Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Happy 152nd birthday R. F. Outcault!

Happy Birthday
Richard Felton Outcault
born January 14, 1863, died September 25, 1928,
the father of the American comic strip.

Here Outcault is next to his most famous creations of the Yellow Kid, Buster Brown and Tige.

Outcault's comic strip, which appeared in Pulitzer’s New York World from May 5, 1895 to October 4, 1896 is considered to be the first successful newspaper comic strip. It featured Mickey Dugan, who is better known as the Yellow Kid because of the large yellow shirt that he always wore.

Mickey Dugan started out as a bald kid in an oversized shirt that was colored various colors before they settled on his characteristic bright yellow shirt, as shown here.
There was a newspaper war going on between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Pulitzer found that Outcault's humorous illustrations sold papers, and in color they sold even more and so the bald kid in the bright yellow shirt was born.
The Yellow Kid has his head was shaved for lice as was common among children in New York's ghettos at the time. He wore an oversized nightshirt that he had acquired from his older sister. It started out white or pale blue in the first color strips but eventually changed to his characteristic yellow.
R. F. Outcault had said about him, "The Yellow Kid was not an individual, but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition, and was generous to a fault. Malice, envy or selfishness were not traits of his, and he never lost his temper."
In addition to the Yellow Kid's cute look, Outcault would later put comments on his shirt depicting the Kid's thoughts. These would later turn into what we now think of as thought balloons.

This May 17, 1896 has one of the first appearances of the Yellow Kid's comments written on his shirt. These comments were what would later become the dialog balloon that became a common motif in all comics to this day.
The Yellow Kid was so popular that William Randolf Hearst offered him a large sum of money to draw the Yellow Kid for his newspaper, New York Journal. Pulitzer may have been disappointed but he wasn't discouraged. He hired George Luks draw there own Yellow Kid comic. So for a time there were two Yellow Kid comics in two different New York papers. This heated rivalry between the two papers eventually brought about the term "school of yellow kid journalism" or simply "yellow journalism".
In this strip from Oct. 25, 1896 was one of the first uses of the word balloon which became a common motif in all comics even to this day.
Here in this comic from Oct. 24, 1897, we see a more traditional style of comics with panel borders outlined in black though some of the rough early elements are present like the numbering on each panel Indicating the order in which to read them. Also, instead of dialog in word balloons Outcault puts Dugan's dialog on the front of his shirt.
The Yellow Kid had a two year run in Hearst's New York Journal before Outcault quite the strip in May of 1898 though he was not done with comics yet. In 1902 Outcault created a new strip about an outrageously mischievous young kid called Buster Brown. Buster was a well off kid who dressed in the fashions of the times but whose curiosity and inventive mind would often get him into one form of trouble or another. He would share his adventures with his dog Tige.

Outcault had a way with creating wildly chaotic scenes with it's exuberant motion lines as seen in this comic about the neighborhood kids and their dogs getting revenge on the local dog catcher.

Buster Brown was a wonderfully inventive strip always coming up with new crazy schemes of Buster and Tige.

Here we see Buster's playmate Mary Jane who was actually modeled after Outcault's own daughter.
Buster Brown was also a huge success for Outcault. There were numerous toys, dolls, and merchandise created in Buster Brown and Tige's image. There was even a musical about him. The comic was so successful that The Brown Shoe Company licensed him to create Buster Brown Shoes.

In the first part of the century, Buster Brown was the thing as seen by the numerous merchandising and productions. Clock wise from Upper left, Buster Brown the musical, Buster Brown and Tige dolls, Buster Brown cigars, and an ad for Buster Brown Shoes.

Richard Felton Outcault is not well remembered these days but he should be, and not just because of his role as being the originator of the American newspaper comic strip but more so for his innovative and invigorating comics. He was a great artist with a penchant for raucous, contagious humor. So on this day of his birth let's remember him for not just being a gifted innovator, but more for being an exceptional entertainer.

You can check out more on the Yellow Kid at The Ohio State University Libraries amazing website with an exhaustive collection of Yellow Kid comic strips.

You can read a great Richard Felton Outcault biography at the R. F. Outcault Society's website.

See the massive Yellow Kid collection or the Buster Brown collection at the Mel Birnkrant collection.

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