Set in the Irish slum wards of New York City, it centered on the humorous exploits and observations of a pack of street urchins and a host of neighborhood characters. Chief among them was Mickey Dugan, soon to be known to all as the “Yellow Kid,” a bald, toothless boy dressed only in a yellow nightshirt.
“Hogan’s Alley,” like a lot of Irish American-themed popular culture, was the creation of a non-Irishman, Richard Felton Outcault. Born in Lancaster, Pa., in 1863, he exhibited great artistic talent from an early age. At 15, he enrolled in an art school in Cincinnati and graduated to a successful career as a commercial illustrator. In the early 1890s, Outcault began to draw free-lance cartoons, most often involving poor African Americans or Irish Americans, that were published in magazines and newspapers.
Four prototypes for “Hogan’s Alley” appeared in Truth magazine between June 1894 and February 1895. Each included a character in a nightshirt that eventually became Mickey Dugan, though he is silent and on the sidelines in these early efforts. The street sign Hogan’s Alley appeared in one. What made Outcault’s May 5, 1895 comic, “At the Circus in Hogan’s Alley,” stand out was its appearance in the Sunday World comic section and the inclusion of Hogan’s Alley in the title. For the World was the top-selling newspaper in the nation and Outcault’s feature proved immensely popular, leading to regular, though not weekly at first, appearances thereafter.
The original comics were single-frame black and white drawings with humorous captions. Eventually their popularity led Outcault to expand it to large, color drawings with multiple scenes and regular characters — the essential definition of a “comic strip.”
Outcault’s choice of theme — Irish-American slum life — is not surprising, given the nature of American popular culture in the late 19th century. Ethnic stereotypes of every sort provided the plots, jokes and backdrops to countless vaudeville skits, musical comedies — this was the heyday of Harrigan and Hart’s Mulligan Guard productions — and Tin Pan Alley songs like “Who Put The Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” Many Irish Americans found these depictions demeaning, but just as many if not more found them uproariously funny. They recognized themselves — their struggles, shortcomings and passions — on the stage and in the lyrics. Of course, there was another side to the coin — the non-Irish laughed too, but because the humor confirmed their belief that the Irish were a poor, foolhardy and undisciplined lot.
Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” fit perfectly into this genre. The neighborhood was filled with both fools and philosophers and brought forth the familiar themes of late-19th century Irish-American life. Many jokes, for example, centered on the absurd pretensions of some tenement dwellers who considered themselves superior to their neighbors — the emerging “lace curtain” Irish. Others involved incompetent policemen, bombastic ward politicians and ne’er-do-well gangsters. And nearly every time the punchline was delivered by Mickey Dugan, often seasoned with his signature expression, “Hullygee!”
The comic strip took New York by storm and so did its leading character, but few knew him as Mickey Dugan. They simply called him the “Yellow Kid,” a nickname derived from his ubiquitous yellow nightshirt and the fact that Outcault rarely made mention of his name in the comic strip. The World capitalized on the phenomenon and before long there was an entire line of Yellow Kid products, from chewing gum to playing cards.
The popularity of “Hogan’s Alley” soon attracted the attention of William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the World’s fiercest rival, the New York Journal. Seeking to gain an edge in his famed circulation war with World owner Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst hired Outcault away with the offer of a big salary increase. Pulitzer sued and the court rendered a split decision, ruling that Hearst was within his rights to hire Outcault, but Pulitzer owned the comic strip “Hogan’s Alley.”
Soon there were two Yellow Kid comic strips, with the original “Hogan’s Alley now drawn by a new artist hired by Pulitzer and a nearly identical strip called “McFadden’s Flats.” These dueling comic strips soon gave rise to the term “yellow journalism” used to describe the sensational style of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers, especially in their increasingly bellicose coverage of the events in Cuba that eventually led to the Spanish American War in 1898.
The Yellow Kid sensation faded almost as quickly as it arrived. By 1899, four years after his debut, Mickey Dugan was gone from both the World and Journal. Outcault soon started another, far more enduring, comic strip named “Buster Brown.” Yet the idea of depicting Irish slum life in comics lived on for many years as imitators picked up where Outcault left off. “Happy Hooligan” by Frederic Opper, which ran from 1900-32, was the most famous. As Irish Americans rose higher economically in the 20th century and ethnic stereotyping became less acceptable, there eventually emerged a more refined type of Irish American-themed comic strip, most notably George McManus’s “Bringing Up Father” featuring Jiggs and Maggie. By the time McManus retired in 1954, the Yellow Kid was but a distant and curious memory.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
May 3, 1916: The first of the Easter Rising rebels are executed by firing squad.
May 4, 1836: The Ancient Order of Hibernians is founded in New York City.
May 5, 1981: Hunger striker Bobby Sands dies.
May 2, 1871: The “fighting priest” of World War I, Fr. Francis Duffy, is born in Cobourg, Ont.
May 4, 1867: Journalist Nellie Bly is born in Cochrane’s Mills, Pa.
May 5, 1914: Actor Tyrone Power is born Cincinnati.