Editor's note: When the late Richard D. Olson, Ph.D. passed away recently, the comic book collecting community lost an invaluable advocate and resource, and The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide lost an influential contributor from the ranks of the Overstreet Advisors. This week and in two weeks, we'll share just two of his recent contributions to the Guide.
His final article will appear in The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #53 in July.
By Richard D. Olson, Ph.D., Gayle A. Olson, Ph.D., and Hans K. Pedersen
The economic success of a newspaper has always been based on its circulation figures, because they determined the price for ad space in the paper. Thus, owners were always looking for ways to increase circulation. One prime example was the circulation battle between Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s The New York Journal. These two owners hated each other and never missed an opportunity to help their respective papers dominate the New York City market, beginning in the 1890s.
Accordingly, when The San Francisco Examiner added a color section and James Swinnerton drew iconic cartoon, Little Bears beginning on October 14, 1893, its success with the public was immediate. New components in a paper like a colored section and a cartoon helped sell papers. Pulitzer had already started publishing cartoons, often borrowed from humor magazines, in 1889. He added a color press to make a colored humor section in 1894, and in 1895 he hit the jackpot with Richard F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid cartoons. The Yellow Kid took New York by storm, increased circulation numbers, and was also used to merchandise a wide variety of products. He was not the first cartoon character, but he was the first cartoon superstar.
Hearst quickly followed suit, hired Outcault and let the Yellow Kid sell his papers. Readers loved to follow the exploits of the Yellow Kid as he and friends from the Irish tenements caused trouble, ridiculed Society’s 400, and later took a trip around the world.
Following the success of the Yellow Kid, Hearst added another strip with children causing trouble. He hired Rudolph Dirks to create a comic probably based on Wilhelm Busch’s famous German troublemakers, Max and Moritz. On December 12, 1897 the Katzenjammer Kids made their debut, and Hearst had another winner for his New York Journal. The timing was perfect, leave it to the zeitgeist to ensure that, because the popularity of the Yellow Kid was waning.
Outcault tried a couple of group comics, Casey’s Corner in 1898 followed by Kelley’s Kids in 1898-1899 but neither seemed to resonate with the public. Apparently, the readers wanted a focal character to follow rather than a group. This led Outcault to try something different and he created Pore Li’l Mose, the first strip starring a black character, which ran in 1900-1902. Mose was a young boy living in Cottonville until he moved to New York City. The strip proved to be very popular and set the stage for the creation and development of Outcault’s most popular character, Buster Brown.
On May 4, 1902, Buster Brown made his debut in many of the Herald papers from coast to coast, and ushered in a new era in Sunday comics. While the Yellow Kid just appeared in New York City papers and focused on events and places in that general area, Buster Brown appeared nationally. For nearly 20 years his story focused on a wealthy boy who found a multitude of ways to get into trouble that could have occurred in any city. What probably endeared the strip to adults was that Buster was nearly always caught, spanked, and in the last panel of the comic, resolved to be better in the future. Buster was not based on his son as some early readers thought, but rather probably modelled after another boy in the area, Granville Fisher. His name was likely due to the popularity of child star, Buster Keaton. His sister in the comic, Mary Jane, however, was Outcault’s daughter.
Buster’s best friend was Tige, his pet dog, an American Pit Bull Terrier. Tige may have been the first talking animal in the comics and was nearly always Buster’s partner in mischief even when he tried to talk him out of doing something bad. He might even be viewed as a precursor to Jiminy Cricket, who tried to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience.
In the first several comics, Buster often had a wild look as he got into trouble, with crazed eyes and wild hair sticking straight out like straw from under his cap. He wore a red or purple suit, with the purple suit ultimately being discarded later in the year as the red suit became a permanent fixture. As the year progressed, his wild look was toned down and he looked like a regular boy with a twinkle in his eyes.
As was often the case with new strips, he did not appear every week in 1902 and he was sometimes presented in black and white rather than color when he was published on an interior page in the comic section. As the popularity of the strip grew, however, he became a fixture on page one and was always in color. By the end of 1902, he was so popular that games and toys were starting to appear in the marketplace. Merchandise from 1902 is fairly rare, and any material carrying Outcault’s signature is very collectible.
Buster’s popularity continued to grow, and the merchandise followed. After he became associated with the Brown Shoe Company in 1904, shoes and clothing followed, and he became one of the most widely recognized comic characters in the country.
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Jenny E. Robb, Susan Liberator, and the rest of the staff at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University. We would also like to thank the research staff at the New York Public Library.
5/04/1902 Buster Brown’s Bad Bargain
5/11/1902 Everything is Runnning Smoothly in the Brown Family Now
5/18/1902 Buster Brown’s Bath
5/25/1902 Buster Brown Earns a Five Dollar Bill
6/01/1902 Buster Brown Visits the Zoo
6/29/1902 Buster Brown in More Trouble
7/06/1902 Buster Brown’s Experience at the Dentists
7/13/1902 Buster Brown Makes Another Resolution
7/20/1902 Buster Brown and Pore Li’l Mose
7/27/1902 Buster Brown Learns Another Sad Lesson
8/03/1902 Buster Brown in More Trouble
8/10/1902 Buster Brown Kisses Venus Green and Gets into Trouble
8/17/1902 Buster Brown Receives His Mother’s Callers and a Licking--Poor Buster Brown
8/31/1902 Buster Brown has His Sunday School Lesson, a Side-Ache and a Licking
9/14/1902 Buster Brown Starts to School
9/21/1902 Buster Brown Gets Everything All Smeared up to Beat the Band
9/28/1902 Buster Brown Has His Fortune Told
10/05/1902 Buster Brown Transacts a Little Business with the Old Clothes Man
10/12/1902 Buster Brown Suffers, but Doesn’t Get a Beating
10/19/1902 Buster Brown Has a Birthday Party
10/26/1902 Buster Brown Takes Some Medicine
11/02/1902 This Time Buster Brown Wins
11/09/1902 Buster Brown is Prevailed upon to Sing a Song
11/16/1902 Buster Brown Gets Every Body into Trouble Again
11/23/1902 Buster Brown Frightens His Parents
11/30/1902 Buster Brown Paints His Face and Frightens His Mama
12/07/1902 Buster Brown Puts Tacks on Every Old Chair in the House
12/14/1902 What Buster Brown Got for Christmas
12/21/1902 Buster Brown’s Dog Meets His Old Side Partner and they do their Old Stunt
12/28/1902 Buster Brown’s Happy New Year