Wednesday, May 16, 2012
R F Outcault
Richard Felton Outcault was born in Lancaster, Ohio, on 14 January 1863, the son of Jesse Pugh Outcalt (1833-1910), a cabinet maker who owned a furniture business, and his wife Catherine Ann (nee Davis). He was born with the surname Outcalt and known to his family and friends as Dick.
Dick Outcalt showed an early talent for drawing. At school in Lancaster he would sketch teachers and scholars in class. At the age of 15 he travelled to Cincinnati and enrolled in the McMicken University's School of Design where he studied for three years. Returning to Lancaster, his father established him with a studio and he became a portrait painter. This did not particularly suit his talents as he preferred to produce more humorous drawings. Instead, he found work as a painter with the Hall Safe and Lock Company in Cincinnati.
At the same time, he used his talents to produce illustrations for local newspapers and worked on the Cincinnati Graphic and later on the Cincinnati Enquirer as a cub reporter. It was a story he wrote and illustrated for the Enquirer about an exhibition of the work of Thomas A. Edison that brought him to the attention of the famous inventor. Edison needed a technical illustrator for the 1888 Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Middle Atlantic States, which was to be held in Cincinnati that year, and hired Outcalt. Impressed by the drawings, Edison employed Outcalt as a technical illustrator at his West Orange, New Jersey, headquarters and sent him to Paris to prepare for the Exposition Universelle, held between May and October 1889. Whilst in Paris, Outcalt — by now signing himself Outcault — found time to study art in Paris's Latin Quarter and developed the habit of wearing a beret and cape.
Outcault returned to New York to work on the staff of Electrical Magazine, owned by one of Edison's friends. In Lancaster he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Jane ("Mamie") Martin, the 20-year-old daughter of a local banker, on 25 December 1890. The newly married couple settled in Flushing, New York, and Outcault began freelancing cartoons and jokes to Truth, Judge and Life magazines where they were well received. It was here that he developed the style and characteristics that would make his name; his cartoons were highly detailed and many featured the street kids who lived in the slum tenements of New York. Eventually, Outcault settled on one location for his cartoons, Hogan's Alley.
Outcault was hired in 1894 to produce technical illustrations for the New York World, but continued to sell cartoons. It was in the pages of Truth that he introduced a bald, snaggle-toothed young character in a nightshirt on 2 June 1894. The background character appeared three more times over the next ten months. This fourth cartoon, originally published on 9 February 1895, was reprinted in the New York World and Outcault began producing new cartoons for the paper. From 5 May 1895, Outcault's cartoons began to expand in size and appear in colour and the bald little kid — his nightshirt blue in that first colour cartoon — developed from a background character on the sidelines of the cartoon and began to feature more prominently.
On 5 January 1896 the kid's nightshirt became yellow for the first time and, whilst the character was never named, he was from then on referred to as the Yellow Kid. Over the next few months the silent Kid began to issue irreverent messages to his readers on his nightshirt, usually commenting on the subject of the day's cartoon. The growing popularity of the character — a 'type' that Outcault would see around the slums on his newspaper assignments — earned him the notice of advertisers; the bright yellow shirt proved an attractive billboard and before long there was a great deal of Yellow Kid merchandise available, ranging from buttons to booze.
The growth in popularity of the Kid coincided with a newspaper war that raged between the New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer and the New York Journal, founded by William Randolph Hearst, who raided the World for some of its best artists and writers, including Outcault. Outcault's final cartoon in the New York World appeared on 17 May 1896... but it was not the end for the characters of Hogan's Alley, as the page was continued by George B. Luks.
Hearst, meanwhile, advertised heavily that the New York Journal was now the home of the Yellow Kid, appearing in the Sunday colour supplement each week in a series of full-page panels under the title "McFadden's Row of Flats". The war between the Journal and the World was still in full force and stories became more and more sensational in the battle for readers — to the point where stories were of dubious veracity. To distinguish between the two papers, Hearst's was often referred to as the Yellow Kid Paper, but at that time both papers were featuring the Yellow Kid, who was still appearing in Hogan's Alley in the World. Because of this, the two were inexorably linked and as early as 1897, the New York Press was referring negatively to the "yellow journalism" of the two papers.
One apparent myth regarding the Kid is that Hearst and Pulitzer went to court over ownership of the character. According to Richard D. Olson, "The weak link in the myth is the court decision—there doesn't appear to be any record of such a decision, and I know a lot of people who have looked for it." Elsewhere, we learn that Outcault tried to apply for copyright of "The Yellow Dugan Kid" in September 1896, but due to an irregularity in his application, copyright protection was never granted.
The lack of control he could exercise over his creation led Outcault to abandon the Yellow Kid. Hearst employed him as the editor of the comic page of the New York Evening Journal where he created "Casey's Corner" and "The Huckleberry Volunteers", the Yellow Kid occasionally popping up in both strips. Outcault left Hearst to create "Poor Li'l Mose" for the New York Herald in 1901 and, around the same time, produced "Shakespeare in Possumville" for Judge.
However, it was his next creation, "Buster Brown", launched in the New York Herald on 4 May 1902, that put Outcault back in the public eye. The main character was a young child of wealthy parents who dressed him like Little Lord Fauntleroy; however, Buster Brown was actually a practical joker, breaking windows or playing pranks which usually ends with him receiving a 'licking' from his mother.
The character again proved very popular and Outcault was again tempted by money to take the strip to Hearst's New York Journal. "Buster Brown" was continued in the Herald by other artists until 1911; Outcault, meanwhile, launched his own nameless version in the Journal, which would run until 1921 (with reprints continuing to appear in some papers as late as 1926). In this instance, Outcault made sure he retained all the merchandising rights to the character and benefited from the countless spin-offs into advertising and theatre. Outcault rapidly became a rich man and as early as 1905 was earning more from selling clothing and merchandise than he was from the syndication of the comic strip.
In 1909, he set up the Outcault Advertising Company to exploit the success of his creations, although he continued to draw the Sunday (now nameless) Buster Brown strip until 1921. He retired, passing control of the Outcault Company to his son, Richard F. Outcault Jr., who became its new president.
Outcault concentrated on painting for the next few years, exhibiting widely. He also reprinted volumes of his Yellow Kid and Buster Brown comics. In the summer of 1928 he fell suddenly ill and died on 28 September at the age of 65.
Examples of Outcault's artwork can be found for sale at the Illustration Art Gallery.