Pore Lil Mose flanked by his animal friends.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The New York Herald
First Appeared: 1900
Creator: Richard Felton Outcault
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Pore Lil Mose was created by Richard F. Outcault, the highly acclaimed cartoonist behind The Yellow Kid (widely tho incorrectly believed to be the …

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… first comic strip) and Buster Brown (which Buster Brown Shoes were named after). It was, in fact, Outcault's third-most prominent creation, right after those two luminaries. It featured what may have been the first black title character in comics. And yet, most histories of the medium mention it only in passing, if at all. One would think the comics industry is collectively embarrassed by Pore Lil Mose.

One would probably be correct in thinking that. Mose was depicted as pure stereotype, with big, white eyes and big, white teeth grinning out of his dark, fuzzy-topped face, from which a constant stream of grammatical solecisms flowed. At least he wasn't colored solid black, like most of his brethren in the early decades of daily comics, but that's only because the Sunday pages he appeared in were printed in color, and thus offered greater scope for subtlety without the bother of stippling or cross-hatching. With black children in today's comics ranging from the completely ordinary Curtis Wilkins, who could just as easily be white, to the highly political Huey Freeman of The Boondocks, it's been a long time since a guy like Pore Lil Mose could be tolerated on the comics page.

But that was only the first impression the reader got of Mose. Those who looked deeper saw a warm, loving, intelligent, morally upright little boy. He got into trouble from time to time, but then, so did Little Jimmy, Little Lulu and most of the other "littles" in comics. Outcault's portrayal of him may have conformed to the standards of the time, according to which that was simply how Negroes looked and sounded in the mainstream media, but there wasn't a drop of mean-spiritedness in it.

Pore Lil Mose began during December, 1900, in The New York Herald, whose other early comics included The Upside-Downs and Mr. Twee Deedle. At first, he lived with his family in Cottonville, Georgia, but the lure of the big city proved too great, and he soon relocated to New York. There, as implausible as it may seem for a 7-year-old, he apparently lived on his own, with animals (Billy Bear, Mouse Houn', Pussy and Monkey) as his companions — proving him courageous and resourceful in addition to his other virtues.

Mose wasn't merchandised as a toy, as was already happening to a few cartoon characters like Palmer Cox's Brownies; nor did he star in silent comedy shorts, like Alphonse & Gaston or Foxy Grandpa. But Cupples & Leon, the early comic book publisher that later did volumes devoted to Bringing Up Father, The Gumps, and many others, collected 36 of his pages in 1902. The book was subtitled "His Letters to His Mammy", and took the theme of keeping the esteemed lady back home up-to-date on his doings up North.

Outcault launched Buster Brown in May, 1902, and dropped Pore Lil Mose three months later. Buster went on to become perhaps the greatest commercial success comics ever had, while Mose wound up in the dustbin of history.


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Text ©2004-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Pore Lil Mose is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.