Walt McDougall’s City – The Rube’s-Eye View

It is a shame that Walt McDougall has been overlooked by most comic strip history, because he left a lot of great material behind. While accounts differ over who originated different formats, everyone agrees he was among the first modern political cartoonists for the weekly humor magazines of the 1880’s and 90’s. He was among the first to create Sunday newspaper comic images in color. He visualized L. Frank Baum’s “Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of OZ” and penned “Peck’s Bad Boy.” newspaper series. And he was among the first syndicated cartoonists. His autobiography This Is The Life was one of the first lengthy chronicles of the early days of cartoon art as told by a practitioner.

But as I mentioned in my last post on one of my favorite McDougall panels, “Familiar Sights of a Great City – No. 1 The Cop Is Coming,” he was one of many early comic artists to take the new city experience as his subject, “Life in the City as the Countryman Pictures It” makes the country vs. city disjunction explicit.

Here he brings to life the “Countryman’s” caricature of city life. This one rich and very busy tableau serves up many of the age’s fears about the new city environment, and many of them have to do with deception, con games, wealth. Notice the many window signs for mail order houses and by-mail courses, alluding to many such come-ons most Americans knew from the classified ads in the backs of national magazines and local newspapers. At each corner of the panel we see rural folk as our point of identification, wary of the city’s seductions. The streets are literally paved in cash. The street sweeper complains about having to clean up the money. The loca bank is transferring moneybags down a Chouteau through the window. And Mssrs. Rockefeller and Morgan carry their own valises of “Cash” down the left sidewalk. McDougall satirizes the velocity of urban build-out and industry in the Waterstock Bldg that is under construction but advertises rooms ready today.

Starting with the multi-layered crowd-scapes of R.F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” the comic arts were uniquely positioned to depict the sensations of modern urban life. The full page could freeze the cityscape and let the eye travel across its multiple planes of disconnected action, dialogue and relationships. Film was good at depicting the crowd as a throng – an undifferentiated force. Artists like Outcault, McDougall and later Harrison Cady and Harvey Kurtzman instead used the large panel as a way to find order and sense, or at least meaning, in what otherwise seems like chaos when in motion.

In one sense artists of this crowd style both interpret the new masses and instruct us in how to view the urban world. These images force our eye into the the detail of the crowd, to ferret out the little stories, miniature satires, little in-joke details. They are giving us a powerful vision of how not to see the crowd as a crowd but as a glorious and exciting tableau of many small worlds all somehow going in the same direction.

Also interesting to me is how the image is about subjectivity itself. McDougall is bringing to life a specific fantasy of the new city, using the comic page to dramatize the way a particular part of America caricatures another.

Stereotyping The New American City

New York World staff cartoonist Dan McCarthy’s 1898 “The American Sky-Scraper Is a Modern Tower of Babel” is a trove of tropes that characterizes so much of the first decade of American newspaper comics. Like R.F. Outcault and Walt McDougall, McCarthy uses that massive Sunday newspaper page to draw a tableaux caricature of the cityscape, the new and rapidly changing environment the World readers experience each day.  

Some of the most talented and ambitious early newspaper cartoonists used the full page tableau format to capture the energy of the city. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley was the first to use the format to depict the city scape, which is to say it was an interpretation of that new experience. Walt McDougall was another fan of the tableau to depict social landscapes, including his magnificent “Life in the City as the Countryman Sees It.”  Comic artists seemed to absorb the physical energy of turn-of-the century America and direct and shape it into popular art. Just as the slapstick, chases and fight scenes of early film were aesthetic conventions that channeled the antic energies of modern urban progress, mechanization and rapid change, so too did modern preoccupations with motion, energy, cause and effect, the urban experience shape the aesthetics of early comic art. 

Dan McCarthy 1898. McCarthy was a well-regarded caricaturist for the humor weeklies and eventually for the World. He founded a caricature school but died in the first decade of the 20th Century in his 50s. His “The American Sky-Scraper is a Modern Tower of Babel” is a caricature of urban progress seen through the lend of ethnic diversity. The panoply of so called “hyphenated American” – Italian-, Irish-, Chinese-, Eastern European-, and African-Americans – are all stereotyped here at the same time they are acknowledged as the builders of the new city. 

You can spend hours dissecting McCarthy’s depictions of individual ethnic groups here, and there are some predictable bigotries. They are mainly distinguished by their common visual stereotypes of the day. Italians with triangular hats and handlebar mustaches. Irish with chin beards and simian face. Chinese figures with yellow long shirts and thin braided pony tails. Eastern Europeans/Jews with full beards, hats and high boots. The Irish characters often seem to be ready for a fight. One African-American sports primitive dress. And for some reason the Chinese-American figures are on the receiving end of deliberate violence. But generally, this “Tower of Babel” is a tableaux of chaos, slapstick mishaps all in service of a mechanically sophisticated scientific wonder. The tension between the chaotic energy and play of McCarthy’s workers and the rigid symmetry of the structure they are building is of course the “joke” here.

But McCarthy’s cross section of both the building itself and the New York population generally embodies the ambivalence of WASP America towards the massive waves of emigration during this era.

In other depictions of emigration, Americans seemed to greet emigrates as newcomers and fledgling Americans. It was generally acknowledged that a fast-growing and internationally ambitious America needed this infusion of cheap labor to fuel its growth. And so the stereotyping was not of the most vicious and dehumanizing sort we find elsewhere in American culture. Here it is more patronizing and imperialistic. The American middle class seemed to recognize that immigration was key to American ambitions, but patronizing stereotyping kept these emigres at a distance and always inferior.  

The Original ‘Fake News’: Opper Takes Aim At Newspapers

Before Frederick Burr Opper became a pioneer of early newspaper comics (Happy Hooligan) he was a critic of the medium. In this cartoon from the March 7 1894 issue of the top humor magazine of the day, Puck, Opper targets the increasingly sensational mass circulation city newspapers. While not called out by name, the caricature is clearly Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), publisher of the New York World. Ironically, Opper would sign on with Pultizer’s rival William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal. In fact, Opper’s cartooning skills would be one of the main weapons in the Pulitzer/Hearst newspaper wars of the 90s.

Before the rise of newspaper comics over the next decade, cartooning was the domain of American humor magazines like Puck, Judge and others. And Opper was one of Puck‘s most popular illustrators. In many ways the rapid expansion of daily newspapers rang the death knell for the humor weeklies, so it wasn’t surprising to see them come after the dailies as “vulgar,” profiteering and sensationalist. Indeed, the newspapers were even accused of peddling “fake news,” as you can see depicted in the upper left quadrant.

Bending the City – McCay’s Urban Dreams

The teeming, always moving, mechanized, bureaucratic, dwarfing city was the the most striking new reality pushing on American in just those very years the comic pages emerged in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Many of the leading artists of the day like Outcault, Opper and McCay were themselves midwestern rural transplants for whom the big city and its humbling scale must have been disorienting environments. Outcault was known to walk the streets of the city picking up inspiration and ambience for his Hogan’s Alley/Yellow Kid vision of tenement life. McCay lavished the city skyline with his obsessively detailed line work in both Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.

That is why I am fascinated by the ways in which these artists visually depicted this new reality in the first decades of the newspaper comics. In the two examples here, Windsor McCay and Jimmy Swinnerton use dream sequences to reimagine the landscape. In the first from the Rarebit Fiend series, McCay has his character master the scale of the modern city by becoming a giant himself and reducing the skyline to so many toys, some of which even can be bent. Swinnerton’s is the newcomer’s surreal nightmare of all the ways in which the city masters him.

The daunting urban world becomes malleable, subject to human reimagination in the comic pages, offering readers alternative ways of thinking about the disorienting spaces they occupy.

Seeing the City: Outcault’s Urban Caricature

R.F. Outcault (1863-1928) institutionalized a number of modern conventions in comic strip history. His Yellow Kid was the first widely recognized recurring character in the newspaper comics of the mid 1890s. And as such he absorbed a key aspect of the emerging modern consumer culture by becoming the first merchandising and advertising juggernaut from the comics medium. And as Bill Blackbeard argues in his exhaustive history of the character, R.F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics (Kitchen Sink, 1993), he inadvertently brought together the fundamental elements of the future comic strip format with his October 25, 1896 half page comic in Hearst’s New York Journal, “The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph.” (below). Each piece had been seen before. Others had used sequential panel action to depict a temporal narrative. Despite some myth to the contrary, the Kid was not the first recurring newspaper comic strip character of note. The Ting Ling Kids and Brownies both preceded him. And several artists had already used speech balloons to bring speech and image into closer proximity and simultaneity for the reader. But this 1896 strip brings all of those elements together into a compelling synchronous mode of expression.

Comic strip historians have chronicled and argued over Outcault’s role in many innovations in the form, as well as when and where the Kid himself first appeared. Blackbeard’s book is the most comprehensive view I have found. David Westbrook’s analysis of the Kid’s ties to commercial culture are also valuable. Also, R.C. Harvey’s recent piece in Comics Journal.

Richard Marshall’s portrait (1989) is a deft synopsis of Outcault’s bio and contributes a few key insights. First, the Yellow Kid character himself made eye contact with his newspaper audience and became their cypher in a way that was unique and innovative for the form (28). Outcault used the same conceit in his next big blockbuster hit, Buster Brown. Buster’s dog Tighe talks to the reader in wry commentary on Buster’s antics. In both cases Outcault is breaking the fictional omniscience of the reader with a direct address. This both brings the reader into the strip and at once distances them from fully identifying with the action. It constructs the reader not only as spectator but offers a wry, knowing, often skeptical voice to that reader.

Marshall also makes the good point that with the Yellow Kid Outcault started a pattern for the funny pages – kid characters that appealed to both young and old. The comics often allowed for children to identify with the action and let adults observe and enjoy it at once. The comics are singular among popular art forms in their ability to speak across generations and age groups (38).

For my part, I am particularly interested in the way Outcault envisioned the relatively new and quickly growing urban landscape in The Yellow Kid. This represents an important intersection of cultural history and the comic strip in a number of ways. Foremost, the unique qualities of the emerging comic art rendered and interpreted a new reality for America itself – the growth of the major and minor cities, their population by waves of European immigration and migration from shrinking rural areas. The predominantly Irish tenement sections of Manhattan Outcault caricatures in the Hogan’s Alley series for the World and the McFadden Flats/Yellow Kid series in the Journal between 1896 and 1898 were in fact some of the most populous neighborhoods on the planet at the time. Outcault was giving us some of the first visions of crowdedness and the crowd itself we get in American popular culture. Industrialization had helped aggregate people into “crowds” and “masses,” two terms we see coming to prominance at the time. These aggregations of people were easily and often denigrated as “mobs” especially by an anxious middle class and ruling class media in response to collective action, labor strikes and protests. The power and peril of people collected en masse was a persistent anxiety of a rapidly urbanizing America.

It is in this context where I think Outcault’s Yellow Kid tableaux of immigrant class urban childhood achieved their cultural resonance, and perhaps explains some of the comic’s massive if fleeting popularity. Outcault had a way of caricaturing the crowd and the sensations of the city in a nuanced way that both expressed and resolved many anxieties about the new urban reality.

Outcault was not the first to focus on underclass children. During these same years, Stephen Crane wrote and self-published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which dove into the violence, class resentment and desperation of the New York Irish working class. In fact this novel begins with a gang beating that was unsparing in depicting child-gangs as fully adult in their capacity for malevolence.

“Howls of renewed wrath went up from Devil’s Row throats. Tattered gamins on the right made a furious assault on the gravel heap. On their small, convulsed faces there shone the grins of true assassins. As they charged, they threw stones and cursed in shrill chorus.”

Journalist and photographer Jacob Riis most famously depicted these neighborhoods as oppressive dens of sadness and scandalous inequity in How the Other Half Lives (1890).

And years before Hogan’s Alley and The Yellow Kid, the urchins of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen were turned into light satire in the pages of the middle class humor magazine Puck by M.A. Woolf. Indeed, Outcault mimicked Woolf’s conceit of depicting impoverished children comically aping the rituals of middle class society.

It is in this context of rapid social change, class anxiety, and new urban organization of human beings that Outcault burst onto the scene with a unique creative response to these tensions. Outcault envisioned the urban masses very differently from some peers. He idealized the crowd as a kind of organized, ambiguous chaos – a mass of similar people who coexist in clusters of separate action within the action. And that action is at once violent, resentful, sometimes tender and more all at once.

Look at the range of action, emotion and moods that co-exist in this simple “Golf- The Great Society Sport As Played In Hogan’s Alley” (World, Jan. 5 1896). the tableaux is the sum total of many individual set pieces. Stray balls and sticks comically assault urchins. Meanwhile on the stoop alone there are multiple planes of action. A girl fumbles a toddler, echoing the accidental violence from the street. Likewise, a boy taunts one of the enraged or saddened Irish mothers (also on this same stoop) that often populate Outcault’s tenement backgrounds. Right before this stoop we get two calm girls conversing, while to the side an older urchin tries to sell golf clubs for the affair. And this describes just a portion of what goes on across multiple planes of action in most Outcault Yellow Kid tableaux.

There are many ways potentially to depict the city and the crowd. So Outcault’s choices are important because the way he did it likely resonated with viewer-readers. The immediate appeal of Outcault’s vision of the urban crowd is not accidental. It is a particularly appealing way of seeing the urban landscape because it addresses and salves specific anxieties about the social change Americans were experiencing at the time. He sees the urban crowd as a collection of loosely organized clusters of pairs and set pieces of independent action happening within this larger joint occasion. They are all organized by a single occasion that is the site for satire – the horse race, the mock political convention, the beauty pageant, etc. But within this group ritual are all of these small gatherings of others, engaged in bickering, side jokes, little pomposities, etc. 

This is a strikingly different way of envisioning the urban setting and group from Jacob Riis’s images of oppressive environments. It is at once grim and joyous. It is also distinct from what most filmmakers would devise in just the next decade. Griffith’s crowds are waves of anonymous people punctuated perhaps by just a couple of heroes. Film envisioned crowds as undifferentiated masses, often threatening physical forces – battle scenes, protest mobs, rat race city streets and commuters. Outcault by contrast refuses to let the crowd be a mob. Instead he breaks this crowd ritual down into a loose conglomerate of family, friends, rivals, accidental sub-groups. This is mass seen as community where individual characters still thrive and assert themselves, where they aren’t anonymized and dehumanized by their environment.

Outcault depicts the city as a rich pastiche. In a single panel he can show the new city as oppressive, beating down the choices and spirit of Hogan’s Alley denizens (generally the adults on the periphery of the action). But an inch away, his raucous urchins are asserting their creative, satiric energies against their environment. He sees where many different realities co-exist. Arthur Asa Berge captured this ambiguity when he described the Yellow Kid’s city aesthetic as “nihilistic exuberance in a strip that is at once comic and menacing (32).”

Outcault is also giving new urbanites an idealized way of seeing their own environment. It is a freeze frame of urban chaos. It stills the chaos in a way that lets us examine it, break it down into humanized pieces, see it within a larger coherence. The Yellow Kid not only depicts the city but also offers middle class and rising class readers a way of seeing it, containing and controlling some of its most anxiety-producing elements.

It is worth noting that the height of Outcault’s complex vision of urban life occurred fleetingly in the history of the strip, roughly in the last half of 1896 in the months leading up to his October departure from Pultizer’s World to join Hearst’s rival Journal. Under the more conservative Hearst, Outcault’s work was demonstrably less edgy, with much less tugging at class tensions and physical violence. And when the Kid and gang ventured off for a world tour of comics depicting their visit to foreign lands, the former grim, dark humor and ambiguity were gone forever.

Yellow Kid, NY World, Sept.20, 1896
What They Did to the Dog-Catcher in Hogan’s Alley, Word, Sept. 20, 1896

The Sept. 20, 1896 thrashing of the local dogcatcher (“What They Did to the Dog-Catcher in Hogan’s Alley”) is one of Outcault’s final Hogan’s Alley pieces for Pulitzer before the move, but it is about the darkest in the series. It registers the depth of inner city resentment and distrust of institutional authority. Outcault’s urchins are not mocking society airs but taking sticks, feet, rocks and even the threat of an axe to a city worker. They even light their official wagon on fire. The shawled mothers at the doorway and windows respond to their kids’ own violence with a sort of sad resignation. Interestingly, Outcault keeps the two objects of this gleeful sadism anonymized. The Dog Catcher in the foreground

It was an extension of the newspaper itself, a medium that exploded and transformed in these decades as a necessary map of this challenging new urban environment for working and middle classes. Outcault offers a way of seeing the city. It’s genius is in organizing the clutter and chaos of the new social reality without fully romanticizing it.