Generally agreed upon as the first comic book, Mickey “The Yellow Kid” Dugan was one of the first sensationalist, entertainment journalism pieces.
Clickbait isn’t good, even by its very name. The somewhat predatory practice of using maliciously cropped headlines and baiting images to generate clicks and ad revenue are generally outlined as one of the worse aspects of the internet. Between the “panem et circuses” morality and the sensationalist headlines, one could easily forget that the first clickbait is as old as comic books themselves. This is for good reason: the first comic was clickbait.
The Yellow Kid, named after his large, yellow nightshirt, appeared in short strips and illustrations in a series of New York-based Newspapers in the late 1800s. A controversial figure in its own right, The Yellow Kid was a culmination of years of sensationalized entertainment-based reporting that eventually culminated in the delegitimization of any newspaper that ran his strips of it. Even so, the history of the practice and the character is well worth exploring.
Comic Strips Began Before The Yellow Kid’s Syndication
It’s rather difficult to nail down exactly when what one calls a “comic” would have begun in earnest. If it’s an image or images that demonstrate motion and action, triptychs have existed in the western world since time immemorial, and cave paintings technically work similarly. If it’s a mass-published series of images, these predate the movable-type printing press. However, the immediate precursors to comic books can likely be attributed to political cartoons. From mayoral disputes to calls for revolution, the cartoons appeared in newspapers in America as early as the mid-1700s. Generally a single image with multiple labels in order to clarify the joke, political cartoons still continue to this day, even being drawn by comic book artists, but are often categorized separately from comic strips or books because of their single-panel nature. Where some comics have managed to eschew words altogether, political cartoons generally need them to make clear their points and allegories.
From Political Cartoon to Bawdy Tale
After his publication reached the public, Outcault tried to apply for copyright of the property to no avail. Because of this, The Yellow Kid became a comic used by two separate publications, and both wanted the public’s attention. Given that controversy sells, the newspapers quickly moved away from the heavy politics of the original cartoon and instead made it about a poor Irish boy whose grammar is, to say the least, subpar. From cockfights to musicals, the comic used multiple panels to explore the “fun” side of poverty in as bawdy a fashion as the general public could consume.
In 1897, a collected edition with a set of narratives by Outcault himself was published in book form and in color, making The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats the first true comic book and paving the way for greats such as Marvel and DC. Such success was indicative of the popularity of the comics, but with so many hands in the metaphorical pie, The Yellow Kid quickly lost any semblance of political import and fell out of favor with the general public… but not before bringing down the newspapers he was published in.
Both Truth and The Yellow Kid‘s other publishing newspaper, New York Journal American, became known quickly for the publication of a full-color political cartoon strip that featured no politics. Given that it was therefore robbed of its value, The Yellow Kid stained the two newspapers and led to them being called vapid and pointless because of their needless indulgence in a set of images for the express purpose of lowbrow entertainment. For this reason, both papers were branded as “Yellow Kid Papers,” a term which then spread to other journals and newspapers, eventually shortening to “Yellow Journalism,” a still-used term for vapid journalism which only contains puff pieces and controversial content. for the sake of selling copies and nothing more.
In leading to a name for an entire genre of clickbait-esque journalism, The Yellow Kid, perhaps unfairly, is easily credited with the origination of clickbait. Looking back on the comic, it was intended for entertainment and never intended otherwise after the shift, making its synonymous nature with pointless entertainment somewhat dated. Regardless, the first comic book, like many comics since, left a lasting impact on language and on the journalism industry as a whole. Even in a comic that is synonymous with meaninglessness, the art and influence of Outcault’s work gives it meaning over a century later.
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