Comics—They’re just like Us!: The Yellow Kid and Celebrity Gossip Magazines

In the early decades of newsprint publication, articles published in the United States were written using the formula of who? what? when? where? why? Contemporary journalism may use the same formula now, however, style and presentation have come a long way since the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.  When newspapers were still handcrafted, articles were typically devoid of the emotion and personality that colors current writing.  Sold mostly as subscriptions rather than individual copies, if the writing style of early newspaper articles was not enough to deter readers, the price of newspapers certainly was.  Costing a whooping six cents per newspaper on average, it was typically only wealthy readers who could afford to buy the news, let alone read it. 

Around 1830, however, the tone of newspapers began to change with the creation of penny press newspapers—a change credited to steam-powered printing.  No longer was the creation of newspapers laborious and time consuming; with steam-powered printing, the cost of printing was greatly reduced and hundreds of copies of newspapers could be made quite easily.  Suddenly, news became affordable for middle class and immigrant readers as the price dropped from six cents to one penny.  Subsequently, the way news was written changed to appeal to middle class and immigrant interests.  Gone were the dry and emotionless articles, and in their place were exciting pieces about crime and punishment.

Capitalizing on the penny press during the late 1800s were publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  In 1883, Pulitzer bought the New York World and in 1884, he hired cartoonist Richard F. Outcault to draw a comic for what would become the first full color supplement in newspaper history.  Outcault created the comic Hogan’s Alley for Pulitzer’s paper where the main character, Mickey Dugan, spent time in New York City’s ghetto areas.  Dugan, also known as the Yellow Kid, was created with the color supplement in mind.  To emphasize the color of the comic, Dugan’s character was drawn as a Chinese boy wearing an over-sized yellow shirt, a characteristic that would later be used to describe the kind of journalism that Pulitzer and Hearst’s newspapers published.  Outcault’s comic proved to be wildly popular with the middle class and immigrant readers buying the New York World. The Yellow Kid was both a political commentary on the upper class and a representation of New York’s immigrant population.

Not to be outdone by the popularity of Pulitzer’s newspaper, Hearst was quick to offer a higher salary to Outcault, which in 1896, he accepted.  Moving from the New York World to Hearst’s New York Journal (later renamed New York Journal-America) was higher paying, but it also came with a price.  Because Outcault did not hold the copyright to the Yellow Kid before jumping newspapers, Pulitzer was able to hire another cartoonist to continue drawing Hogan’s Alley despite the fact that Outcault would use the Yellow Kid in his comic for Hearst’s newspaper.  The result of the stolen cartoonist and the competing Yellow Kid comics was a circulation war that American newspapers had never seen.  Since both Pulitzer and Hearst were publishing the Yellow Kid comic, the way the news was written had to change in order to attract readers to one paper or the other.  At first, the newspapers began to publish eye-catching titles to grab the attention of passersby, but it was not long before both Pulitzer and Hearst began to sensationalize their news in order to increase their readership.  Often, news headlines had little or nothing to do with the article that followed and thus, the term “Yellow Journalism” was applied to the kind of news that was being published in The New York World and the New York Journal –an homage to the comic character fought over by Hearst and Pulitzer.

While the circulation war of the late 1800s changed the way newspapers published information and attracted readers compared to the newspapers of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, newspapers within the sphere of influence of Pulitzer and Hearst remained within an evolutionary process.  By 1901, newspapers publishing only sensationalized and exaggerated news were beginning to appear on newsstands.  Wild headlines and celebrity gossip began to attract readers and the tabloid newspaper was born.  Interestingly, the term “tabloid” was used decades prior to the publication of tabloid newspapers.  On April 23, 1884, the Trade Mark Journal published an article where a pharmaceutical group called Burroughs, Wellcome, & Company had compressed medicinal powder into a pill and called it a tabloid.  In other words, “tabloid” was used to describe something small, compressed and/or condensed.  In 1891, the term was applied to the Kendal and Dent edition of Everybody’s Pocket Cyclopædia, a condensed version of an encyclopedia.  By 1901, the tabloid was widely known as a newspaper having pages half the size of an average broadsheet newspaper and was characterized by its sensationalized news.

From the influence of the tabloid newspaper came the celebrity-gossip-specific magazines that provide grocery shoppers around the world with reports of what Brad and Angelina are up to for the holidays.  Image-heavy magazines and tabloids lure readers in with the promise of scandal and gossip, only to provide disappointing results of second-hand news reported by “reliable sources.”   The Yellow Journalism that began with Pulitzer, Hearst, and the Yellow Kid can be seen daily at checkouts everywhere. 

Though over a century has passed since the Yellow Kid first appeared in newsprint, perhaps the style of celebrity gossip magazines is not so different than the image Outcault’s comic was building.  Most often, the Yellow Kid was a representation of the middle class and immigrants, commenting on, and making fun of the upper class.  The image-focused comic relied very little on text, though its inclusion often added to the commentary, rather than functioned as a supplement to it.  Current celebrity gossip magazines are a way to familiarize readers with images and text about the “normalcy” of celebrity—to remind readers that stars are just like us; to remind us that new American dream of becoming a celebrity is not that far off, just look at Honey Boo Boo.

And to think, the evolution of tabloids and celebrity gossip magazines all began because of a color supplement of the New York World featuring a comic of an immigrant in New York City wearing an over-sized yellow shirt.

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