Teaching Comics to teens week 2 day 5: Yellow Fever

This is part of a series of posts by Derek Mainhart—an entire year‘s curriculum for a comics class at the secondary level: middle school and high school. Follow us via rss, Facebook, or Twitter (buttons above to the right) to be informed when new posts go up. To search for all the posts by Derek, including all in this series, click here

It’s Friday! You know what that means: Cartoon History! As I said earlier, I think it’s an important, oft-neglected subject. It’s also a nice way to end the week, and provides a nice rhythm to the semester. And yes, history is fun.

Objective: Exploring the history of Cartooning

Do Now: Who do you think the FIRST famous cartoon character was? When do you think it was created?


  •  Brief discussion based on the Do Now

It’s always interesting to experience students’ gauge on history. A not infrequent answer is something along the lines of “Mickey Mouse in the 1960’s”.

  • Teacher will introduce The Yellow Kid and Richard F. Outcault using hand-out accompanied by visual examples.


The Information Age is a wonderful thing. There are any number of terrific resources with which to gather material. Some of my favorites are listed below under Resources. (Old-fashioned as I am, many of them are books. Giant, musty books.)

I start with The Yellow Kid simply because most Cartooning Histories use him as a convenient starting point, coming as he does near the dawn of the 20th century. This approach has merit, though it is certainly debatable (as we’ll see below). Your presentation method is up to you. As I’ve said before, I use Smartboard. Some major points you may want to address in your discussion:

  • Outcault’s career took off when he was hired by Joseph Pulitzer to work on the New York World.  Teacher will elicit responses to gauge students’ prior knowledge. Who was Joseph Pulitzer? Where have you heard the name “Pulitzer” before?
  • Outcault’s feature, titled Hogan’s Alley, took place in a crowded, urban slum. How does this reflect to the early twentieth century in America?


  • The Yellow Kid’s name was Mickey Dugan. What is a stereotype? (Note some of the different portrayals of ethnicity.) Are images like this offensive?  Why were they acceptable back then? Are there stereotypes today?
  • Readers recognized Mickey because he always wore the same yellow nightshirt. What other cartoon characters always dress the same way? Sets a precedent.

yellow bart

  • What are the words on his shirt? His dialogue. Why are they there? This is before the invention of the word balloon.
  • What else is odd about his dialogue? Outcault used the street slang of his era.
  • Hogan’s Alley reflected its era, from the everyday (football game)-


  • to major events like the Spanish-American War.

  • Speaking of which, what helped to fuel U.S. involvement in the war? What is “yellow journalism”? The term was coined due to the immense popularity of The Yellow Kid. His presence drove up sales as readers would buy the New York World to see what he was up to.
  • Outcault was eventually hired away by William Randolph Hearst. Who was he? Outcault began producing Hogan’s Alley for Hearst’s New York Journal. Pulitzer meanwhile hired another artist, George Luks, to continue drawing the feature for the New York World. There were no copyright laws regarding comics at the time.
  • The Yellow Kid was so popular that he became the first comics character to be heavily merchandised, from toys:

yellow dolls

  • to sheet music (this was before radio):

  • to advertising:

yellow ads

  • Is Hogan’s Alley truly a comic strip? No word balloons, no panels, not sequential. It’s closer to our current project, Gag Cartoons, but it’s not quite that either.  Then why are we studying it? The Yellow Kid is the first character created by a cartoonist to appear regularly in a newspaper, become widely recognized by the public, and cross over into popular culture.

Exercise: The Yellow Kid achieved fame around the turn of the twentieth century. Students will create a Yellow Kid for the early twenty-first century. Here are some examples:

Here he is, flummoxed by modernity... Here, all 'gangsta' as the kids say... And here, with lobster claws for some reason

Here he is, flummoxed by modernity…          Here, all ‘gangsta’ as the kids say…  And here, with lobster claws for some reason.

Thanks Shannon, Nic and Reily!


The Comics, Brian Walker. Abrams ComicArts

America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists, Richard Marschall. Stewart, Tabori & Chang 

100 Years of Newspaper Comics, Maurice Horn. Gramercy

Masters of American Comics, John Carlin, Paul Karasikand Brian Walker. Hammer, Moca, Yale

There was also Don Markstein’s excellent Toonopedia website, but I haven’t been able to access it since Mr. Markstein sadly passed last year. If anyone has any information on this, it would be greatly appreciated.


So this week you:

  • Introduced the concept of Gag Cartoons
  • Helped students generate ideas through warm-up exercises
  • Guided their ideas through individual discussion
  • Expanded the possibilities of the subject with the concept of the Anti-gag cartoon
  • Given students visual tools through the Drawing Lesson
  • Provided related historical context

Next week we’ll develop this project in earnest. ‘Til then, Happy Friday!

Derek Mainhart is an art teacher at Deer Park High School and at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He has taught widely at many institutions such as Molloy College, Boricua College and Hofstra, among others. He teaches cartooning workshops in the greater New York area. In addition, he was the first Vice President of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in Manhattan, and was instrumental in the formation of its annual MoCCA Art Festival. He has organized and participated in numerous gallery exhibits in and around NYC. His self-published works include The Iraqi Tinies and W. He is married to web-cartoonist and fellow art teacher Ali Solomon. They live with their daughter in Forest Hills (not far from the house where Peter Parker grew up.) 

Read Derek’s comic book reviews at:



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