Felix in the future, by Otto Messmer 1933
Felix the Cat Sunday page from 1933

Otto Messmer was an American animator and comics artist, generally known as the creator of the famous 'Felix the Cat'  (1919) character. 'Felix the Cat' was the first animated series to become a global success. His animated shorts were the funniest and most inventive cartoons of the 1920s. The little black cat can be credited with popularizing animation among general audiences. Not just in film theaters, but through colossal merchandising as well, unprecedented by previous cartoon characters. One of these byproducts were comics. Messmer, head animator on 'Felix', drew the comic strip personally which allowed quality control. Contrary to previous comics based on animated characters 'Felix' proved to be equally succesful. The surest sign of this is the fact that Messmer kept drawing the comic strip version for 31 years straight! Therefore, if anyone can be credited with popularizing comics based on animated series it should be Messmer. But whether he can be credited with the creation of 'Felix', or instead his boss and colleague Pat Sullivan, remains a hot debate even today...

Otto James Messmer was born in 1892 in West Hoboken (nowadays Union City) in New Jersey in a family of German immigrants. He studied at the local Thomas School of Art and worked along with the Acme Agency, illustrating fashion catalogs. Inspired by Winsor McCay he started publishing comics and cartoons in magazines and newspapers like The New York World and Life Magazine by 1912. 

In 1915 Messmer made his venture into animation, working alongside veteran cartoonist Hy Mayer. Together they created an animated film series, 'The Travels of Teddy' (1915), based on the hunting experiences of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. After the series ended Messmer joined Pat Sullivan's cartoon studio, where he created another animated series based on a celebrity, this time Charlie Chaplin. In 1917 Sullivan was jailed for nine months, which motivated Messmer to work for Mayer again. As the United States entered the First World War Messmer was drafted too. He was stationed in France, where he worked as a telegraphist.


Still from a Felix cartoon

In 1919 Sullivan's studio scored a worldwide hit with the creation of 'Felix the Cat'. As early as 1917 Pat Sullivan had created an animated short, 'The Tail of Thomas Kat', which featured a prototype of the later Felix. Messmer created a similar black cat in the short 'Feline Follies' two years later, but initially named him 'Master Tom'. After his third cartoon the character was rebaptized as 'Felix', both a pun on the Latin name for cat ("felis") and luck ("felix"). The 'Felix the Cat' cartoons immediately became a huge succes. Compared to other studios, the Fleischer Brothers excluded, the animation was far more sophisticated and took more advantage of the creative possibilities of the still young medium. Felix did all kinds of visual gags impossible to reproduce in live-action. He could alter perspective, gravity, scenery and even broke the fourth wall. Sometimes he transformed his tail into a weapon or a tool, other times he used one of his question or exclamation marks for the same effect. The classic short 'Felix in Hollywood' (1923) was the first animated cartoon to feature caricatures of Hollywood celebrities. These and many more innovations would soon be copied and imitated by all animation studios that came afterwards.

All throughout the 1920s Felix the Cat was as famous as any live-action Hollywood star. He became the first cartoon character to be mass-produced in merchandising and the first fictional character to be turned into a giant balloon during Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Between 1926 and 1928 British comics artists Charlie Pease and Arthur Martin also had a humor comic strip named 'Felix the Fat' which, otherwise than the lame pun in the title, had nothing to do with Felix. Ed E. Bryant and Hubert W. David wrote a song about the cat, 'Felix Kept On Walking' (1923), which was covered by various musicians, including jazz legend Paul Whiteman. Bryant and David followed up with another song, 'Here He Is Again (Being More Adventures of Felix)' (1924). Other music inspired by Felix from the same period were the songs 'Let's All Follow Felix (That Dog-Gone Crazy Cat)' (1923) by Ralph Stanley and Leslie Alleyn, 'Fido Followed Felix' (1924) by Harry Tilsey and 'Felix! Felix! Felix the Cat!' (1928) by Alfred Bryan, Pete Wendling and Max Kortlander. Even famed composer Paul Hindemith wrote an entire score for the now lost cartoon 'Frolics at the Circus' (1920) and in the 1990s house DJ Felix Stallings, Jr. adapted the pseudonym 'Felix da Housecat' as his stage name.

When Charles Lindbergh made his famous non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, he took a Felix the Cat doll along with him (after arriving in Paris he was given another doll, this one modelled after Émile-Joseph Pinchon's 'Bécassine'). Felix was not only popular with the general public, but also drew praise from intellectuals such as French literary critic Marcel Brion and British novelist Aldous Huxley (of 'Brave New World' fame)  who wrote: "Felix the Cat proves that what the cinema can do better than literature or the spoken drama is to be fantastic." Huxley also argued that European Expressionist filmmakers ought to take notice of Felix in order to avoid the pretentiousness and humorlessness that marred their work.

Laura by Otto Messmer

Felix was also one of the first animated characters to be adapted into a comic strip. On 1 August 1923 he starred in his own newspaper comic, distributed by King Features and drawn by Messmer himself. The strip was initially a Sunday page, which was accompanied by toppers like 'Laura' (1926-1935), 'Funny Films' (1933-1935), 'Sunny Side' (1935), 'Bobby Dazzler' (1935-1940), 'Gus the Ghost' (1940) and 'Don Poco' (1940-1942). The comic strip made its debut in the British newspaper The Daily Sketch before it was published in the United States on 19 August 1923. A daily strip was added on 9 May 1927, which continued on its own after the Sunday page was cancelled in September 1943. Since many of the early animated cartoons owed a lot to the comics medium the transition between the two proved no difficulties to him. Felix already spoke in speech balloons and reacted in question and/or exclamation marks on screen. The comic strip offered the possibility to tell longer, more continuous stories. Messmer would draw and ink 'Felix the Cat' until 1954, long after the character had disappeared from movie screens in 1931. He sometimes enjoyed assistance from artists like Jack BogleBill Holman, Dana Parker and Ed Cronin. After Messmer retired, Joseph Oriolo took over the series until the end of its run in January 1967. Between 1948 and 1955 Messmer additionally drew many longer stories with 'Felix the Cat' for the comic books published by Dell Comics and Toby Press.

Companion strip 'Bobby Dazzler' furthermore appeared as 'Bobby and Chip' (1936-1938) in the British Mickey Mouse Weekly. These were in turn reprinted in Mickey Mouse Magazine the first full-scale US periodical devoted to Walt Disney's iconic mouse, published by Hal Horne and later Kay Kamen. For this magazine, Messmer also made illustrations starring Donald Duck, Mouse Mouse and other Disney characters from 1935 to 1937.

Despite Felix' global success Sullivan took all the credit. Only after Sullivan's death in 1933, when the studio was forced to close down, did Messmer go public about his lack of recognition and profit for what was in essence his creation. One of his most vocal defenders was Joseph Oriolo, whom Messmer met when he worked as a storyboard artist for Paramount's 'Popeye' cartoons (based on E.C. Segar's eponymous comic strip) in 1944-1946. The debate continues to this day. Sullivan did create a prototypical version of a black cat in 1917 with the short 'The Tail of Thomas Kat'. Messmer's cat, created two years later, was very similar in design down to its original name, 'Master Tom'. Felix only received his current name after his third cartoon, which was either thought up by Sullivan or by John King, a colleague of Messmer. While Sullivan's business sense turned Felix into the global icon he remains today it cannot be denied that Messmer did more to develop Felix' personality. He drew him far more often than Sullivan ever did, both in cartoons as well as in comics.

Felix the Cat by Otto Messmer
Felix the Cat - Misdeal (Felix the Cat #1, Dell Comics)

Felix was briefly revived as a cartoon star in 1936 by the Van Beuren Studios, but failed to appeal to modern audiences. The character was revived during the early years of TV as the star of the children's series 'Felix the Cat' (1959-1961). The show gave him a magic bag and introduced a new cast of side characters, including his nemesis The Professor and his sidekick Poindexter. It also had a memorable theme song, sang by Ann Bennett and composed by Winston Sharples. Both Oriolo as well as Sullivan's brother William were closely involved in the making. In 1970 Oriolo obtained the rights to Felix. Messmer passed away from a heart attack in 1983. A year later his creation was teamed up with the Fleischers' Betty Boop character in the newspaper comic 'Betty Boop and Felix' (1984-1988), created by Brian, Morgan, Greg and Neal Walker.

Despite being nearly over a hundred years old, 'Felix the Cat' remains as iconic today as he was in the past. He can be considered the godfather of all cartoon stars and inspired numerous animators and cartoonists, including Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, Paul Terry, Bob Clampett, Raoul Servais, Sally Cruikshank, John Kricfalusi and Matt Groening. Contrary to older cartoon characters, Felix is still used on merchandising today and remains recognizable to anyone with even a mild interest in animation.

illustration by Otto Messmer

www.ottomessmer.com

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