Producing Mass Entertainment Review

By | Thursday, January 23, 2020 1 comment
Producing Mass Entertainment cover
A couple months back, Ohio State University Press published Producing Mass Entertainment: The Serial Life of the Yellow Kid by Christina Meyer. Not surprisingly, the book is about the Yellow Kid, a topic that Meyer has been studying for years. Certainly as long as I've known her, so I've been eager to see this for some time.

The Yellow Kid first appeared in Hogan's Alley, and is often touted as the first American comic strip. It isn't, by almost any definition of "first" or "comic." Maybe the first American comic strip that was considered the first American comic strip until historians were able to do some research? Regardless of what title you might confer on it, a fair amount has actually been written about the Yellow Kid at this point. He's been around for over a hundred years now and he was wildly popular back in the day, so it should come as no surprise that it's not too difficult to find books and papers about him and/or his creator Richard Outcault. So what does Meyer's book have to offer?

Most of the pieces I've read on the Yellow Kid focus on either the comics themselves, or Outcault himself and how he was lured away from Joseph Pulitzer to work for William Randolph Hearst. While Meyer does cover that here, what she provides in much greater depth and detail than I've seen elsewhere is a much better sense of context. Specifically, how the Yellow Kid was a character that lived beyond the newspaper page and became a part of the very culture that was shown and/or parodied in the strips themselves. The Yellow Kid was, for a time, everywhere. If you've studied comics from that period at all, you might have run across a Yellow Kid songbook or plaster figurine or some other apparently licensed product. But those handful of items you may have seen I don't think fully showcase how pervasive the Kid's popularity was.

Think of the Yellow Kid as Batman. You know Batman. You've seen Batman merchandise. But do you recall how ever-present Batman was when the Michael Keaton movie came out in 1989? You couldn't NOT see Batman if you left the house for anything. There was Batman on every conceivable piece of merchandise that you could put Batman on! I don't doubt that a ton of it wasn't licensed, with the producers banking on there being just so damn much material out there that no one would notice. (I don't recall a single article mentioning DC or Time-Warner suing anyone over bootleg material, so it seems to have been a safe bet.) I was sick in a hotel room in Mexico the day the movie came out, and I was still wall-to-wall Batman coverage. (In Spanish, of course!)

Or, hey, if you're a little older? How about when Batmania swept the country in 1966 when the Adam West show first aired? Again, tons and tons of Batman merchandise everywhere! The Batusi "became a national craze on the dance scene" (according to Wikipedia). You couldn't escape seeing "BIF! POW! WAM!" in newspaper headlines, even if the article wasn't about comics at all! Batman was just ever-present.

That's kind of what the Yellow Kid was like back in his day. What Meyer does is show how much the Yellow Kid permeated and was part of society at the time. She doesn't simply list out all the merchandise and such, though. She goes into great detail on the impact the comics (because there were multiple titles featuring the Yellow Kid!) had. How they might emulate parts of the city, and how they might parody other parts. How they might speak to current events, and talk to social mores of the time. How the different comics, created for different papers by different creators, interacted with one another. And, significantly, how the use of the Yellow Kid in other venues got reflected back in the comics themselves! The context Meyer puts around the Yellow Kid is impressive and enlightening to say the least!

I knew the Yellow Kid was popular, but I don't think I had an even reasonable understanding of just how influential the character was, or how far he reached into our culture. I compared his popularity to Batman in 1966 or 1989 previously. Having lived through Batmania '89, that's the closest comparison I can think of. But I don't think that's really accurate. Batmania was certainly pervasive and seeped into our collective consciousness, but that was still mostly a one-way street. Batman influenced us; we didn't influence Batman. The Yellow Kid, by contrast, was both an influencer and an influencee. Despite the Yellow Kid seeming to hold court and be the center of attention in most strips, he wasn't just telling his audience what to do -- he was engaged with a conversation with his readers. There's some degree of that now on the internet between current creators and readers, but not nearly with the level of broad cultural cache that the Yellow Kid had.

Meyer's book is very much a study in art reflecting life, and life reflecting art. The promo text on the back cover of the book ends with: "In unraveling the history of comic characters in capitalistic consumer culture, Meyer offers new insights into the creation and dissemination of cultural products, reflecting on modern artistic and merchandising phenomena." This is all true, but a better way to say it, I think, is: you should buy this book.
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Matt K said...

This is interesting.

I sort of kind of remember Batman '89. (I was 11.) I also remember some documentary, later, in which I swear someone being interviewed said of the promotional effort around the 1960s Batman movie that "I didn't want anyone even going to the toilet without seeing Batman and Robin!"

The Yellow Kid as a mass phenomenon is by contrast so hard to imagine. Which makes the possibility interesting.