Felix the Cat

Pat Sullivan is best known for his involvement in the creation of the world famous cartoon character 'Felix the Cat', though controversy has risen over the question whether his colleague Otto Messmer deserves more recognition for this feat or not. Patrick Peter Sullivan was born in Paddington, New South Wales, Australia in 1887. He was the son of a Darlinghurst cab proprietor. After leaving school, he worked various jobs, including as gatekeeper at Toohey's brewery in Surry Hills. He attended classes at the Art Society of NSW, while doing his first assignments as a caricaturist. Between 1905 and 1907, he submitted humorous cartoons to the trade union newspaper, The Worker. In 1909, Sullivan emigrated to England, where he tried his hand on lightweight boxing as well as singing and dancing in music halls. His first actual comics work was contributing to the 'Ally Sloper' strip, which was created by Charles Henry Ross en Émilie de Tessier, for a year and a half.

Sullivan eventually emigrated to the United States, where made a living designing cinema posters. He worked for the McClure Syndicate as an assistant to William Marriner on his comic strip 'Sambo and his Funny Noises', in itself based on Helen Bannerman's popular childrens' book series 'Little Black Sambo'. Sullivan also created some Marriner-inspired strips on his own, both for McClure and the New York Evening World. These include 'Great-Idea Jerry' (1912), 'Johnny Boston Beans' (1914, a rip-off of Marriner's previous strip 'Johnnie Bostonbeans'), 'Obliging Oliver' (1913-1914) and 'Old Pop Perkins' (1914). After Marriner's death in 1914 Sullivan joined the animation studio of Raoul Barré. Despite being fired, Sullivan had gained enough knowledge of the still young medium to set up his own cartoon studio. One of his first projects was an animated adaptation of Marriner's strip 'Sambo' under the new name 'Sammy Johnsin' to avoid copyright issues. This was followed up by a cartoon series based on the popularity of Charlie Chaplin. In 1917 Sullivan was convicted of raping a 14-year old girl and sentenced to jail for about nine months. This put a temporary halt to his studio's productions. 

On 9 November 1919 the Sullivan Studios finally scored a worldwide commercial hit with the creation of 'Felix the Cat'. The little black feline was the first animated character to become an international superstar. While Winsor McCay's 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914) was the first cartoon to revolve completely around the personality of one character and J.R. Bray's 'Colonel Heeza Liar' (1913-1924) the first animated series overall, Felix was the first animated character to become an international superstar. The silent 'Felix' shorts were funny, creative and took advantage of all the possibilities of the still young animation medium. At the time only 'Koko the Clown' by the Fleischer Studios could rival them in these fields. Yet 'Felix' was a much bigger commercial success. He was the first cartoon character to be globally merchandized, making him as recognizable as any live-action Hollywood star of the 1920s. As such he paved the way for all cartoon superstars that followed in his wake, most notably Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks' 'Mickey Mouse' (1928). 

Felix the cat, by Pat Sullivan

After J.R. Bray's 'Colonel Heeza Liar' in 1916, Felix was also the first animated character to be adapted into a comic strip. A 'Felix the Cat' newspaper comic ran through King Feature Syndicate from 1923 to 1967. 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). Sullivan's co-worker Otto Messmer was the main author of the Sunday feature until September 1943, with Sullivan himself being credited with the inking of the early episodes. A daily strip was added on 9 May 1927, initially consisted of cut-and-paste reworkings of the cartoons by animator Jack Bogle. After 1931, Messmer started making original stories for the daily strip as well. Another animator, Joe Oriolo, took over from Messmer from 1954 until the strip's cancellation in January 1967. A first series of monthly 'Felix the Cat' comic book was published by Dell Comics and Toby Press between 1948 and 1955.

Laura, by Pat Sullivan
Laura Sunday topper, credited to Sullivan, but ghosted by Messmer

Eventually the success became too much for Sullivan. Already suffering from a drinking problem his alcoholism got worse after the untimely death of his wife in 1932, who was killed after leaning too far from a window and dropping down seven stories below. Sullivan died almost a year later from alcohol-induced pneumonia. Since then Sullivan's legacy has been subject of much controversy. Otto Messmer, his main animator and the artist of the equally succesful 'Felix the Cat' comic strip, claimed that he was the creator of the iconic cartoon cat. Not only did he never receive any official credit: he never saw a dime in royalties either. Many former studio members have acknowledged that Sullivan was hardly present in the studio after 1925. As his alcoholism worsened he became unable to properly do his job. For a long while he held the studio back by refusing to make the transition to sound and colour cartoons, even though their rivals had already made that move. When Sullivan died he left no testament or any book-keeping records behind. As a result of his careless management, his studio was forced to close down, bringing the 'Felix the Cat' series to a sudden end. His conviction for rape and anecdotes about his racism against black people haven't done his posthumous reputation much good. 

Felix the cat, by Pat Sullivan

Regardless of Sullivan's mismanagement and private life, it still hasn't settled the debate about Felix' creation. As early as 1917 Sullivan directed an animated short called 'The Tail of Thomas Kat', featuring a prototypical black cat. Messmer's design for Felix in the short 'Feline Follies' (1919) was very reminiscent, down to the original name for the cat, 'Master Tom'. Only after his third cartoon did Felix finally receive his current name. Sullivan claimed he named Felix after the word "Australia Felix" ("Lucky Australia"), a term used by 19th century explorer Thomas Mitchell. Messmer on the other hand pointed at his colleague John King who named the cat after the Latin word "felix" ("lucky"), which also was very similar to the Latin word "felis" ("cat"). Messmer has claimed that he was the sole author of 'Feline Follies' (1919), and while his claim is backed up by several animation historians, the pro-Sullivan camp points out that Sullivan's handwriting can be seen throughout the short. The issue shall probably never be solved. It can't be denied that Messmer was largely responsible for the development of Felix' personality. He drew the character more often than Sullivan ever did, both as an animator as well as a comics artist. But Sullivan's business sense made Felix the global icon he remains today. In a time when animated cartoons were still in their infancy and regarded as nothing but a novelty this was no small feat.

Pat Sullivan

More about the Sullivan/Messmer debate

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