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Welcome to the two-hundred and ninth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous two hundred and eight.
Comic Book Legends Revealed is now part of the larger Legends Revealed series, where I look into legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can check out here, at legendsrevealed.com.
This week, we’re going to have another theme week – this time around, it’s all legends involving perhaps the very first comic character ever, the Yellow Kid!
COMIC LEGEND: The Yellow Kid’s famous yellow shirt came from an experiment in yellow ink.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
Richard Felton “R.F.” Outcault was born in 1863.
His early professional career was spent working with Thomas Edison as the technical artist for Edison’s traveling shows of the late 1880s that went from town to town demonstrating the utility of Edison’s many inventions (but primarily his electrical lights).
After a few years of this, Outcault turned to cartooning in the pages of all the various major New York cartoon magazines of the day, like Judge and Truth.
It was actually in the pages of Truth magazine, not the New York World newspaper, that the Hogan’s Alley first appeared.
Here he is in a cartoon in Truth from June 2, 1894…
(Feudal Pride in Hogan’s Alley
Little Rosilla McGraw — No; we won’t come and play with you, Delia Costigan. Our rejuced means may temporary necessitate our residin’ in a rear tenement, but we’re jist as exclusive as when we lived on the first floor front and papa had charge of the pound in the Department of Canine Captivity! )
That’s a pretty awesome little cartoon there. As you can tell, it was clearly meant for an adult audience.
After a few more Hogan’s Alley cartoons featuring the Hogan’s Alley kids over the rest of 1894 and the beginning of 1895 (it was not yet a recurring feature, really, as it was about five cartoons spread out over a year’s worth of magazines), Outcault’s finally had one of his Truth cartoons reprinted in the New York World (which was owned and run by Joseph Pulitzer) on February 9, 1895, the first newspaper appearance of the Yellow Kid (and the first clear appearance of Mickey Dugan, who would become the Yellow Kid soon enough).
(Fourth Ward Brownies
Mickey, The Artist (adding a finishing touch) — Dere, Chimmy! If Palmer Cox wuz t’ see yer, he’d git yer copyrighted in a minute. )
Outcault was already beginning to get some work in the pages of The World, but really, it was not until they reprinted his Hogan’s Alley cartoon that the work became steady.
As you can see, the Yellow Kid was not yet a major part of the strip. He was just one of the various denizens of Hogan’s Alley.
The strips were initially in black and white, but Hogan’s Alley proved popular enough that by May of 1895, they were in full-page color drawings (click on all of the full-page drawings to enlarge them).
As you can see, the Yellow Kid is not even Yellow in these early cartoons.
Finally, in November of 1895, the Yellow Kid actually matched his name…
And the yellow that made up his outfit is part of a longstanding myth.
First off, for years, the story went that the Yellow Kid’s outfit was the FIRST usage of the color yellow in newspapers. That’s obviously false, heck, you can see some of these earlier cartoons even had yellow in them!
So if that’s what you’re going with “The Yellow Kid’s outfit was colored yellow because they wanted to test out the color yellow on SOMEthing,” which WAS an accepted story for years, then no, that’s incorrect.
However, I don’t think that was ever REALLY the story, but rather, I think that was a misinterpretation of the REAL story, which is that the Yellow Kid was colored yellow with an experiment IN yellow inking rather than the FIRST use of yellow ink.
It is know that at the time (1895), yellow ink did not dry as well as the other colors. You’ll notice that yellow, while used, WAS used less than the other colors.
Therefore, the story goes that the Yellow Kid was colored yellow (as opposed to his earlier blue) with an experimental new TYPE of yellow ink through the development of different types of chemical inks, which often involved various types of tallow (which is made up of animal fat).
THIS, to me, sounds believable.
First off, we know that new chemical inks were being invented during this time (by invented, I really mean “being mixed and matched to see what would work”).
Secondly, in his 1916 book, Training for the Newspaper Trades, Don Carlos Seitz (business manager for the New York World) repeats the “trying out a new type of yellow ink” story.
He says (thanks to Glen Cadigan for the quote):
“The ” yellow ” phase developed when William J. Kelly, the pressman, whose knowledge of color printing had been obtained printing specimen books for George Mather’s Sons, the ink Makers, complained that he could get no results from the wishy-washy tints turned out by the art department and begged for some solid colors. About this time R. F. Outcault, a clever youth from Sandusky, Ohio, who had recently invaded New York, turned in to the Sunday editor, then Arthur Brisbane, several black and white drawings, depicting child-life in a tenement district called ” Hogan’s Alley.” I carried Kelly’s kick to C. W. Saalburg, the colorist who was painting the key plate of the “Alley,” and being of quick understanding said: ” All right, I’ll make that kid’s dress solid yellow!” ,Suiting the action to the word he dipped his brush in yellow pigment and ” washed ” the ” kid.” For once Kelly was right. The ” solid color ” stood out above all the colors in the comic. The ” yellow kid ” arrived. The success of the series led to the capture of Mr. Outcault by the rival Journal newly revived by William R. Hearst, and to a fortune for the artist. The rivalry resulting, for the World’s ” kid ” was long continued by George B. Luks, since a notable American painter, and stamped ” yellow ” on an enterprise that is now common to all news-papers.”
So yeah, when Seitz says the “solid color,” he’s basically just referring to experimenting with different types of ink meant to wash better and therefore look brighter.
Thirdly, many different other books have also told the whole “trying out a new type of yellow ink” story, although few have been as detailed as the Seitz book, so I’m less inclined to give them THAT much validity.
It is clear that once the Kid WAS colored yellow, he definitely stood out in the cartoons, and soon he became the most popular character in the strip, and also, the strip became more and more juvenile and FUN, and rather than being a strip intended for adults, it seemed to be becoming a strip meant for EVERYbody. Check out this bit about the Hogan’s Alley gang discovering golf…
So anyhow, do I believe the “new type of ink” story? I’m thinking yes.
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