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Free Comic Book Day this year comes on Saturday, May 5. That’s the day that comic book specialty stores nationwide give away a considerable number of comic books to whoever comes in the store and asks. And this year, that’s also the day after “Spider-Man 3” opens in theaters from sea to shining sea. This maneuver repeats the early strategy of FCBD, which coincided for the first couple years with the opening of a brand new funnybook superhero movie in the fervent expectation that the enthusiasm for the motion picture would spill over into comic shops everywhere. And so it did. After the first few FCBDs, however, the event seemed strong enough on its own merits to take place without the support of a movie debut; and so it was. Whether this year’s return to the initial formula is mere happenstance, I can’t say. Nor can I say with any assurance that another congruence of that weekend is deliberate or accidental. May 5 is also Cartoonists Day, and Cartoonists Day is embedded in Cartoon Appreciation Week. The dates for the latter shift a little from year to year, but that doesn’t make cartoonists any more shifty than the rest of us. Cartoon Appreciation Week, as fomented by the National Cartoonists Society, used to be whatever Monday-through-Sunday includes May 5. So this year, it would be April 30 - May 6. But it isn’t. There seems to be an institutional prejudice against April; so the powers decided on May 3-9 as the official dates for Cartoon Appreciation Week, thereby destroying forevermore any structural logic for the determination of the week’s dates. Cartoonists aren’t logical, they say, so it all fits.

The date for Cartoonists Day, however, is firmly rooted in the history of the medium and not likely to change. NCS picked May 5 as Cartoonists Day because it was on that date in 1895 that the New York World published a cartoon called Hogan’s Alley by Richard Outcault, a freelance technical draftsman, who, when not diagraming electrical equipment, drew comical pictures and peddled them to weekly humor magazines. Hogan’s Alley, like others Outcault had sold to magazines, featured the juvenile antics of a swarm of slum urchins, and among the otherwise raggedy and bedraggled mob, Outcault drew one distinctive little kid: he was bald (his head having been shaved as a cure for lice), and he had big jug ears and a gap-tooth grin, and wore a nightshirt that reached to his ankles. His name was Mickey Dugan, but when, on subsequent appearances, his nightshirt was colored yellow, he became known as the Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid turned out to be a genuine crowd-pleaser: people bought the newspaper just to follow his shenanigans every week. The character was so popular that William Randolph Hearst hired Outcault away from the World to draw the cartoon for his New York Journal. But Joseph Pulitzer at the World hired another artist to draw the Yellow Kid, and for quite some time, the circulation battle between the two press lords had the Yellow Kid in the front lines as the most conspicuous combatant: delivery wagons taking newspapers around the city had posters on their flanks bearing the grinning visage of the Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid is often called the first newspaper comic strip (even though he wasn’t first, and he didn’t appear in a “strip” but in a single, large drawing) because he demonstrated the commercial appeal of cartoons. After his noisy debut, newspaper publishers knew they could attract readers if they published cartoons. And for that historic reason, Cartoon Appreciation Week always convenes around May 5, which is, itself, called Cartoonists Day. For more information about Free Comic Book Day, visit www.freecomicbookday.com ; for Cartoonists Day, www.cartoonistday.com .

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com


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