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

Otto Messmer was an American animator and comic artist, generally known as the (co-)creator of 'Felix the Cat'  (1919). '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. Drawing the 'Felix' comic for 31 years straight, Messmer can be credited with popularizing comics based on animated series. But debate continues whether either he, or his boss Pat Sullivan, can claim to have actually created Felix as a character.

Early life and career
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 (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) 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 ithat same year, Messmer was drafted too. He was stationed in France, where he worked as a telegraphist.

Still from a 'Felix' cartoon. 

Felix the Cat
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 with 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 comic artists Charlie Pease and Arthur Martin also had a humor comic strip named 'Felix the Fat' which, other 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'). During the experimental TV broadcasts by NBC in 1928 they tested the transmission by filming a Felix the Cat doll.

The 'Felix the Cat' cartoons were not only popular with the general public, but also drew praise from Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin and 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 the Cat comics
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, 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 Messmer. 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.

Right from the start, the 'Felix the Cat' Sunday comic 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). 'Laura' centered on a talkative parrot. 

'Bobby & Chip', 16 May 1936.

Disney comics
Companion strip 'Bobby Dazzler' also 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.

Creator controversy
Despite Felix' global success, Sullivan took all the credit. Only after his 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 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.

The controversy about who the real creator of 'Felix the Cat' is would repeat itself about a decade later when Ub Iwerks remodelled Felix into Mickey Mouse. For decades, Walt Disney was credited with the creation of Mickey, while even the Walt Disney Corporation nowadays acknowledges that Iwerks was basically Mickey's creator. A similar dispute is the debate who is the real creator of Bugs Bunny, with people argueing whether Tex Avery, animator Bugs Hardaway or Bob Clampett deserves the most credit? In 1996, the 'Felix' controversy would be satirized in Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', namely the episode 'The Day the Violence Died', where it is argued who was the original creator of Itchy from 'Itchy & Scratchy'?

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

Felix the Cat after the 1920s
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 Joseph Oriolo and 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.

In 1989, 'Felix the Cat' appeared in his first full-length animated feature film, 'Felix the Cat: The Movie' (1989), co-produced by Animation Film Cologne and Pannónia Filmstúdió and directed by Tibor Hernádi. However, the picture was a critical and financial box office flop. A reboot of the 'Felix the Cat' TV series was produced by Film Roman as 'The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat' (1995-1997), with Joe Murray as a character designer. It was broadcast on CBS. A short-lived junior spin-off of 'Felix the Cat', titled 'Baby Felix' (2000-2001), ran on the Japanese TV network NHK. 

In 1979, Otto Messmer received the Winsor McCay Award.

Final years and death
Otto Messmer lived long enough to see 'Felix the Cat' enjoy ongoing popularity. He passed away in 1983 at age 91. 

Legacy and influence
Despite being over a hundred years old, 'Felix the Cat' remains iconic today. 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, Bjorn Frank JensenTabaréJohn 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
Cartoon by Otto Messmer. 


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