Yellow Scholarship II

original_keed.jpgTom Spurgeon has responded to my rodomontade on the Yellow Kid from yesterday. He writes:

“I’m not all that convinced by Wivel’s restatement, and I find a lot of his rhetoric slippery. For one, I very obviously didn’t show in my original argument that Gary Groth is ignorant of 19th Century comics-making in favor of a view of Yellow Kid as the genesis of everything. What I pointed out is that Gary was unfairly portrayed that way in a film trailer when I thought it pretty clear he was looking at Yellow Kid as a landmark starting point in terms of industry impact and locking into place a firm path of development at that point forward — the way Christopher Columbus discovered America for modern Europe despite entire civilizations already being here, or the way you can point to seven or eight American college football games as the first one depending on your standards for doing so.

I think the Topffer scholarship is valuable and Kunzle’s work admirable and enlightening, but I don’t think learning about Topffer has ripped the scales from anyone’s eyes or shattered anyone’s view of comics, and I think that’s the basis of a claim being insinuated on its behalf. Even as a college student with a half-assed interest in comics, I knew about artists like Wilhelm Busch and William Hogarth. Even a promotional interview at Newsarama contains language qualifying Yellow Kid as a seminal work, and an American one, and clearly using the industry cohesion construction when making it more sweeping historical claims. I wonder sometimes if there isn’t an underdog mentality to comics that makes people want to state all achievement in terms of casting down a nefarious orthodoxy.”

I thank Tom for sticking it to me and arguing against my vociferanting. As I wrote, things have gotten better lately, but as is also evident from his post, one of the finest of comics archivists and historians ever, Bill Blackbeard, maintained the strip’s primacy as late as 1995, in his The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics, and several other comics histories have contributed to perpetuating this canard. Even the puff piece at Newsarama referred to contains the wording “Outcault’s The Yellow Kid is often regarded as the first comic strip in American history, and as such is the progenitor of… well…, everything that brings you here to Newsarama.” And before I come off more obtuse than (I hope) I am, I would like to emphasize that I did not assume that Groth was unfamiliar with comics before the Yellow Kid, merely point out that he still identifies it as “the first comic strip,” when asked. This is one resilient myth.

Columbus allegory or no, the Yellow Kid cannot be ascribed original status in any of the traditional definitions of the form, in America or elsewhere – whether formal, content-oriented, or social/logistical: it was not the first strip to juxtapose images to form a tightly constructed narrative, nor the first to employ the speech balloon, the first to appear in colour, the first to make use of an identifiable, recurring fictional character, the first to be produced primarily for purposes of entertainment, the first to appear in a newspaper, the first to reach a mass audience, and so on. I agree that it was seminal for the American market as well as – indirectly – for how the art form developed subsequently, but to my mind the majority of the critics and historians hailing it as ‘the first comic strip,’ or describing the medium as ‘an indigenous American art form,’ are making a somewhat grander statement than that.

Lastly, let me emphasize that I am not, actually, particularly interested in ‘firsts,’ or in determining what the ‘first comic strip’ was. I believe that this kind of endeavour is ultimately futile. However, I do think that a lot of comics scholarship has suffered from a severe lack of the kind of academic rigour other disciplines take for granted. Far from a ‘nefarious orthodoxy,’ it is just sloppy research and history writing that has led a generation of scholars and critics to embrace the Yellow Kid as the point of origin of the medium.

By the way, the images of the Kid in this and the previous installment are from this great resource page on Outcault’s classic strip.

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