Surely you’ve heard of the phrase “yellow journalism.” It’s the sort of unprincipled journalism where little research is done, and its sole purpose is to sell newspapers. It’s first use happened way back in the 1890′s between two newspaper titans: Joseph Pulitzer of New York World (yes, that Joseph Pulitzer) and William Randolph Hearst of New York Journal. “Yellow journalism” was infamously applied to the Spanish-American War. Hearst and Pulitzer first drummed up anti-Spain sentiments with fabricated stories about brutality in Cuba. The two papers went into full crazy warmongering mode when the USS Maine exploded. To this day, no one really knows if the Spanish were responsible for the sinking of the USS Maine. (Wikipedia provides several competing studies: the latest, based on computer simulations conducted by the National Geographic in 1998, helps support the original theory that a Spanish mine did sink the Maine, while a 1974 naval study concludes that it was spontaneous combustion of coal in the bunker near the magazine. As always, everything is wrapped up in politics.)
But why was it called “yellow journalism” in the first place? It turns out Pulitzer and Hearst had been fighting another war at the same time: one in the funny pages. Each had their own version of the character known as The Yellow Kid. When the media wars erupted, the New York Press called it “yellow journalism.”
The term isn’t as directly tied to the Yellow Kid as previously thought (even Wikipedia makes this error, claiming that “yellow journalism” was shortened from “yellow kid journalism”). However, there IS a connection, as reported by Comic Book Resources. “Yellow journalism” referred more to the fancy new yellow ink that the new newspapers were playing with. That ink was most visually seen in a popular comic where a kid wore a loud yellow shirt. In addition, the editor of the New York Press who coined “yellow journalism” was totes mad with this newfangled trend his competitors were using of mixing comics with serious, honest news reporting… and this bald-headed interloper wasn’t making matters easy.
And that, people, is how one of the early superstars of comics got mixed up with the sinking of the USS Maine.
The Yellow Kid got his start in Richard Outcault’s comic, Hogan’s Alley. It was the Li’l Rascals before there were L’il Rascals: bunch of kids growing up in the turn-of-the-century tenements and saying things wise beyond their years like “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!” Oh, the hilarity! The Yellow Kid was just one of many of the Hogan’s Alley gang, a weird bald kid who had no hair because that’s how they treated lice infections in the day.
Back when Hogan’s Alley was in glorious black and white, the Yellow Kid wasn’t yellow at all. And even with the advent of color, The Yellow Kid was wearing some dowdy grey shirt. Yellow ink didn’t dry well, so when it was used, it was used sparingly. However, once the newspapers hit on a new, fast drying yellow ink, The Yellow Kid got his famous new duds, and a star was born. Ah, man, don’t you miss the days when “fast-drying yellow ink” was the “Flash Animation” of new technologies?
So that’s why he’s The Yellow Kid. I thought that he was a racist caricature of an Asian American, but there doesn’t seem to be anything online to yet support this theory. I mean, other kids in Hogan’s Alley were drawn rather offensively, “yellow” is sort of associated with Asian skin color, and The Yellow Kid did dress the part for visiting Chinese dignitaries … but if you look at what’s written on the shirt in that last link you’ll notice that he implies he’s not from China, so there you go. So that’s that.
Speaking of shirts: The Yellow Kid didn’t speak much, but he had one of the most expressive shirts in the business. It even changed from panel to panel, doubling as The Yellow Kid’s dialogue. It was also a parody of turn-of-the-century advertising techniques, where people primarily advertised with quirky slogans printed on t-shirts. My, how things have changed.
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