Online sources indicate that the birth of the newspaper comic was the result of a culture of experimentation in the newspaper industry -- a culture that has since been lost. Indeed, the rise of the newspaper comic strip seems inevitable in retrospect; precursors to the comic strip appear to have arisen independently in several newspapers during the 1890s. The early history of the form is ambiguous, however, and a number of cartoons claim to be the first newspaper comic. I will discuss two such strips, The Yellow Kid and Little Bears, both because they have the most legitimate claims and because they illustrate a larger point about the newspaper industry of the time.
The Yellow Kid, the strip most commonly referred to as the first newspaper comic, was created by R.F. Outcault in the mid-1890s. Outcault was working as an illustrator for Electrical World magazine, and, during 1894 and 1895, occasionally published cartoons for a weekly humor magazine called Truth.He also worked as a technical illustrator for the Sunday edition of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, then the paper with the highest circulation in the nation. On at least one occasion, the World published a humorous cartoon from Outcault, and in early 1895, it republished one of his cartoons from Truth magazine.
When the cartoon became popular, it became a tool in the circulation war between the New York papers -- specifically Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal American. The Journal American hired Outcault away from the World, and the World responded by hiring a new artist to continue drawing the Yellow Kid cartoons. Thus, for a period of two years, the strip appeared in two competing newspapers. The phrase "yellow journalism," which arose during this period, may be related to the New York "Yellow Kid papers," but online sources are divided on this question. Interestingly, the cartoon stopped running altogether once the circulation wars died down in 1898, but by that time similar strips had begun to appear in other papers.
What's most striking to me about this history is, yellow journalism notwithstanding, how much more interesting the papers of the time seem to have been. Consider that they regularly republished popular cartoons from magazines, and were willing to devote page space (originally two inches of one column) to humorous drawings from one of their technical illustrators. Experimentation with content seems to have been a consequence of the circulation wars, with each paper struggling to establish a unique identity.
A similar process of experimentation gave birth to the second strip for this history, James Swinnerton's Little Bears. A talented caricaturist, Swinnerton was hired by the San Francisco Examiner (also a Hearst paper) to illustrate the news, particularly with portraits. Since photography printing was not cost-effective, papers needed a staff of artists on-hand to illustrate stories by hand. Swinnerton, however, also contributed editorial and sports cartoons, and often used cartoonish bear cubs to accompany various stories and weather reports (for example, if the weather called for rain, Swinnerton would draw a bear holding an umbrella).
The bears eventually received a minor feature of their own, called Little Bears; later, Swinnerton added small children to the cast of characters, and the resulting strip was called Little Bears and Tykes. the first such strip appeared in 1892 -- considerably earlier than the Yellow Kid's first appearance in New York. However, Little Bears and Tykes seems to be less clearly a comic strip; it is perhaps better regarded as a collection of humorous character drawings, often centered around a theme. By 1896, Hearst brought Swinnerton to New York to help compete against the Yellow Kid; Swinnerton switched from bears to tigers, and his work became more obviously comics-like.
Again, the Little Bears history demonstrates a playful sense of experimentation among late nineteenth century newspapers, perhaps facilitated by the need to keep a stable of talented artists on staff. It is difficult to imagine a modern newspaper allowing a junior staff member to publish incidental cartoons alongside the news (though it can still be seen in The New Yorker's marginal drawings). In fact, in some ways the circulation wars of the 1890s appear to be an inversion of the current state of the newspaper industry: faced with increased competition (from inside the industry rather than outside), papers responded by becoming more open to experimentation, more idiosyncratic, and more willing to take risks in an effort to distinguish themselves.
By contrast, today's papers seem to be becoming more generic (with more reliance on wire stories) and more stripped-down; the fruits of the previous era of experimentation have fossilized into a stagnant comics and crossword section.
Image by J. Swinnerton, courtesy of Wikipedia.