous’ dress stay. It makes your waist 1 foot smaller.” Meanwhile, the message written on a folding fan that is being held by a young girl in the lower left of the drawing is far more direct and unambiguous. In one of Outcault’s many uses of verbal play, homonyms, and puns, it reads: “Hurrah! Fer Lie Hang Chunk!”
Of all the written comments that appear in “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley,” one stands out: the message scrawled on The Yellow Kid’s nightshirt. The majority of Outcault’s comics contain this signature trait—which typically forms a lynchpin to the panel’s overall message—and the remarks contained on the garment in this drawing do not disappoint. Written in The Yellow Kid’s working-class dialect, the message begins “Me & Li has made a big hit wit each ot’er.” More than simply befriending the Chinese diplomat, however, The Yellow Kid’s connection with him goes much further. As the protagonist reveals in the next statement: “Say! he tinks I’m a Chinaman—don’t say a woid.” Although the precise reason (or reasons) for this viewpoint are never disclosed, Outcault’s drawing embeds a powerful visual clue. The Yellow Kid’s nightshirt is not only the same color as the traditional Chinese garb worn by Li Hung Chang, the two garments also bear a striking resemblance: they are both long-sleeved, floor-length robes with no collar and no noticeable closure. Additionally, their outfits are both completed with a black hat. This visual overlap, combined with the section of The Yellow Kid with slanted eyes, big ears, and buck teeth, suggests that the protagonist’s attire hasn’t been a nightshirt all along; it’s been a Chinese garment. The final statement that appears on the Yellow Kid’s clothing only adds to this overlap. “I’m goin ter give a yellow tea for him—I know my Q,” it relays. While yellow tea—or huangcha—dates back to at least the 16th century in China, it is rare and expensive; indeed, the drink was largely confined to emperors and members of the Imperial Court (Dwyer). For this reason, it was not widely known by Westerners (Dwyer). Instead, green tea was the beverage that readers of Outcault’s comic would be far more likely to associate with China and the Chinese. Given this situation, it is difficult not to see his protagonist’s reference to “yellow tea” as another reference to (or even instance of) Sinophobia, with the color yellow evoking the character’s race. The Yellow Kid’s closing comment—“I know my Q”—functions in a similar way. Although the solitary letter could be a phonetic abbreviation for the word “cue,” it also functions as a homonym for “queue,” the traditional Chinese hairstyle.
Such readings of “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley” are amplified when the Chinese diplomat’s visit to the United States is placed back within its original historical context. The former military leader’s time in North America was largely intended as a type of “good will” tour. His visit was meant to strengthen diplomatic ties, foster greater cultural understanding, and enhance political relations between China and Westerns nations. That said, when Li Hung Chang arrived in the United States, his visit assumed a more specific, political purpose: the diplomat was instructed by the Chinese government to speak out against the Chinese Exclusion Act in general and the Geary Act in particular. An article that appeared in the New York Times on September 3, 1896—the same day that Outcault’s comic was published in the New York World—discussed this issue at length. Bearing the direct and even blunt main title “Li on American Hatred,” the essay’s subsequent subheadings elaborated on this viewpoint. “Chinese Laborers, He Says, Have Higher Virtues,” the opening one asserted. Meanwhile, the longer subheading that appeared directly below it was more detailed—and more condemnatory. Offering a summary of Li’s position on the issue, it relayed that the dignitary “Argue[d] for Free Competition in Labor as well as Free Trade in Commodities—The Geary Act Most Unfair, He [Said] in a Formal Audience With Reporters” (“Li on American Hatred”). Far from a misleading assessment of Li’s position, these remarks were affirmed by accounts of the diplomat’s public comments. The previous day, as the newspaper relays, the Chinese ambassador gave a speech in which he said directly and unequivocally, “The Chinese Exclusion act. . . is a most unfair law” (“Li on American Hatred”). Li went on to assert that unskilled Chinese laborers are hardworking, productive, and a valuable asset to the U.S economy. Barring them from the nation is not simply unwise, he remarked, it is un-American. “You are proud of your liberty and your freedom, but is this freedom?,” Li pointed out matter-of-factly (“Li on American Hatred”).
In details that once again further augment the racial and ethnic dynamics at play in Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, Li views the nation’s discriminatory policy toward Chinese immigration as more than simply a generic form of American xenophobia; he attributes it to the racist efforts of a specific demographic group: the Irish. In public remarks that are once again quoted in the New York Times article on the same day that Outcult’s comic appeared in the New York World, Li asserted: “We know that the Geary act is due to the influence of the Irish and the laboring classes, who wish to monopolize the labor market” (“Li on American Hatred”).
Recognizing the way in which Mickey Dugan was regarded as Chinese-Irish gives greater complexity to Outcault’s comic featuring Li Hung Chang. The Chinese diplomat’s visit in general and his critique of U.S. immigration policies with China in particular assume added depth and new meaning when The Yellow Kid’s link to Chinese identity is recouped and reconsidered. Between the comments scrawled on the character’s nightshirt and Outcault’s decision to attire Li Hung Chang in a similar yellow garment, the panel itself invites and even encourages these associations. On one hand, with his Irish name and cutting comments, The Yellow Kid participates in the nation’s anti-Chinese sentiments. At the same time, however, his physical and sartorial kinship with Li Hung Chang frame him as Chinese. These elements position Outcault’s protagonist as both the aggressor and the potential target.
Although “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley” is the only comic that showcases an unambiguously Chinese character, the presence of The Yellow Kid introduces this identity to all of the panels in which he appears. Seeing Outcault’s protagonist as Chinese-Irish rather than simply Irish adds this demographic group to the mix of other races and ethnicities being depicted. Even more importantly, this facet of Mickey Dugan’s identity—even if it remains unspoken—likewise pulls into Outcault’s drawing the numerous social, cultural, economic, and political issues at play with Chinese groups in the US. In many instances, an awareness of these elements adds new meaning—or at least complexity—to the panel.
The comic “Hogan’s Alley Preparing for the Convention,” shown in fig. 5, forms an excellent early example. Appearing in the New York World on May 17, 1896, the drawing depicts The Yellow Kid and his pals making their way to “St. Loous,” the site of the Republican National Convention. A variety of children are carrying banners, placards, and four-sided wooden signs that address some of the major issues in the presidential campaign, such as the debate over the gold standard versus silver standard in U.S. banking system. The Republican presidential candidate who would secure the nomination at the convention, of course, was William McKinley. One of the major planks of McKinley’s platform was protectionism. While serving in Congress, McKinley helped craft and then pass the Tariff Act of 1890. The legislation raised the taxation rate on imports by more than 10% (Reitano 129). The Tariff Act was seen as a major victory for U.S. labor—and for American isolationists. Additionally, it caused McKinley to become known—in both print news coverage and political cartoons—as the “Napoleon of Protectionism” (Rauchway 154). International trade and protective tariffs were prominent issues in the 1896 presidential election. Indeed, one of the figures in Outcault’s panel is carrying a placard that reads “Give Us Protection or Give us Det”; lest any readers miss the fact that William McKinley is the source of this reference, the young boy is wearing a bicorne hat that is labeled “Bill Napoleon.”
The association of The Yellow Kid with Chinese identity—combined with the commentary that is written on his nightshirt—adds new meaning to “Hogan’s Alley Preparing for the Convention.” First and foremost, Outcault’s protagonist calls attention to the West’s growing trade relations with China in the years following the First Sino-Japanese War as well as the ongoing issue of Chinese workers in the United States. American labor unions sought protectionism not simply from the influx of imported goods from nations like China, but also from imported workers. Tariff laws and immigration laws worked in tandem; one reinforced and even buttressed the other. Unsurprisingly, McKinley was a strong supporter of Chinese exclusion (Gould). Seen from this perspective, the remarks that appear on the bottom half of The Yellow Kid’s smock “Aint I de Maine Guy in dis parade? Well I guess dats right” assume a double meaning. On one hand, Outcault’s character is referencing the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who hailed from Maine. Akin to so many other Outcault panels that traffic in puns and word play, another interpretation is possible. When The Yellow Kid says “ain’t I de Maine guy,” he could also mean the adjective “main” rather than the state of “Maine” meaning that he, as a working-class Chinese-Irish immigrant, is the primary or most important figure in this presidential election. Viewed from this standpoint, The Yellow Kid’s presence serves as much as a partisan reminder about the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan as it does a xenophobic threat about “The Yellow Peril.” The double-voiced commentary on The Yellow Kid’s nightshirt seems to imply that, if the candidate from Maine wins the White House instead of McKinley, then Chinese imports and Chinese laborers might become the “main” part of the U.S. economy.
Together with adding new depth and complexity to panels that openly engage with political issues, seeing The Yellow Kid as Chinese-Irish also changes our reading of ones that have no obvious connection to race, immigration, or current events. The comic “First Championship Game of the Hogan’s Alley Baseball Team,” shown in fig. 6, forms an excellent case in point. Appearing in the New York World on April 12, 1896, the drawing depicts The Yellow Kid and his pals playing this quintessential American sport. In keeping with the rowdy and raucous nature of the Lower East Side, the baseball game in Hogan’s Alley is anything but orderly. The boy in the batter’s box, for example, is inexplicably wearing a blindfold. Additionally, both the centerfielder and second baseman are doing gymnastics. Meanwhile, the youngster running to first base is being bitten by a dog. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, the umpire is heavily armed: he is wearing a collar studded with nails and holding axe in one hand and a knife in the other. He also has a gun tucked into the back of his jacket.
The Yellow Kid appears at the bottom of “First Championship Game of the Hogan’s Alley Baseball Team,” in the center foreground. Akin to many other Outcault panels, the protagonist plays the role of host, guide, or even master of ceremonies. In this scene, he is looking out into the audience and speaking to the readers directly. A piece of paper that is pinned to his yellow nightshirt conveys his thoughts: “Wait till my strike Say! I wont hardly do a thing to em” (fig. 6). Of course, these comments have obvious resonance for the baseball game: they refer to the system of balls and strikes that is used to evaluate pitches. The Yellow Kid’s remark suggests that, when his team takes the field again, he will be the one throwing the ball from the mound—and just wait until the batters see the pitches that he hurls into the strike zone.
When Outcault’s protagonist is viewed as Chinese in addition to being Irish, his comments assume a new significance. One of the main accusations levied against the Chinese in Western states like California, Washington, and Colorado was that they were strike-breakers during labor disputes. When white workers in the mines or the railroads walked off the job to protest long hours, low wages, and/or dangerous conditions, many companies hired Chinese laborers to replace them (Lew-Williams 45). The use of Chinese immigrants as scabs fueled Sinophobia, first on the West Coast and then around the nation. As xenophobic organizations like the Workingman’s Party asserted, if Chinese workers were willing to work longer hours in more dangerous conditions for lower wages on the railroads and in the mines, then they presumably would be willing to do so in other industries as well (Lew-Williams 42- – 45). As the Workingman’s Party and organizations like it argued , the presence of the Chinese in the labor market posed a threat to the economic welfare of all Americans.
Seeing The Yellow Kid as Chinese in addition to Irish transforms his comment “Wait till my strike Say!” from one solely about baseball to one that also evokes the labor market. The protagonist may not simply determine the outcome of the game by throwing strikes from the mound; he may influence the state of the economy through his involvement in a worker strike. The mid-1890s was marked by widespread financial hardship and labor unrest. The Depression of 1893 caused massive unemployment: “In a single year, from 1893 to 1894, unemployment estimates increased from 3 percent to nearly 19 percent of all working-class Americans. In some states, the unemployment rate soared even higher: over 35 percent in New York State and 43 percent in Michigan” (Corbett, Janseen, Lund, Pfannestiel, Vickery, and Waskiewicz). For Americans who remained employed, many faced deep wage cuts. The Pullman Company, who manufactured the luxury train passenger cars, reduced the pay for workers by roughly 25% (Urofsky). However, the company “did not introduce corresponding reductions in rents and other charges” in the town of Pullman, Illinois where the bulk of its laborers lived (Urofsky). In May 1894, the Pullman workers went out on strike to protest the situation. Throughout the spring and summer, the Pullman Strike made national headlines. The boycott, which was supported by rail workers around the United States who “refused to move any train that had a Pullman car attached to it,” crippled the U.S. railroad system (Bassett 34). As Jonathan Bassett has documented, “Foodstuffs, raw materials, and manufactured goods of all kinds simply ceased to move around the country as train traffic backed up through the lines. Sabotage was also a factor, as tracks and switches were damaged and cars were burned” (34). The strike finally ended in early July, when both an anti-trust injunction was filed against the Pullman workers and federal troops were deployed to the railyards in Chicago. Although the Chinese were not among the leaders of the Pullman Strike, they did have a long history of working on the nation’s railroads as laborers who cleared land, set wooden ties, and laid track. The Yellow Kid’s Chinese-Irish nature, combined with his comment “Wait till my strike Say!,” may have brought these associations to mind at least for some of Outcault’s readers.
When the Background becomes the Forefront: McFadden’s Row of Flats and The Denver Riot
An awareness of Mickey Dugan’s connection to Chinese identity does more than simply alter our perception of this character and his role in the comic. It also invites us to reexamine other facets of the cartoonist’s work from this perspective. Although Outcault’s newspaper series does not include any additional characters who are explicitly identified as Chinese or address events that are directly related to nation’s foreign or domestic relationship with China, it does so indirectly: through Outcault’s choice of background imagery in McFadden’s Row of Flats.
R. F. Outcault moved his comics featuring The Yellow Kid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in autumn 1896. His first panel to appear in the new periodical was published on October 18, 1896. ([See Figure fig. 7).]. The image itself is untitled; instead, at the top of the page above the drawing is the new name for his series in this new publication: “McFadden’s Row of Flats.” The content of Outcault’s inaugural comic is just as practical and pragmatic as this presentation on the page: the panel depicts The Yellow Kid and his pals preparing to leave Hogan’s Alley. A large box sign being carried by a character on left side of the composition makes this aim explicit. “A Foxy move—Be Gee! From de Alley now we go / Down into McFadden’s Row,” it simultaneously announces and reassures. The lines that follow offer an explanation for the decision to relocate. Rather than revealing the extradiegetic truth—that the cartoonist had been offered a more lucrative contract to draw for a rival newspaper—the panel offers an intradiegetic explanation: Hogan’s Alley had been condemned. “Fur de Alleys on de bum / An its got yer be a slum,” the middle portion of the message on the box sign reads. Lest any doubts remain that this debut drawing primarily functions as commercial advertisement, the closing overture both completes the scansion of the verse and offers an invitation to readers to purchase next week’s copy of the newspaper: “Are we wit us? Next Sunday come and see us in McFadden’s Row of Flats.”
As this overview attests, Outcault’s comic has seemingly nothing to do with the issue of Chinese immigration or instances of xenophobic violence. On the contrary, the subject matter of the panel spotlights internal events that are currently happening within the series, not external occurrences that had previously taken place in the United States.
The setting that Outcault crafted for this scene challenges this assessment. The background to this Yellow Kid comic bears an uncanny visual resemblance to a well-known image depicting one the most infamous outbursts of anti-Chinese violence in American history: the Denver Riot of October 1880. ([See Figure fig. 8). The drawing was made by N. B. Wilkins and it was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on November 20, 1880. Although Wilkins did not witness the riot, he created his drawing from first-hand accounts of the event. As Liping Zhu explains, “On October 31, two days before the election, a minor quarrel between two Chinese and some whites at a local saloon rapidly grew into an uncontrollably riot, which quickly spread to the entire downtown areas” (Zhu 7). Over the next three days, “Thousands of angry [white] rioters indiscriminately attacked any Chinese person they could find and simultaneously destroyed the Chinese quarter” (Zhu 7). Unable to control the crowd or quell the violence, the local police “put more than 200 Chinese in jail for their own protection” (Zhu 7). By the time the riot was finally over, “one Chinese man was killed, several dozen others were severely injured, and all Chinese residences and stores were destroyed” (Zhu 7). As Zhu reports, “The total losses of property and personal belongings exceeded $100,000” (7)—the equivalent of $2.7 million in 2021.
The deadly violence and widespread destruction of property, combined with the coverage of the event in the nationally circulating Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, caused news of the Denver Riot to spread quickly around the United States. In November 1880, R. F. Outcault was living in Cincinnati where he was a student at the McMicken University School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati). Not only did several of the city’s leading papers publish articles about the anti-Chinese violence in Denver,4 but Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper also appeared on Cincinnati newsstands. The periodical was at the forefront of both American journalism and—even more importantly—print illustration. As Joshua Brown has written, “Frank Leslie created a pictorial publishing empire predicated on innovations in cheap printing, the subdivision of labor in the production of illustration, and the appeal to a broad and diverse audience” (20). Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, his Illustrated Newspaper was one the leading sources for information about current events throughout the United States. One of the reasons for this success was that the periodical “provid[ed] a picture-hungry public with thousands of images” (Brown 20). Outcault was training at McMicken University for a career as a commercial artist. Especially as a young man, it seems likely that Outcault would take an interest in the work being published in one of the nation’s leading illustrated periodicals—in addition, of course, to taking an interest in the era’s current events.
The riot in Denver not only captured the nation’s attention, it changed public opinion about “The Yellow Peril.” Prior to this incident, the issue of Chinese immigration was largely confined to the West coast. In light of the concentration of Chinese immigrants in California, Oregon, and Washington, the matter was seen as primarily concerning these states and largely confined to this region of the country. The events in Denver in the fall of 1880, however, made not merely the question but the “problem” of the Chinese a national one. The timing of the event also greatly contributed to this phenomenon: the violence in Denver took place just days before the presidential election in 1880. As Zhu notes, “this politically motivated riot gave unprecedented sensational attention to the Chinese question at a critical moment” (Zhu 11). Simply put, it “significantly helped to accelerate the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act” (Zhu 10), which would be voted in law two years later.
Outcault’s inaugural installment of McFadden’s Row of Flats bears an uncanny visual similarity to Wilkins’s illustration. From the placement of figures, depiction of action, and arrangement of buildings, the panel mirrors—and even maps onto—the background, middle ground, and foreground of the well-known image. These similarities are striking even to an untrained eye, but they become even more pronounced when placed in the context of what Rebecca Zurier has called “the public culture of looking” in the fin-de-siecle (51). By the closing years of the nineteenth century, “urban public culture was a highly visual culture” (Zurier 52). Especially in major cities like New York, individuals were surrounded by images—including advertisements, illustrations, and the new phenomenon of motion pictures—and becoming increasingly savvy viewers of those items: noticing details and engaging in critique. Outcault’s comics participated in the era’s vibrant visual culture in general and its growing interest in “picturing the city” (Zurier 3- – 10) in particular. During the fin-de-siecle, depictions of New York in drawings, paintings, and photographs became ubiquitous—and iconic. Outcault’s comics panels featuring the Lower East Side participated in this phenomenon. Although appearing in the newspaper and not on canvas, they encouraged close readings and comparative analysis, both with the factual neighborhood in Manhattan and through detailed drawings that rewarded individuals who looked closely with additional jokes and clever puns.
The numerous points of visual correspondence between the panel and Wilkins’s drawing invite us to reexamine the drawing from the standpoint of Chinese immigration, community conflict, and even xenophobic violence. First and perhaps most directly, the scene depicting the move of The Yellow Kid and his pals out of Hogan’s Alley is not merely vigorous, but often violent. A variety of objects are being thrown from the various buildings. From stoves and bedding to trunks and crockery, possessions are not being carefully packed up; they are being hastily tossed out. Echoing the events in Denver, the scene looks more like a sudden forced eviction than a planned voluntary move. Additionally, in another detail that recalls Wilkins’s rendering of the Denver Riot, characters are engaged in interpersonal scuffles and even physical fights throughout Outcault’s composition. Moreover, two separate individuals are falling to the ground from the tenement building; their body language and facial expression suggests neither figure has voluntarily jumped, they were involuntarily pushed or thrown. While the precise circumstances that led up to these events is unknown, one detail is clear: the fall will cause grave bodily harm if not death.
When The Yellow Kid himself is seen as Chinese-Irish, the dynamics at play become even more pronounced—and more powerful. After all, an Irish character is not simply gathering up other Irish families from an Irish neighborhood in the Lower East Side. On the contrary, a figure who is at least part Chinese is doing so. The chaos and violence calls further attention to the conflict that arises not only within ethnic groups like the Irish in the nation’s crowded urban centers; but between various demographics. The Yellow Kid and his friends are moving to a different area of the same neighborhood. If the act of vacating the condemned Hogan’s Alley has caused this much tumult imagine what events will transpire when they arrive in McFadden’s Row of Flats. The population density through the Lower East Side raises the question of who The Yellow Kid and his pals will be displacing when they arrive to the area. After all, McFadden’s Row of Flats is not sitting empty, just waiting for the residents of Hogan’s Alley to occupy it. Especially when viewed in the context of his Chinese-Irish identity, the encroachment of The Yellow Kid along his fellow residents from Hogan’s Alley does more than simply mirror the depiction of the Denver Riot; it revisits and replicates it. As Wilkins’s image so powerfully depicted, in October 1880, white men stormed the Chinese enclave in Denver, forcibly removed the inhabitants, and then violently destroyed the property. By contrast, in Outcault’s comic, The Yellow Kid and his pals can be seen as preparing to “storm into” McFadden’s Row of Flats. Their arrival will undoubtedly set into motion similar levels of displacement, destruction, and even violence. Regardless of how the suggestive echoes between Outcault’s panel and Wilkins’s drawing are interpreted, they impact the meaning of the comic. Their presence—however palimpsestic or even spectral—is not inconsequential.
The areas of visual overlap between Outcault’s inaugural comic in the New York Journal and Wilkins’s depiction of the Denver Riots are astounding on their own. Making this already extraordinary event even more incredible is that Outcault repeated this backdrop in the comics that he published over the following three consecutive weeks. ([See Figure fig. 9, Figure fig. 10, and Figure fig. 11). The panels that appeared on October 25, November 1, and November 8, 1896 all take place in same Wilkins-style setting—or a slight variation on it. The subject matter of each image varies greatly—addressing topics ranging from the upcoming presidential election to the local horse show—but the basic composition remains the same. Outcault’s use of this visual template, combined with his decision to employ it for a full month’s worth of the installments, gives this feature added cultural importance as well as symbolic weight. The kinship between these four consecutive Outcault comics and Wilkins’s well-known illustration seem too sustained and too striking to be purely coincidental. The cartoonist’s aesthetic choices appear to be visually evoking and, thus, historically invoking it. Moreover, given how much press coverage the Riot (along with Wilkins’s depiction of it) received, it seems difficult to imagine that none of Outcault’s original audience were reminded of this connection at some point over the course of these four weeks. Furthermore, if and when they did, the issues that were being addressed in these panels—such as the role of pluralism in the current presidential election (October 25, 1896) or the debates over the gold standard versus silver currency system (November 1, 1896)—took on added weight and new meaning.
In his book Yellow (2002), Frank H. Wu made the following observation about his experience as an Asian American in the United States: “I alternate between being conspicuous and vanishing, being stared at or looked through” (8). Discussions about race in the United States commonly focus on the relationship between blacks and whites. From the longstanding practice of slavery, the implementation of Jim Crow, and the use of red-lining in postwar housing to the segregation of public education, the practice of racial profiling in law enforcement, and the school-to-prison pipeline, the issue of race is largely focalized from the standpoint of blacks in America. As Wu points out, however, both the lived experiences and the legal policies regarding race in the U.S. are far more diverse, encompassing an array of minoritized peoples. Overlooking or ignoring the presence of Latinx, indigenous, and Asians not only misrepresents the dynamics of race in the United States, it also places these individuals in a precarious and paradoxical position: groups who have been classified as “red,” “brown,” and “yellow” have been highly visible within the context of white America, but they are invisible in most mainstream discussions about race. For this reason, Wu argues for the necessity—as the subtitle of his book announces—for considering the question of “race in America beyond black and white.”
In the same way that Frank Wu’s experience as an Asian American fluctuates between “between being conspicuous and vanishing, being stared at or looked through” (8), the same could be said about Outcault’s The Yellow Kid. Since the 1890s, the connections that this comics character has with Chinese identity, immigration, and Sinophobia has been both present and absent, visible and invisible, recognized and ignored. As John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats said about the ramifications for erasing the presence of Asians in the United States: “We can’t afford to remain aloof and insensate. We must take notice of these ephemeral fragments and turn them into stories to tell, into truer histories we must convey” (26). The Yellow Kid requires an analogous approach. Remembering and recouping this character’s original perception as Chinese-Irish offers a far richer story to tell about Outcault’s comics series—and a far truer history about the social, cultural, and political climate of the 1890s.
Both Reductive and Instructive: The Progressive Potential of Regressive Racial Caricatures
R. F. Outcault’s comics featuring The Yellow Kid have long been regarded as operating on different registers for different audiences. As Christina Meyer has written, the cartoonist’s panels, both when they appeared as Hogan’s Alley and when they were published as McFadden’s Row of Flats, “are filled with class parodies, and mockery diverges into different directions” (118). Upper-class readers are amused by the uncouth manners, abysmal grammar, and rowdy behavior of Outcault’s tenement kids. At the same time, working-class readers—whether Irish or another ethnicity—find equal delight in the series. First and foremost, Outcault’s work allows them to see themselves, their neighborhoods, and their lives represented—they chuckle at The Yellow Kid and his carnivalesque chaos because they can identify with it. Paradoxically, though, the panels also allow the working-class audiences to laugh at the aristocracy. Whatever specific scenario is being presented, “the doings, customs, and leisure-time activities of the upper classes are the predominant issues for satire and parody” throughout the series (Meyer 118). In so doing, Outcault’s work is polyvocal or, at least, polysemic: it speaks to diverse audiences and it also encodes different messages for these various groups.
Exploring Mickey Dugan’s connection to Chinese identity allows the comics series to expand upon this phenomenon. Together with offering a multifaceted, multilayered treatment of socio-economic class, Outcault’s panels do so with aspects of race as well. The comic series presents The Yellow Kid as a Chinese caricature, but it also utilizes this element to complicate ongoing cultural conversations about American pluralism. As panels like “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley,” “First Championship Game of the Hogan’s Alley Baseball Team,” and the four initial installments of McFadden’s Row of Flats demonstrates, recognizing and foregrounding The Yellow Kid’s connection to Asian identity alters the message of these drawings. This detail introduces the issues of Chinese immigration, Sinophobia, and nativism into the drawings. In so doing, it adds a new aspect or even an entirely new message to the commentary that is being offered. Either way, such elements are not inconsequential or insignificant. On the contrary, they invite both past and present audiences of Outcault’s work to engage in additional, and more complex forms of, interpretive analysis.
The Yellow Kid’s traffic in facets of Chinese identity have implications beyond simply Outcault’s specific comics series. They also extend to one of the most foundational features of early American comics: caricature. As Jeet Heer has written, “Nineteenth- and early-20th-century comics dealt in caricature, not characters.” For example, housewives “were almost always henpecked shrews (with a rolling pin to bash hubby’s brains with)” (Heer). Meanwhile, “their feckless mates loved to flee their family so they could go drinking with their buddies” (Heer). Caricatures based on race and ethnicity, rather than simply gender roles and marital status, were equally endemic. From the beer-swilling German and the pecuniary Jew to the pasta-loving Italian and the minstrelized black person, such depictions were—in the apt words of Noah Berlatsky—“a staple of cartooning’s visual grammar.” Regardless of their specific subject matter, newspaper comics were intended to have broad appeal and also to be easily understood. Caricatures—and the socio-cultural stereotypes on which they were based—served both of these purposes. Whether engaging with issues of race, gender, or marital status, “Cartoonists use[d] stereotypes as part of a visual shorthand to communicate ideas quickly and effectively” (History Teaching Institute). In the words of the History Teaching Institute, “Without easily interpreted stereotypes, cartoons would require paragraphs of text and much more detailed drawings to transmit information” (History Teaching Institute).
Although caricatures played a central role in early U.S. comics, they are not regarded as possessing a laudatory one. Stereotypes—and the caricatures that arise from them—are not merely simplistic, they are reductive. Such representations take one aspect about a demographic group and they grossly—as well as unfairly—exaggerate it. No collection of people think alike, act alike, or look alike. Caricatures ignore these realities and, thus, ignore the individuality and even humanity of the person being presented. Additionally, caricatures also portray groups in ways that maintain the existing socio-political status quo: women are ditzy, blacks are lazy, the Irish are drunkards. The association of these groups with such negative qualities justifies their exclusion from socio-political power—and even their denial of basic civil rights. In so doing, caricatures reveal themselves to be, not a useful form of cultural shorthand, but harmful misrepresentations that maintain the hegemony of the white, Christian heteropatriarchy. As John J. Appel and Selma Appel aptly summarized, whatever form they took and in whatever strip they appeared, caricatures in early American comics were little more than “crude, even gross stereotypes” that “maligned and mistreated [minoritized groups] with blithe insouciance” (1).
The Yellow Kid’s possession of physical traits commonly associated with Chinese caricature both affirms this phenomenon—and complicates it. First and foremost, Outcault’s rendering is highly stereotypical and, as such, also highly racist. From the slanted eyes, buck teeth, and big ears, The Yellow Kid reflects every xenophobic perception about Asians in general and Chinese immigrants in particular. Indeed, Outcault’s rendering of The Yellow Kid’s visage differs little from the most virulently Sinophobic drawings from the period. In so doing, of course, his work perpetuates discriminatory attitudes about the Chinese. For some of Outcault’s original readers, this feature may have added to The Yellow Kid’s comic appeal. The Chinese-Irish nature of The Yellow Kid was not an invitation to learn from him, but another reason to laugh at him. His possession of a “slightly oriental face” (Brady 662) did not challenge mainstream white nativist views about race, it affirmed them.
While the racism embedded in The Yellow Kid’s evocation of Chinese caricature is undeniable, the role, purpose, or function of his connection to an Asian identity is not this simple nor one-sided. The issues of race, immigration, and Sinophobia—or just the presence of individuals from China in neighborhoods like the Lower East—would not be as central if The Yellow Kid was not rendered in this way. The protagonist’s appearance serves as a powerful reminder that the Chinese formed an important part of the demographics of not only New York City, but the nation as a whole. Moreover, although the public’s attention during the 1890s was largely focused on the “new immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe, individuals from Asia remained a central facet of American life and, of course, its policies regarding immigration. The Yellow Kid’s portrayal in this manner encourages and even requires audiences to remain mindful of what nineteenth century Americans referred to as “The Problem of Chinese Immigration.” Even more importantly, it challenged them to reconsider precisely what and especially who was the problem.
These critical implications for Outcault’s comics raise the possibility that caricature, which has long been regarded as a regressive element, might have some progressive potential. As numerous past and present critics have rightly noted, whenever and however they appear, racial and ethnic stereotypes are reductive, hurtful, and racist. That said, akin to The Yellow Kid, there are instances when they may paradoxically call critical attention to these exact issues. Outcault’s protagonist mirrors anti-Chinese caricature—but his appearance also invites readers to examine nativism and xenophobia.
On November 26, 1898, the same year that R. F. Outcault stopped creating comics featuring The Yellow Kid, a drawing by Grant Hamilton appeared on the cover of Judge magazine. ([See Figure fig. 12).]. Titled “Uncle Sam is a Man of Strong Features,” the image presented a close-up portrait of this well-known national figure, only all of his facial features—eyebrows, mouth, nose—were formed by individuals from different racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Uncle Sam’s right ear, for example, is constructed by a man who has a dark beard and the word “Italian” written across his abdomen. Meanwhile, his left ear is comprised of a gentleman in a three-piece suit whose vest is inscribed with the label “Hebrew.” Every other facet of Uncle Sam’s face is constructed in a similar way: it is an amalgamation of figures who are identified as Negro, Swede, Quaker, German, Indian, Hawaiian, Russian, Irish, Greek, Turk, Cuban, French, English, Chinese, and Esquimaux [sic]. As John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats have discussed, a powerful paradox permeates this image: “all these figures are caricatured as national and racial types. Yet, they are portrayed as constituting the strength of the U.S.” (365). Every individual who forms part of Uncle Sam’s face is a common and even crude caricature. However, these representations are not meant to mock or deride. Rather, they are used to demonstrate what makes the nation so distinctive, unique, and—above all—strong. As Hamilton’s drawing on the cover of Judge attests, the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States is both one of its defining features and one of its greatest assets.
R.F. Outcault’s rendering of The Yellow Kid can be viewed in a similar way. He traffics in the crass caricature of Chinese immigrants from this era. That said, this rendering does not merely deride, it also disrupts. The perceived threat that immigrants from not simply China but Asia posed was often framed as “The Yellow Peril.” When it comes to continuing to overlook The Yellow Kid’s link to Chinese identity—and the implications that this detail has both inside and outside of Outcault’s comic—we do so at our own peril.
 For more on this event, see Joseph W. Escherick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (U of California, 1987), David J. Silbery’s The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China (Hill & Wang, 2013), and Diana Preston’s The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900 (Berkley Books, 2001).
 See, for example, “Talented Lying,” in The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1 November 1880, page 4, “All Quiet At Denver,” in The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, 2 November 1880, page 2, and “Denver Chinese Riot,” Cincinnati Weekly Gazette, 10 November 1880, page 10.
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Bassett, Jonathan. “The Pullman Strike of 1894.” OAH Magazine of History. 11.2. (Winter 199): 34 – 41.
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Brown, Joshua. “The Great Uprising and Pictorial Order in Gilded Age America.” The Great Strikes of 1877. Ed. David O. Stowell. U of Illinois P, 2008. 15 – 54.
Corbett, P. Scott, Volker Janssen, John M. Lund, Todd Pfannestiel, Paul Vickery, and Sylvie Waskiewicz. “Social and Labor Unrest in the 1890s.” U.S. History. OpenStax College. http://openstaxcollege.org/textbooks/us-history. Accessed 17 February 2022.
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Figure 1. The Yellow Kid, by R. F. Outcault. Image available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_F._Outcault#/media/File:Yellow_kid001.gif
Figure 2. “The War Scare in Hogan’s Alley,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York World on March 15, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/D_1590.jpg
Figure 3. “Hogan’s Alley Children Spend a Day in the Country,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York World on July 19, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/D_1603.JPG
Figure 4. “Li Hung Chang Visits Hogan’s Alley,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York World on September 6, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/D_1610%20copy.jpg
Figure 5. “Hogan’s Alley Prepares for the Convention,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York World on May 17, 1896. Image available here: http://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/D_1595.jpg
Figure 6. “First Championship Game of the Hogan’s Alley Baseball Team,” by R. F. Outcaut. Originally published in the New York World on April 12, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/d_648.jpg
Figure 7. “McFadden’s Row of Flats,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York Journal on October 18, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/D_1616%20copy.jpg
Figure 8. Side-by-side comparison of “Colorado—The Anti-Chinese Riot in Denver, on October 31st.” By N. B. Wilkins. Originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on November 20, 1880. Image available here: https://www.loc.gov/item/2001696514/ and “McFadden’s Row of Flats,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York Journal on October 18, 1896.
Figure 9. “McFadden’s Row of Flats,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York Journal on October 25, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/D_1617%20copy.jpg
Figure 10. “Receiving the Returns in McFadden’s Row on Election Night,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York Journal on November 1, 1896.
Figure 11. “The Season Opens with the Horse Show in McFadden’s Row of Flats,” by R. F. Outcault. Originally published in the New York Journal on November 8, 1896. Image available here: https://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/yellowkid/HoganAlley_Enlarge/d_1621.jpg
Figure 12. “Uncle Sam is a Man of Strong Features,” by Grant Hamilton. Originally appeared on the cover of Judge magazine on November 6, 1898. Image available here: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Grant-Hamilton-Uncle-Sam-is-a-Man-of-Strong-Features-Ellis-Island-Museum-New-York_fig3_281373842
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