Yellow Scholarship

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Yesterday, Tom Spurgeon commented briefly on the statement in the opening paragraph of my review of David Kunzle’s Töpffer monograph that the latter “deserves a large part of the credit for debunking the myth of the Yellow Kid as the point of origin, and bringing the history of modern comics before Hogan’s Alley to light in a fledgling academic field, dominated for years by collective denial.” Tom writes:

“…did anyone worth considering ever really take the Yellow Kid seriously as an artistic starting point? I see that mentioned whenever someone brings up Topffer — Gary Groth gets beaten with that argument construction in this movie trailer as if the other comics people caught him in a goof-up. I remember writing about 19th century German cartooning as comics when I was a graduate student in 1992, and I wasn’t exactly rich in my comics knowledge. I always thought it was pretty clear that the Yellow Kid began comics the same way Christopher Columbus discovered America — not in any literal sense, but in a sense where the economic and cultural forces were now combined behind it to lock into place a certain kind of future development for the industry. Did anyone after 1974 or so think otherwise?”

Well, yes. The myth has proven to be surprisingly resilient, especially amongst American scholars and critics of the medium. As Tom shows, Gary Groth, one of the preeminent comics critics today, apparently still regards the Yellow Kid as the starting point, and the old groaner about comics being “one of the few indigenous American art forms” is still very much current (institutions such as the Library of Congress and NACAE, for example, both seem to accept it). I admit that things have gotten better these last few years, and the ‘debunking’ on Kunzle’s part is of course old news, as it started over twenty years ago, when he published his first article on Töpffer. Other scholars and critics, such as Groensteen, Peeters, Spiegelman and McCloud, have of course also contributed substantially.

Concerning the distinction between ‘artistic’ factors as opposed to economical or cultural ones determining people’s notion of the Yellow Kid‘s primacy, it is hard to separate the two. It is invariably as dependent on the formal, or ‘artistic’, properties of the Oct. 25, 1896 Yellow Kid strip with the parrot and the phonograph (pictured) – which is widely called the ‘first comic strip’ – as it is on the economical and cultural realities of its publication in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Most of the time the strip was not even sequential, which is the aspect most scholars and critics have chosen as their primary constituent of what they understand as ‘comics.’ And there had been other sequential, as well as non-sequential, cartoons in the newspapers before the Yellow Kid, while there would be many, more consistently sequential ones in them after it. It is an arbitrary choice.

The idea that the Yellow Kid, while not being the first comic in a formal sense, somehow marks comics’ ascendancy as a mass medium and a cultural force, and should therefore be regarded as some kind of ‘first,’ is also problematic. Yes, comics became more popular than ever in the last years of the 19th Century, as the major American newspapers started publishing them on an unprecedented scale, which also prompted astonishing artistic developments. But comics had long been a mass medium before that, both in Europe and North America, published as they were in the widely-read illustrated magazines. Comics artists such as Cham and Busch were huge. And even some of Töpffer’s books, which were ‘graphic novels’ in the Campbellian sense more than a century before Eisner, reached what must have been tens of thousands of readers, initially when they started being pirated in France and England in the late 1830s, and subsequently when they were adapted for mass publication in the 1840s. Arguing for the Yellow Kid‘s primacy thus becomes a question of semantics – how many readers, exactly, before it counts as a mass medium, and therefore a ‘first?’

The reason that the Yellow Kid has provided such a neat point of origin, that there has existed an institutional consensus on it for so long, says more about the practices and conventions of comics institutions, scholarship and criticism than it does about the historical facts.

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