"Vulgarizing American Children": Navigating Respectability and Commercial Appeal in Early Newspaper Comics

Ralph Suiter

Major Professor: Paula Petrik, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Ellen Todd, Jennifer Ritterhouse

Merten Hall (formerly University Hall), #1204
April 08, 2016, 01:00 PM to 10:00 AM


This dissertation looks at the way that publishers, editors, cartoonists, and the reading public navigated questions related to cultural and economic capital in the first years of newspaper comic supplements. Looking at 1895-1898, the first years of comic supplements, this dissertation argues that the early comics supplements, as emulations of comic weekly magazines such as Puck and Life, may have actually been an attempt to make the yellow journals more palatable to a middle-class audience. It also looks at the importance of the campaign against the yellow journals undertaken by more “respectable” newspapers in 1897, and how this “second moral war” may have thwarted such attempts by making comics a metonym for yellow journalism.

Turning to the moral panic that emerged around the supplements between 1907 and 1912, this dissertation digs into primary source materials from the women’s organizations that advocated for the suppression or improvement of the supplements, looking at the rhetoric that surrounded the movement. This rhetoric tended to relate to a whole host of interrelated Progressive Era concerns, including immigration, working class leisure, and new scientific attitudes around child-rearing. It also looks at how the press pushed for this movement, as a reaction to the circulation that comics brought competing newspapers.

Looking at the cartoonists who participated in the Armory Show of 1913, this dissertation then looks at how cartoonists who had believed themselves illustrators with a certain degree of social and cultural capital within the world of high art were able to utilize this capital, but also began to see its limitations. Finally, looking at the end of the 1910s, it looks at the emergence of continuity strips-- daily comics that took advantage of conventions of seriality and melodrama-- and at how those strips brought further economic success for cartoonists, while adopting conventions that would further ghettoize the medium as “low culture.”