To look at little Mickey Dugan a gap-toothed, jug-eared, baldheaded tot in an oversized night shirt you’d never think he had the stuff to ignite a worldwide cultural revolution.
But hang on, Snoopy.
In fact, hang on Doonesbury, Charlie Brown, Buck Rogers, Brenda Starr, Calvin and Hobbes, and every other comic-strip character that ever existed. Because were it not for Mickey Dugan, they might never have been born.
One hundred years ago last week, on Feb. 17, 1895, the little Irish street urchin - a minor comic character in a panel comic who would later become popularly known as The Yellow Kid - burst onto the pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World.
When he did, the newspaper comic strip, the “funny papers” - a creation considered as uniquely American as jazz - came to life. The world was forever changed.
“I think that the Yellow Kid may be one of the most overlooked important American figures,” said Richard Olson, a psychologist and Yellow Kid authority at the University of New Orleans. “He was the one that made the comic strip a permanent part of the newspaper, the first to show that comics could sell newspapers and the first comic character to be merchandised.
“Because of him, the comic page has become an American institution. Everything emanated from him.”
This year numerous special events and exhibits are being planned around the country commemorating the centennial of newspaper comics.
Kansas City-based Universal Press Syndicate, which is 25 years old this year and which distributes numerous comics including “Cathy,” “Garfield,” “Doonesbury” and “Calvin and Hobbes,” is sponsoring a series of lectures throughout the year at Ohio State University’s Cartoon, Graphic, and Photographic Arts Research Library, a major comic strip archive.
At least two museums - one in Bridgeport, Conn., and the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla. - have opened or are planning exhibits of comic art. And the U.S. Postal Service is issuing a series of commemorative stamps.
Of course, in these times of satellite link-ups, computers and live television feeds, it might be difficult to conceive of comics as a cultural force.
But long before Beavis and Butthead, before Bart Simpson, before Saturday morning cartoons and before the Hollywood movie industry and television ever existed, characters such as the Yellow Kid, Buster Brown, the Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo in Slumberland and those that followed reflected the society, shaped its thinking and even shaped its language.
It is because of the Yellow Kid that we now have the phrase “yellow journalism.” Calling someone a Sad Sack or Daddy Warbucks or Charlie Brown or a Palooka, a Superman or a regular Dick Tracy comes from the comics.
If someone with a sudden notion exclaims “A light just went on!” that too is a reference to comic strip artists and their way of drawing light bulbs over the heads of characters who have bright ideas.
Today the Sunday comics attract about 120 million readers nationwide.
Artists who draw the most popular syndicated comic strips are multimillionaires. Comic-strip character merchandising and licensing is a multibillion dollar industry. Some artists, such as Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, are celebrities. In fact, Doonesbury alone is translated into 75 languages.
When “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson announced his retirement recently, readers practically mourned.
“The comics remain the secondmost widely read feature in the newspaper, after the front page,” said Bob Duffy, Universal Press Syndicate’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That means that everybody who picks up a newspaper will read the comics or a portion of the comics, be it one or 50, ahead of sports, ahead of the local news, ahead of weather. They remain very, very strong.
“Drop `Calvin and Hobbes’ out of the paper and see what happens.”
In fact, newspaper editors know exactly what would happen.
“Take away a specific strip, and people scream bloody murder,” said Bruce Beattie, president of the National Cartoonists Society and a political cartoonist at The Daytona Beach News-Journal. “If you remove a comic, you’re literally taking away friends and acquaintances readers have had in some cases for 40 years.”
“Just about any strip you would try to drop is going to make people mad,” said Lee Stinnett, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
To be sure, the Yellow Kid was hardly the first comic to exist. Comic illustrations had been in magazines and books and even newspapers for years. Charles Dickens, under the pseudonym “Boz,” illustrated many of his own novels. Compendiums of comic illustrations sold wildly well in France and Germany years before the Yellow Kid ever existed.
And although it is credited with spurring the start of the comic strip phenomenon, no strip called The Yellow Kid ever really existed.
What did exist was a panel cartoon that had no official name but that has come to be called “Hogan’s Alley.” It was a single black-and-white picture, drawn by artist Richard F. Outcault, that contained many figures based on life in New York’s Irish tenements.
Born in 1863, Outcault drew illustrations for Thomas Edison. He also free-lanced comic art, including his “Hogan’s Alley” panel, to popular New York humor magazines.
But in 1894, Joseph Pulitzer hired Outcault to illustrate a new color Sunday supplement. The artist brought “Hogan’s Alley” along to The World. On Feb. 17, 1895, Mickey Dugan appeared.
But although the kid was cute enough, Outcault had always drawn him as a secondary character, tucked in the back of the throng.
That was until 1896, when something startling occurred. Little black-and-white Mickey Dugan turned bright yellow.
Exactly how it happened is still unknown. Some say the truth has been lost to newspaper lore. Still, the story goes that one of the pressman at The World had been looking for a patch of white on which to test his yellow ink. He chose “Hogan’s Alley,” specifically Mickey Dugan’s white nightshirt.
The choice created, as Olson said, the first comic panel superstar.
“That was the real achievement,” he said. “I often call it the first success story.
“The bottom line is he was the first to stand out in the field and become a feature character and capture the public’s attention.”
He captured so much attention, in fact, that The World’s circulation exploded. The panel comic began attracting young readers. Dugan, who everyone called the Yellow Kid, moved from the back of “Hogan’s Alley” to front and center.
Jealous of The World’s booming circulation, William Randolph Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer for The New York Journal.
The battle between Hearst and Pulitzer, always rancorous, became so bitter that The World hired another artist to produce “Hogan’s Alley,” claiming it owned the rights to the comic. For some years, two Yellow Kid comics drawn by two different artists appeared in two different papers.
This battle between Hearst and Pulitzer led to people calling their papers “the Yellow Kid papers” and later “the yellow papers.” When Hearst and Pulitzer began sensationalizing their coverage of the Spanish-American War, the term “yellow journalism” was born.
By about 1900, as New York’s immigrant population grew, the circulation of both papers grew. New comics followed.
In 1902, Outcault created Buster Brown, a strip about a wealthy kid, which made sense since Outcault was by then a wealthy man himself. By the turn of the century, the Yellow Kid’s face was on everything from toys to cigars.
Outcault’s salary topped $50,000, making him the highest-paid illustrator in the country.
“He put together a staff of secretaries and lawyers to keep track of patent violations that would have made Disney proud,” Olson said.
Soon, nearly every paper in the country followed with its own comic artists until large syndicates developed, putting up for sale the work of the best comic artists in the country.
There was “Happy Hooligan,” produced by Frederick Burr Opper in 1900; Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” created in 1905; and George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” created in 1913. In the 1920s and ‘30s emerged a slew of adventure strips, such as “Buck Rogers” and “Tarzan,” both created in 1929, and “Flash Gordon” in 1934.
Strips such as “Little Orphan Annie” (1924), “Dick Tracy” (1931) and “Li’l Abner” (1934) depicted a country battling with economic depression, unemployment and gangsters.
“The comics reflect our life,” Olson said. “When we went to war, the comics went to war. When we went through the Great Depression, the comics went through the Depression. When women became more liberated, it was reflected in the comics.”
In 1965 the Vietnam War inspired a strip called “Tales of the Green Berets.” In 1970 came “Quincy,” about a child in the poor inner city.
As Judith O’Sullivan wrote in her book, “The Great American Comic Strip”: “A reading of American comics is a reading of 20th-century social history.”
Few need to argue that the reading continues today, from the political satire of Doonesbury to the cultural satire of Zippy the Pinhead, from family dynamics portrayed in “For Better or for Worse” to lives of modern working women depicted in “Cathy.”
Still, said Duffy of Universal Press, while it might be important for a strip to remain socially current, ultimately there is something more fundamental that ties us to the comics.
“We get attached to them,” he said. “If you read a comic for a number of years, you know the characters. These people are your friends.
“You know how they are going to react to things. You actually live in that comic strip.
“You know these people as well as you know your brother and sister.”