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

The following is the Abstract for my dissertation, which I defended in Spring 2016 at George Mason University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my PhD in American History.

Between 1895 and 1898, the earliest comics supplements were largely emulations of comic weekly magazines such as Puck and Life, included in the “yellow journals” of Hearst and Pulitzer in an attempt to make those newspapers more palatable to a middle-class audience. The “Second Moral War,” a campaign against the yellow journals undertaken by more “respectable” newspapers in 1897, thwarted such attempts at respectability by making comics a metonym for yellow journalism.

Between 1907 and 1912, there was a moral panic that surrounded the comic supplements. Fueled by women’s organizations that advocated the suppression or improvement of the supplements, looking at the rhetoric that surrounded the movement. This rhetoric connected 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.

Investigating the cartoonists who participated in the Armory Show of 1913, this dissertation then explores how cartoonists who believed themselves to be illustrators with a certain degree of social and cultural capital within the world of high art were able to utilize this capital; at the same time, they 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.”

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.