The Message of Richard Outcault

May 27, 2008

Comic strips have reached many milestones in their long history. Creators, artists, and writers are celebrated for pioneering efforts, special talent, clever marketing, and forging a place in American pop culture. Of those individuals, Richard Outcault is remembered as the man who permanently established comic strips in American newspapers.

Outcault was a comic strip scriptwriter, sketcher, and painter well known for creating The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown who lived from 1863 to 1928. He is considered the inventor of the modern comic strip, but before creating the characters that made him a legend, he worked for two of the Nineteenth Century’s brightest minds. First, Outcault worked as a technical illustrator for Thomas Edison, who sponsored him to study art in Paris. Then, he freelanced as a humorist and sketcher for popular magazines including Judge and Life, and was hired by Joseph Pulitzer to illustrate for his New York World. Pulitzer used Outcault’s comics in experimenting with color supplement, using a single panel color cartoon called Hogan’s Alley, which debut in 1895.

The star in the strip was the Yellow Kid. It portrayed real struggles in city slums during the turn of the century. Outcault used the strip to introduce the struggle of many city dwellers to the masses. About the character, he once said, “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.”

Then in 1902 Outcault introduced Buster Brown to comic strips. Buster was a mischievous boy who got into plenty of trouble, but learned a lesson and made apologies before the stories ended. Outcault provided messages through the characters he created. Rather than just entertain audiences, kids learned about correcting the trouble they got into and people were taught about the harsh conditions for those they had been previously unaware.

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