Imagine a publishing magnate, keen to cultural trends and technological advances, who hires an illustrator to create an image that, when published, will reap astounding commercial gains by appealing to an untapped market. In the face of critical dismissal, lawsuits, and ferocious competition, he launches the career of an artist whose skill and originality guarantee a huge and appreciative audience for a new art form.

It reads like a potboiler, but these events directly correspond to the story of publisher Joseph Pulitzer, illustrator RICHARD FELTON OUTCAULT (1863-1928) and the origins of the American comic strip, a cultural phenomenon now celebrating its centennial.

Outcault began as a technical illustrator for Thomas Edison and as a comic artist for the humor magazines Judge and Life as well as other small circulation publications. When Pulitzer chose to experiment with a color supplement to his national newspaper, the Sunday World, in 1894, he included Outcault's first "Yellow Kid" cartoons. On May 5, 1895, the first color comics section made its debut in that paper with a large, single panel cartoon by Outcault on the front page entitled "Hogan's Alley". It was a depiction of a fictitious incident in a city slum, and therefore spoke immediately to the paper's growing following of primarily Democratic immigrants. Its text was simple, yet it was drawn in a naturalistic style true to the intellectual sensibilities of the day as seen in Jacob Riis' photos and the writings of Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells. And it featured "Mickey Dugan" aka "The Yellow Kid", a bald, big-earred waif in a yellow gown decorated with messages in street jargon who always looked directly at the reader - a savvy graphic stroke on the cartoonist's part. "The Yellow Kid" served as a visual focal point in a frenzied scene that burlesqued the social and political concerns of the uppercrust and offered humor and commentary for children and adults alike. Most importantly, he was memorable, and his popularity assured the continuance of the color comics section, which has since become an American entertainment institution on a par with baseball and the movies.

The fact that the "Yellow Kid" became a hotly contested property among rival publishers further attests to its success. Outcault accepted a lucrative offer to continue the comic in Pulitzer's rival's paper, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal; a lawsuit ensued which awarded the title "Hogan's Alley" to the World and "Yellow Kid" to the Journal. As a result, the papers boasted two "Yellow Kids" for a period of months, one by Outcault and one penned by George Luks, who later gained fame as a founder of the "Ashcan School".

Outcault's work in "Hogan's Alley" and later comics like "Poor Lil Mose" and "Buster Brown" popularized some innovations in comics and served as a precursor to others. While he did not invent dialog balloons or panel strips, his incorporation of these techniques promoted them as the standard for the "funny pages". While he borrowed characters others had sketched out, the graphic and verbal ingenuity with which he animated them helped establish the archetypes which dominated comic strips for twenty years, and which served as the foundation for comics to the present day. It is easy to discern echoes of his pioneering work in the contemporary panels of "Peanuts", "Doonesbury", and "Calvin and Hobbes". - J. P.

[The Yellow Kid in "Hogan's Alley", New York World, May 24, 1896, pen & ink]