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Urban America in the Newspaper Comic Strips of the Nineteenth Century: Introducing the Yellow Kid

By Christina Meyer

Figure 1: Oucault-Townsend 1896-10-18

Meeting the Yellow Kid—”Hully Gee”

In the mid-1890s a comic figure named Mickey Dugan, an Irish-American street kid1 living in “the polyglot world of Five Points”2 in New York City, was born into the New York Sunday newspaper marketplace.3 This urchin, commonly referred to and remembered as the Yellow Kid, is one of the first serialized and commodified comic figures in American comics history.

The physical features of this serial figure can be summarized as follows: He wears a long yellow shirt, he is bald, has jug ears, and buck teeth. Another characteristic feature of the kid is that he does not communicate in the form direct speech (through speech balloons); rather, words are printed on the yellow nightshirt.4 Finally, the kid is accompanied by an entourage of animals (e.g. a goat, a cat, a parrot) and other recurrent characters, as for example, the twins Alex and George, Kitty, or the kid’s beloved Liz. Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928), creator of this ‘community’ used the Yellow Kid pages to visually and verbally (comically as well as seriously) deal with urban city life situations in the late nineteenth century.

Soon after its birth, the Yellow Kid became a popular (omnipresent) icon with a market value (cf. Marschall/Bernard 26-35; Gordon, esp. 6-7 and 11-12). In this regard Marschall and Bernard point out that “[t]he Yellow Kid did not so much presage but embodied the variety of licensing and merchandising uses that cartoons and cartoonists were to assume” (27). Comics scholar Ian Gordon argues that the mass-produced newspaper comic strips were incorporated into the lives of Americans “through the widespread licensing of characters and,” as he furthermore claims by means of “the use of the art form in advertising” (Gordon 106). This reciprocal relation between comic art and advertising becomes a common (good-)selling strategy in the early decades of the twentieth century.5 The point Gordon makes is a serious one, not least because, as he notes, the cultural practice of licensing characters and using them in advertising had the effect of “[tying the] audiences together as national communities of readers and familiarized them with the language of the art form” (106).

Before I elaborate on the comic pages’ audiences and the cultural work of the serial figure, the overall objective of this article, let me briefly add a paragraph on the kid’s carrier medium: the newspaper (cf. Kobre 44-58, esp. p. 50-55 and 58).

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, two newspaper barons—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst—fought over new readerships, price reductions and promotions, and right in the middle of this newspaper war, the Yellow Kid was born.6 Hardly surprising, Pulitzer (owner of the New York World) and Hearst (owner of the rival New York newspaper titled the Journal) soon also fought over the successful and good-selling comic product. Just a few months after Pulitzer had printed the first Yellow kid episodes Hearst hired Outcault—and other “Pulitzermen” (cf. Kobre 64-65)—away to do the kid cartoons for his newspaper. Pulitzer then asked the Ashcan artist George Benjamin Luks to continue the Yellow Kid adventures in his newspaper (Gambone; Kasanof). The result of this—well-documented—rivalry was that two versions of the kid existed simultaneously.7 Each Sunday, the readers of Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal could from then on follow the “gang” until the end of the kid’s Sunday stories in 1898.8

Against the backdrop of these reflections, this article will offer a historically contextualized close reading of one of the New York Yellow Kid pages. I will focus on Outcault’s first Sunday kid page, which was published in Hearst’s New York Journal on October 18, 1896.9 My analysis of this page is based on the following premises: nineteenth century American newspaper comic pages, which appeared in the Sunday supplement sections are a rich cultural ‘field, and multi-modal/vocal10 expressive forms that offered their heterogeneous and demographically diverse readership a mixture of humor and entertainment, (parodistic) discussions of serious social issues (e.g. class tensions, immigrant experience, racial and ethnic discrimination, education, public health care, poverty treatments, housing measures), and visual-verbal negotiations of politics. To speak with Silbermann: the newspaper comics “[got] their topics out of the socio-cultural environment from which they originate and for which they [were] produced” (21). The comic pages are culture-historic sources that offer visual-verbal insights into the social climate in the immigrant city of New York and into modern—industrialized—life.11 If Gordon’s claim is right that comics are “an outcome of the process of modernization, […] a humor-based response to the problems of representation faced by a society in transition […] [and] representations through which an increasingly commodified society saw and constituted itself” how do the pages respond to the economic, social, cultural and political transformations, and how can they be made useful in the discussions about urbanization, social tensions, the consequences of industrialization, and nation? (Gordon 6).

While this serves as an overall guiding question for my article, a number of more precise questions have guided my analysis of Outcault’s/Townsend’s “McFadden’s Row” page: how do image and text interrelate, and how is meaning-making generated in the page? How does this page contribute to the popularization, and in fact, consolidation of cultural knowledge (about urban life) and to the construction of social values and ideas?

My contention is that this Yellow Kid page brings to the printed (vaudeville) stage12 the interconnected social issues of public health care and nation-building, while at the same time poking fun at such political (juridical) issues as the Raines Bill, and also self-reflexively and ironically commenting on the medial context of its creation.13 These interrelated aspects, painted and narrated in a street setting, are played off against each other to fulfill different reader needs.

In more precise terms, I argue that the page is built on a thematic leitmotif: “move,” and this leitmotif serves three purposes: first, it is used as a meta-medial/self-reflexive commentary and intertextual reference to point to the rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst, and Outcault’s “move” from the World to the Journal. Second, the leitmotif serves to engage with (and parody) the topical debate of the “infamous” Raines Bill14 and its consequences on city planning. Finally, and most importantly, both the page’s illustrator Outcault and its author Townsend use the leitmotif “move,” to ponder the sanitary reform efforts in the 1890s, and the—forced—relocations of, for example, immigrant groups; in other words, they use the setting of a New York area and the leitmotif to foreground topographical shifts in New York City in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. This visual/verbal negotiation of public health care and the displacement of the city’s inhabitants is, I will further show, intricately tied up to larger issues of nation-state and immigration policies.

Manhattan’s Newspaper Row—Moving to McFadden’s Flats

Both Richard Felton Outcault and George Benjamin Luks make the rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst and the concomitant questions of originality, authorship and copyright over the Yellow Kid recurrent topics in their Sunday comic pages. In self-reflexive manner they make jokes about it, or rather, they poke at each other repeatedly through the printed words on the kid’s nightshirt. On the day that Luks’s first comic page for Pulitzer’s World was printed (titled “The Open-Air School in Hogan’s Alley”) and announced, “SAY! THEY’RE IMiTATIN’ ME ALL AROUND TOWN! I’M THE SUNDAY WORLD’S KID AND AND HAVE BEEN FUR A YEAR & A HALF! ALL OTHERS ARE FAKES,” Outcault’s comic page in Hearst’s Journal answered the question of who the original and authentic kid is as follows: “SAY! WHEN WE GiTS IN OUR NEW HOME WE’RE GOiN TER BE DE REAL TING,” and ironically continues: “HULLY GEE—BU WE WONT DO A TING IN MCFADDENS ROW OF FLATS.”15 Both lines are printed on the kid’s nightshirt, and serve to draw the reader’s attention immediately to the issue of re-location. Re-location here means on the one hand the “gang’s” move from “Hogan’s Alley” to “McFadden’s Row” (or from “the street from up Cherry Hill” down to McFadden’s row as the narrative says) and on the other hand, or rather in addition to that, Outcault’s move from Pulitzer’s World to Hearst’s Journal.16 This is further verbalized and visualized by the (crossed-out) words printed on the travel bag the kid carries: “DE KID HOGAN’S ALLEY MC FADDEN’S FLATS.”

Earlier on, while still working for Pulitzer’s World, Outcault warned the readers to look for his signature: “DO NOT BE DECEIVED NONE GENUINE WITHOUT THIS SIGNATURE” (September 6, 1896). The paratextual information of Outcault’s “McFadden’s Row of Flats” episode that I want to concentrate on in this article further echoes this warning: “By E. W. Townsend, Author of ‘Chimmie Fadden’ Illustrated by R. F. Outcault, Originator of ‘Hogan’s Alley'” (emphasis added). Questions of authorship and originality are also discussed in the accompanying text passage by Townsend and linked to questions of belonging and ownership. The heterodiegetic narrator elaborates on the happenings on the streets, and at one point Mrs. Murphy, one of the figures living in McFadden’s Row, asks: “Whose little one are you, dear?”, and the kid answers: “Say, I aint nobody’s child.” Through the voice of the kid, Townsend thus further comments on the fact that no copyright on the name Yellow Kid was successfully filed for, and that no exclusive rights or ownership can be claimed.17

In this comic page it is not only the kid posing questions of authenticity, originality, and authorship. To the left of the page, on what seems like a wooden box, which is help up by another kid, the move to a new setting is proclaimed as a “FOXEY MOVE—BE GEE!” I would argue that this “foxey move” and the connotation of outsmarting is meant to stand for two things here: while it certainly points to the kid’s move to a new street (thus referring to the content-level of the page), the statement, as I would read it, also serves to build an extratextual reference to Hearst’s hiring Outcault away from Pulitzer (at the same time, Pulitzer’s “move” of hiring someone else to continue the yellow kid series, namely the artist George B. Luks, can likewise be read as “foxey”); secondly, the expression implicitly refers to Pulitzer’s clever move to take “Hogan’s Alley” as the title of the Yellow Kid series to bypass litigations (cf. Winchester). So, the statement is a self-reflexive pun on the rivalry between the two newspaper barons and the debates about copyright lawsuits.

An interim finding may thus read: The comics in the supplement sections have ‘observed’ themselves from the start (cf. Kelleter/Stein, 98). “This background,” as Gambone rightly states, “raises a host of complex issues involving the relationship between style, aesthetic, and originality, technological innovation, and the market context of the comics” (Gambone 131; cf. also Marschall/Bernard 27). By means of the visual-verbal duels (or rather, the regular dialogic poking at each other), Luks and Outcault help popularize the name the Yellow Kid. Though working for different—rival—newspapers, the two artists, through the comic pages, collaboratively initiated the process of commodifying the kid.

In direct address to the reader, the printed words in the box continue: “FROM DE ALLEY [Hogan’s Alley that is] NO WE GO DOWN INTO MCFADDEN’S ROW […] BUT WE’LL BE DE SAME OLE CROWD WHERE NO QUIET AINT ALLOWED AN TE MAKE YE LAFF WE’LL ALLUS DO OUR BEST” (emphasis added). The “we” in this passage refers not only to Mickey Dugan and “DE REST OF DE GANG” but also, I would argue to the illustrator Outcault, the author Townsend, and implicitly Pulitzer’s chief editor of the Sunday supplements, Morrill Goddard (cf. Blackbeard).

The Yellow Kid and his entourage found “A BETTER PLACE TE STAY […] AN WE’RE GLAD TO SAY WE’RE GOIN TE MOVE AWAY.” At the bottom of this box, the final words are directed to the reader “ARE YE WIT US? NEXT SUNDAY COME AN SEE US IN MCFADDEN’S ROW OF FLATS” (emphasis added). Quite clearly, this is a strategy to lure the reader away from Pulitzer and into buying Hearst’s papers, and thus to follow the kid’s adventures from then on in Hearst’s Sunday sections. This invitation to follow the doings of the “gang” in the weeks to come is echoed at the end of Townsend’s text for this page. The narrator in Townsend’s narrative concludes: “Such was the migration of Hogan’s Alley to Tim McFadden’s Row of Flats, where the joined communities will be observed from time to time, for the benefit of the readers of this page, by the present historian and artist” (emphasis added).

As I have argued elsewhere, the self-reflexive strategy in many of the Yellow Kid comic pages is not simply an “attempt to market their version of Mickey Dugan as the only authentic one” (Gambone 33). Questions of authenticity are linked to issues of originality and authorship, just as they are tied to aesthetic questions of establishing continuity between the episodes.18 To create continuity, however, was not so much based on formal decisions than on economic decisions in order to secure a stable—and exponentially growing—consumer/- readership (Kelleter/Stein).

Relocation of the Kid—Public Health Care

The conceptual relocation of the kid to a new newspaper and a new (street) setting is not only mediated in the page by means of the self-reflexive commentaries. This relocation is also made visible through the changed layout of the page. As mentioned above, with the move to Hearst’s paper, Outcault’s Yellow Kid adventures were changed into the “McFadden’s Row of Flat” series. With this new title also came a second artist to work on the pages: the writer E. W. Townsend. The overall subject of these serialized Yellow Kid stories was still urban life in the industrialized and growing city of New York. In the episode I am concentrating on in this article, Outcault and Townsend take the street setting and the kid’s move from Hogan’s Alley to McFadden’s Row to voice public health care.

What we see, in very general terms, is a crowded street in the city, with fights and mishaps (e.g. people falling out/or ‘swept out’ of windows because of lack of sympathy or because of the overcrowded tenements, or people hit—or almost hit—by ovens, or furniture). At a first glance, one could also read the page as a representation of a lively scene in a big city with people—and animals—parading the street (with instruments, luggage, banners, accessories).

Furthermore, the installation of (water) pipelines, for example, seems disorganized in “McFadden’s Row of Flats.” Either the pipelines chaotically fly through the air (metaphorically speaking), or they end up on a character’s head (who is carrying it as new form of ‘hat’). All this is certainly funny to look at, yet the comical, entertaining aspect of this page is only half of the story.

Through the self-reflexive comment on Outcault’s move to Hearst, this page also voices the relocation of the kid and his gang to another setting as a move that was decided and based on questions of public health, and with this functionalization of the leitmotif “move” Outcault/Townsend enter a topical debate. In his article on “Social Impact of Disease” Duffy states that “industrialism brought massive urbanization with all its concomitant problems: crowded slums, limited and contaminated water supplies, hopelessly ineffectual methods for eliminating sewage and garbage, and city governments ill-equipped to deal with the explosive growth of population” (802). These are issues that Outcault and Townsend make central topics in their Yellow Kid comic pages in Hearst’s paper.

“‘The tiniments of Hogan’s Alley,” reads the text, and goes on “by the power of the Health Board in ordinance assembled thereunto, being condemned as befit human habitation,” are the cause of the kid’s move to another area. The narrative then explains—through the voice of the tenement owner, Tim McFadden—”I induced the flower thereof [of Hogan’s Alley] to migrate here by my hand and seal thereunto affixed […],” in order to explain that this kid, this “[flower] is now moving out […].” The concluding remarks in the narrative read: “The vacancies [of Tim McFadden’s flats], accruing by due process of law, will be filled, habituated and occupied by the aforetime flower and pride of Hogan’s Alley.” What I find striking about this detailed description of the kid’s move is the mentioning of the Health Board.19 “SAY! HOGAN’S ALLEY HAS BEN CONDEMED BY DE BOARD OF HELT,” reads one of the banners in Outcault’s illustration. The fact that these remarks on public health measures are printed in text boxes that look similar to advertising or propaganda posters makes this page even more interesting, for Outcault, one might argue, illustrates public voices here and the fears of infectious diseases.

Health issues—and discussions about the sanitary conditions in the tenement living areas in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, which were, euphemistically speaking, rather poor—were omnipresent in public debates of that time. Duffy writes in this regard, for example: “As it was, outbreaks of cholera in any part of the world or the appearance of a case of cholera or yellow fever in quarantine was enough to arouse the newspapers, medical societies, and civic authorities in every American port” (Duffy 800). He continues: “Although the fever never gained a foothold in Manhattan, every summer New York newspapers carried stories of its ravages in the South, and they rarely failed to editorialize upon its danger whenever cases were reported on incoming vessels” (801). Such research can serve, I would argue, as a fruitful background reading for a better understanding of this Yellow Kid page. Outcault’s/Townsend’s first “McFadden’s Row” episode for Hearst’s Journal participates, one might argue, in a larger (public, institutional, literary, political, lawmaking) public debate of—social—health and urban renewal.20 As Duffy rightly states about the discussions in the press, “even the most cursory reading of late 19th century newspapers [shows] […] that public health and sanitary reform became major public issues” (Duffy 809; cf. also Brieger).

What I aimed to show with my close reading of these parts in the Yellow Kid page is that Outcault and Townsend link the (meta-medial and funny) discussion about the relocation, or move, of the kid with a (topical and serious) commentary about public health, sanitation, and hygiene. In Outcault’s/Townsend’s comic page, the ‘medicalized’ move, then again, are, as I will show in the following section of my article, intricately tied up with the racial discourse of the late nineteenth century. This holds especially true for the accompanying text passage.

How the ‘Others’ Lived

The Sunday supplements with their Yellow Kid comics reached a large, heterogeneous and demographically diverse audience. Immigrant readers without knowledge of the English language, for example, yet with sufficient visual literacy, could simply enjoy the pictorial parts of the page(s) (cf. Yaszek, esp. 24, 30 and 32). Those familiar with spoken English language, yet limited knowledge in (standard) English orthography could read the written imitations of spoken vernacular, printed on the kid’s nightshirt as well as in many of the text boxes.21

The nonstandard spellings in many of the Yellow Kid comic pages are, however, not the only means to formulate/present—in caricaturesque manner—the Irish dialect. In combination with the standard written language that the pages are also endowed with (especially in the form of the heterodiegetic narrating agency in the accompanying text passage), they serve as graphic devices and forms of dialect representation (e.g. “cirkis,” “THOT WINDER,” “DIS IS ME FOIST FALL”) to engage a diversity of readers. Yaszek writes in this regard: “Audiences coming from various discursive formations may all laugh at the Yellow Kid, but the joke may be different for these various readers, depending on their socio-historical positions” (30). This is crucial for the understanding of meaning-making in/of the Yellow Kid pages as well as their cultural work. First and foremost they supplements with their comics served to entertain, to lighten up the audience, but they also functioned to participate in the debates on topical issues and thus to (entertainingly) inform the heterogeneous readership about what was going on. Outcault (and as a matter of fact Luks as well) had a background in political cartooning and drawing caricatures, and these traditions and their functions and effects shine through in the Yellow Kid newspaper comics pages.

The decoding of the pages and the meaning-making processes may vary, depending on the reader’s background, and depending on the reader’s literacy as well as on the degree of involvement. What I am trying to point out here are two things, which are related to Yaszek’s discussion of the encoding and decoding strategies in/of the Yellow Kid page. First, the forms of vernacular speech presentation mentioned above certainly offer a, what can be called, dialect realism.22 The comics pages appropriate a common narrative strategy. As Gavin Jones notes in the introduction to his study Strange Talk (1999): “Late-nineteenth-century America was crazy about dialect literature,” and he continues: “Vernacular varieties of American English burst into print” and “every predominant ethnic group was linguistically lampooned in popular poetry and prose” (Jones 1). One of the most prominent examples in this regard is Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896), a work which mixes a heterodiegetic narrating agency speaking standard English with dialogues printed in vernacular form.23 “As both a representational technique and a cultural theme,” Jones maintains, “dialect was absorbing the creative energies of literary minds,” and this includes the newspaper comics. The inclusion of “mimickry of speech patterns” of Irish vernacular in the Yellow Kid pages thus complies with the cultural code of “ethnic dialect” of that time. The Irish were ridiculed in different expressive forms, be that with respect to their outer appearance, their supposedly typical habits, and their ‘false’ English (cf. Dormon 489-491; Mintz 19-20). The “speech realism”24 in the Yellow Kid comics pages is based on traditions of vaudeville representation of ethnic (and racial) stereotypes. Many, if not all, cartoons and comic strips of that era (and well into the first decades of the twentieth century) made use of ethnic and racial stereotypes, and this included speech presentations. As I have argued elsewhere, the construction of stereotypes was part of the comic business at the end of the nineteenth (and, in fact, at the beginning of the twentieth) century. Representations of stereotypes give insight not only to the cultural codes but also into the marketability of certain ‘types’ in popular culture products.

In view of these observations one should ask how Outcault and Townsend made use of dialect in the “McFadden’s Row” page, or rather, how they encoded vernacular speech presentations—as a means for satire, as a means for social critique, or simply as a “homours gimmick?” (Jones 38). My contention is that the use of dialect speech in the page fulfills both the economic needs (it is a good-selling device to lure—new—readers into buying the paper) and the cultural ‘needs’ of the paper’s (diverse) readership; as mentioned above, readers without knowledge of the English language or readers without interest in reading the words could simply enjoy the pictorial parts of the page; readers with limited knowledge in standard English writing, but language proficiency in spoken terms could decipher the vernacular speech presentations and laugh about them(-selves); readers with both visual and verbal literacy could use the pages according to their needs. This interpretative freedom or openness is generated by dint of the polysemy of the page.

One should not forget in this regard, however, that Outcault’s/Townsend’s pages offer middle-class perspectives, or “spectatorial view[s],” to borrow a term by Wilson, on lowerclass people—often ethnically or racially marginalized immigrants. To speak with Wilson again, the Yellow Kid pages are “implicated in the broader middle-class anxiety about urban disorder; realism’s aesthetic entails a ‘spectatorship’ aimed at the poor that both exoticizes and hopes to reform them.” (Wilson 275). While I am not so sure about the reforming part—in the Yellow Kid pages—I would sign Wilson’s argument with respect to the exocitization of the poor and the ‘Other.’

In support of this I would like to broaden my reading of the “McFadden’s Row” episode and refer to the narrating agency and look at the way he describes the first encounter with the kid. Upon the arrival of Mickey Dugan in McFadden’s street, the kid’s outer appearance is compared to a “sack of yellow hue.” This “yellow hue,” the narrator continues, “would have excited the envy of Li Hung Chang.”25 In the following, some of the other members of the McFadden community discuss the arrival of the kid. They are anxious to know who “Dese kid mit de yellow nightie […] the little one wid de shaved pate on him” is. The character Mrs. Murphy asks: “What’s this the Dunnigan Twins has betune thim? Is it a little Li Hoong Choong, or a kid wid the cholera, having the quartereen flag on him? Hasten quickly, […] inform me befoor I die wid worrymint” (emphasis added).26

The “shock value” of such epidemic diseases as yellow fever and cholera—cholera panics were common and widely, and repeatedly, spread in the newspaper (cf. Duffy 803- 804)—is voiced here through the (xenophobic) character of Mrs. Murphy.27 The arrival of a “little Li Hoong Choong” and Mrs. Murphy’s “worrymint” are, I argue, not simply a means to voice a (personal) fear of an infectious illness but also a cultural fear of an ‘invasion’—of unhealthy input into the nation—and the concomitant transformations in society. In this respect, Townsend’s narrative is(en-)framed in the public debate surrounding Chinese immigration—or, in fact, in a larger sense, any new immigrant group—and their alleged threat to—white—bourgeois America (Mintz; McAllister; Lee 1999; Lee 2007; Dormon).

In the end, Townsend’s narrative is implicated in its historical time, and manifests the construction of the—threatening—’Other’ in public-popular imagination. In his essay on “immigrant vaudeville” Mark Whalan writes that the acts “gave audiences a way of mediating their fears, hopes and uncertainties over their own identity in a multi-ethnic urban environment” (56). He continues, they “provided […] a cultural sphere for audiences,” and concludes that “ethnic masks allowed the freedom of licence—to say and perform things more difficult if one was ‘playing it straight’—as well as providing a mechanism for both ridiculing and borrowing from other cultural traditions” (56). These statements can be made useful in the discussion of the Sunday comic pages, for they in many respects serve as a visual means in the vaudevillian fashion to discuss social issues such as immigration and ethnic diversity, class, gender (that’s a different story) and different forms of discrimination. To summarize some of my findings, in Outcault’s/ Townsend’s “McFadden’s Row” page, the conceptual relocation of Mickey Dugan is used by Outcault (and, to a lesser extent by Townsend in his narrative) to self-reflexively comment on the medial context of the kid’s creation. Second, the displacement of the kid serves to visually-verbally engage in the discourse of public health—and nation. Whereas Outcault’s illustration draws attention to sanitary reform issues and the tenement living conditions (one might say, it is an illustrated version of Jacob Riis’s famous, and sensationalist, collection of photographic images How the Other Half Lives, 1890), Townsend’s narrative adds to this a (middle-class) voice speaking about epidemic diseases and the alleged threat to—national—health. Thus, the page also, implicitly and explicitly, engages in the immigration policies in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Against the backdrop of these reflections I would like to come to my conclusion.

Migrations by—Raines—Law

The Yellow Kid comics, as it should have become clear by now, are polysemous texts that served manifold reader needs. They served as a visual means in the vaudevillian fashion to entertain the reader, while at the same time visually and verbally participating in discussions about social issues such as immigration, ethnic diversity, health, and nation.

By way of conclusion, I would like to show that Outcault’s and Townsend’s page does not simply illuminate/narrate dimensions of public health care and immigration but also of urban politics and State legislature. I would like to finish my close reading of this comic page with a look at yet another functionalization of the kid’s move from “Hogan’s Alley” to “McFadden’s Row”: the relocation of the kid and his entourage, which is based on legal decisions. Hence the title of this section.

One of the most prominent laws was the so-called Raines Law. Initiated by the Republican Senator John Raines, the bill was widely discussed an opposed by the New Yorkers, be that in the form of newspaper articles, letters to the editors, or be that in the form of caricatures. On January 20, 1896, the New York Times, for example writes: The Raines Bill “is on its very face an infamous partisan scheme, an outrage upon the home-rule principle, and a direct defiance of the only demand for a change in the excise law that has been made.” The article continues: “The inequality of the tax and the robbery of cities for the benefit of the country districts are bad enough, but the political purpose of the bill is still worse.” These “opposing sentiment[s]” are likewise the center of attention in a letter to the editor—written January 27, 1896, and published in the New York Times issue of January 31. There the Raines Bill is described as an “invasion.” The author goes on: “The State has not any right to issue licenses for New-York and Brooklyn or for any county. The license fees belong to us, and not to the State.”28 It was passed, however, by the New York State legislature on March 23, 1896.

Outcault’s/Townsend’s page participates in the discussion about the “infamous” Raines Excise bill. In fact, the page makes fun of it. At one point, one of the characters in Townsend’s narrative, Tim McFadden, speaks to his neighbors and explains: “what you observe and hear coming down the street is a migration.” To Mrs. Murphy’s question “what’s a migration?” one of the other comic figures gives the following answer: “A migration […] is a Raines Law Hotel—when it’s pulled.” The comical effect is generated here by means of the implicit reference to the loopholes of the law: saloon owners, by applying for a hotel license (adding rooms in the upper section of their buildings), could bypass the law, and could then continue to sell liquor—on Sundays. This functionalization of the leitmotif “move” then serves to poke at the politicians and lawmakers responsible for the passing of the Raines Bill.

From my close reading I would like to put my findings into a larger context and add a few remarks on further areas or investigation. Despite the fact that Mickey Dugan has been around now for over 100 years now, the cultural work of the series is still, I would claim, a research field in need of close scrutiny, especially in the discipline of American Studies (I mention this because I am myself a German-Americanist scholar). The somewhat lost intersection between newspaper comics and American Studies is only beginning to be rediscovered. There are a number of questions still unanswered with respect to, for example, the (popular) perception of ethnic stereotypes, the representation of Irish diasporic experience and diasporic group identity, or the visual-verbal negotiations of urban life.

Historically situated readings of such newspaper comics as the Yellow Kid pages offer new perspectives not only on the intersections between representations of health, race and ethnicity, immigration, and nation but also on practices and artifacts of popular visual culture at the end of the nineteenth century. To look at these (and other newspaper comics) pages opens, I would suggest, new approaches to questions of meaning making in/of the Sunday strips, and the cultural work of popular, serial texts at the turn of the century.


[1] Yaszek argues that “the Yellow Kid appears to be Chinese, Irish or Slavic (depending on how you look at him) boy living in America” (Yaszek 35). While this interpretive freedom holds true for the first couple of episodes in the Yellow Kid series set in New York, this openness is—at least verbally—restricted with the christening of the nameless “kid” as Mickey Dugan (cf. Blackbeard 37, and pp. 48-49) and the printing of Irish vernacular speech on his shirt. The kid represents an Irish- American. The later Yellow Kid series titled “Around the World with the Yellow Kid” (to which I will come later) further sustains this. In the episodes on 14 February 1897, Mickey and his entourage visit the land of the “4 fadders”: Ireland.

[2] I borrow this term from Gilfoyle 867. Street kids in the industrialized cities of the US were a recurrent topic in public debates (e.g. in the form of articles and illustrations for magazines and newspapers). For more information on the “urban children and street life” (e.g. vagabonds, panhandlers, and the newsboys) see, for example, Gilfoyle’s article “Street-Rats and Gutter-Snipes,” here p. 853. The article discusses also a number of illustrations that make the “street children” their subject and which appeared, among others, in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the second half of the nineteenth century.

[3] On the development of the newspaper and magazine market in post-Civil War American society, and especially on the development of the Sunday papers cf. Kobre, chapter 1, esp. p. 20-21, and chapter 2, esp. p. 50-51.

[4] As an aside: in the early episodes of the Yellow Kid series do not show words printed on the nightshirt; cf. Blackbeard.

[5] Nell Brinkley, early twentieth century American newspaper artist, writer, painter, and magazine illustrator is probably one of the most prominent examples in this regard. Cf. Robbins.

[6] Cf. Blackbeard 41-42 and 44f. On Pulitzer and his Sunday comic pages see, for example, Baker’s and Bretano’s valuable collection of selected pages from Pulitzer’s paper in The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911).

[7] Cf. Blackbeard; Balzer/Wiesing. Altogether, there were three Yellow Kid series: two are set in New York City (one set in “Hogan’s Alley,” the other in “McFadden’s Row”), and one takes place “Around the World.” George B. Luks continued Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” series for Pulitzer’s World. Outcault drew the “McFadden’s Row” episodes for Hearst’s Journal. Cf. Blackbeard 37, and pp. 48- 49. In was in Hearst’s Journal that the collaborative work of Richard F. Outcault and E.W. Townsend began. Townsend wrote short narratives, and Outcault contributed the illustrations. Cf. Blackbeard 64- 65, and 68. In addition, Outcault produced the so-called “Around the World with the Yellow Kid” series in 1897, which only appeared in Hearst’s paper—there, the accompanying text passages were written by the Journal‘s editor Rudolph Block. For a chronological listing of Outcault’s Yellow Kid series see, for example, Olson’s appendix; cf. also Blackbeard. Chapter 4 in Gambone’s study discusses some of Luks’s Yellow Kid pages.

[8] On the “death” of the Yellow Kid see, for example, The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage, put together by the American Studies scholar Mary Wood at the University of Virginia in 2004. See:

[9] Richard Felton Outcault, “McFadden’s Rows of Flats,” New York Journal, Comic Weekly, 18 October 1896. Available online at:

[10] On “multivocality” see, for example, Yaszek 30.

[11] Cf. Blackbeard 17. On the history of the appearance of the weekly supplements with their comic pages see my article; cf. Kelleter/Stein; Blackbeard. For discussions about “the city as living space and origin of modern myths” see Comics and the City (2010) by Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, here p. 5. Their book contains, among others, two articles on the Yellow Kid: Jens Balzer, “‘Hully Gee, I’m a Hieroglyphe’—Mobilizing the Gaze and the Invention of Comics in New York City, 1895” (p. 19-31), and Ole Frahm, “Every Window Tells a Story: Remarks on the Urbanity of Early Comic Strips” (p. 32-44).

[12] Some of Outcault’s and Luks’s comic supplement pages are actually set in vaudeville theaters. See, for example, Outcault’s “Mc Fadden’s Rows of Flats,” New York Journal, 10 January 1897, and Luks’s “The Hogan’s Alley Kids at the Continuous Performance,” New York World, Comic Weekly, 5 December, 1897.

[13] On the “theatrical adaptations of comic strips about immigrant life on the Lower East Side” see Kibler 493-494. Cf. also Wittke.

[14] On the Raines Law see Shaw esp. p. 192-93.

[15] Capitalization, italicization, font size and style, and other typographic specificities—including upper and lower case letters—are reproduced here as they appear in the original.

[16] Cherry Hill was a slum area, which became famous in particular because of Jacob Riis, who wrote about it.

[17] This sentence, I should note, carries another meaning as well. Townsend does not only comment on questions of ownership regarding the Yellow Kid; through his narrating agency and by means of the speech presentation of the kid he also reflects on the topical issue of—orphaned—street children. In more precise terms, the issue of belonging is intricately tied up here with questions of community building. “Street children,” Gilfoyle writes in this regard, “worked and lived outside the paradigm of middle-class domesticity, enjoying few, if any, traditional familial influences. Their collective identity was shaped primarily by a peer group of immediate friends and associates […].” (Gilfoyle 870). The harsh reality of the urban kids is depicted as follows in Townsend’s narrative: The “members of his [the kid’s] party […] Lize, the red-headed girl, Terence McSwatt and others of his companions […] were distributed according to their family connections in the recently vacated portions of the Flat.” For the kid, however, “[t]here was no room or portion of a room […] but he discovered a little closet in the hall adjoining the door to Tim’s room.”

[18] The concept of authorship is discussed in Daniel Stein’s insightful article “Was ist ein Comic- Autor?” see esp. p. 204-206.

[19] On the Metropolitan Board of Health Act for New York City see Duffy, esp. pages 806-807. By way of mentioning, the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene was created (I908).

[20] This was a contested domain at the end of the nineteenth century. To delve into this is a study deserving of more space and consideration than I can allow here. In a work in progress I am trying to bring together, or rather relate to each other different forms of literary and non-literary texts that deal, for example, with health issues and concomitant questions of poverty, social inequalities, acts of exclusion and marginalization, etc.

[21] Yaszek’s idea about the “interpretive openness” of the comic pages that would help “maintain their popular status” is helpful here. For further information see esp. p. 29 of her article.

[22] “Dialect,” as Gavin Jones points out “had widespread appeal to all sections of the Gilded Age population” (7). In a similar vein, Kersten claims that the “creative use of language [in particular the ‘dialect voice’] was apparently relished by writers and readers alike” (3; cf. also p. 4).

[23] The same year that Outcault drew his Yellow Kid adventures in “McFadden’s Row,” Stephen Crane published a series of sketches for Heart’s New York Journal. In his so-called Tenderloin sketches (which he actually began a little earlier already) Crane would verbally describe everyday city life in this district (cf. Leary; Wilson).

[24] John M. Kirk offers a valuable discussion of “speech realism”—yet with focus on literary texts of the twentieth century—in his article “Contemporary Irish Writing and a Model of Speech Realism” (45-61). Cf. also Kersten 4.

[25] Viceroy Li Hung Chang (1823–1901) visited the United States in 1896. His encounters with a number of politicians were recorded in the newspapers. Some of his speeches were printed in, for example, the San Francisco Examiner or the New York Journal. In 1903 Alicia E. Neve Little published the biography Li Hung-Chang. His Life and Times, recently re-published. Cf. also Hess, and:

[26] As an aside: the Yellow Jack flag was used as a warning sign to show that a house was under quarantine.

[27] Early accounts of disease reports and their connection to immigration policies can be found in the literary/scholarly marketplace in the 1860s; cf. McAllister; Lee 2007. A valuable discussion of representations of ethnic and racial ‘Others’ is provided by Lee 1999; see especially p. 1-5; 52.

[28] At the end of the letter, the author: “A great many will leave the Republican Party and vote the Democratic ticket if our rights are not attended to.”

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