On Sunday, January 5, 1896, readers of the comic supplement of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World saw something that would change the face of newspapers forever. In a full-page color cartoon entitled, "Golf—the Great Society Sport as played in Hogan's Alley," appeared a barefoot, bald-headed gamin1 clad only in a yellow nightshirt.2 The Yellow Kid (or Mickey Dugan, as he was eventually to be baptized) became the focus of a craze, and the hero of the world's first comic strip.
A common comic image at the turn of the century was the life of children of urban poverty, invariably "ethnic". Tastes change, and it is not likely that humor of the Hogan's Alley variety would be acceptable today; the nearest we can come to it, perhaps, is certain of the Our Gang comedies, themselves closer to the Kid's time than our own. Richard Felton Outcault (1864-1928) was only one of many cartoonists who made something of a specialty of this genre, but he somehow found a comic vein that was all his own. His street urchins radiated an insouciant defiance of penury that outshone the parallel attempts of other artists, who generally aimed at being either pathetic or quaintly amusing. The Kid, in particular, typically stands at the focus of the drawing, the sun in an orrery of riotous activity.
In October of 1896, Outcault moved to William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The state of the law at the time meant that neither Pulitzer nor Outcault had any proprietary rights in the feature, except for the title Hogan's Alley, which belonged to Pulitzer. Accordingly, from this point on, there were two Yellow Kids, one drawn by Outcault for the Journal, and one, continuing under the Hogan's Alley title, by George B. Luks for the World.3 Luk's version, however, remains only a footnote in comics history, mainly of interest only as needful for the explication of Outcault's frequent jabs in the strip at his imitator.
The Yellow Kid could be seen everywhere for a few years, in toys and advertising, on the vaudeville stage, and in sheet music. In particular, the Homer Tourjee Music Publishing Company of New York published a novelty song called The Dugan Kid Who Lives in Hogan's Alley with words by William H. Friday, Jr. and music by Homer Tourjee. On November 8, 1896, the comic supplement to the Journal printed a somewhat altered version of the song, with words changed to fit the move from Hogan's Alley and the World. The present arrangement is based on that printing.4
But the Kid did not last long. The reasons are unclear, but may well have involved the violent reaction against the color yellow in the United States that accompanied the Spanish-American War. The royal ensign of Spain was dominated by yellow, and schools and clubs across the nation banished it from their symbols and uniforms, foreshadowing the "liberty cabbage" phenomenon of World War I. Another theory is that the Kid had become too identified with the phrase "yellow journalism", of which both the World and Journal were prime practitioners.
By then, however, the comic-strip medium had been successfully born. Outcault himself went on to create Buster Brown, and occasionally gave the Dugan Kid a "cameo" in that strip, to keep the character alive and available for advertising.
For more about the Kid, see:
2 The oft-repeated tale that the hue of the Kid's garment was either to test or to show off an improved color printing process seems to be wholly apocryphal; the World's earlier problems with yellow had already been solved by this time.
3 Some readers may recall puzzling, as the present writer did as a child in the 50's, over the blatant identity of the two strips, The Katzenjammer Kids and The Captain and the Kids. This was the result of a similar event some years later.