Nine Lives to Live – A Classic Felix Celebration

By Otto Messmer, edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-308-9

It might surprise you to know, but funny kitties actually pre-date the internet.

Felix is a hilarious, antic-enjoying talking cat of ancient vintage. He was created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan animation studio in 1915 and was an overnight global hit. Those moving picture cartoons led to a long supplementary career as a newspaper strip, as well as a plethora of merchandisable products in many other media.

Messmer wrote and drew the Sunday strip – which first premiered in London papers – before the feature finally launched in the USA on August 19th 1923. As Messmer’s employer and boss, Sullivan re-inked those initial strips, signed them, and then took all the credit for both strips and even the cartoons, which Messmer carried on directing until 1931.

Otto quietly toiled on, producing Sunday pages and daily strips for decades. In 1955, his assistant Joe Oriolo took over the creative duties and simultaneously began a campaign to return the credit for Felix’s invention and exploits to the true originator. It wasn’t until the 1960s that shy, loyal, brilliant Otto Messmer finally admitted what most of the industry had known for years…

As the cat evolved through successive movie shorts – and eventually numerous TV appearances – an additional and ever-expanding paraphernalia of mad professors, clunky robots and the cat’s legendary magic Bag of Tricks gradually became icons of Felix’s magical world, but most of that is the stuff of a later time and – hopefully – another volume.

The early work collected here comes from the halcyon 1920’s and displays a profoundly different kind of whimsy.

Fast-paced slapstick, fantastic invention and, yes, a few images and gags that might arch the collective metaphorical eyebrow of our more enlightened times; these are the strips that caught the world’s imagination nearly a century ago.

This was a time when even the modern citizens of America and Great Britain were social primitives compared to us – or at least so I’d like to think.

The imagination and wonderment of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and her Pals – both so similar to Felix in style, tone and execution – got the same responses from their contemporary readership and with the same sole intent: To make the customer laugh.

Our modern tendency to casually label as racist or sexist any such historical incidence in popular art-forms, whilst ignoring the same “sins” in High Art, is the worst kind of aesthetic bigotry, is usually prompted by an opportunistic bias and really truly ticks me off.

Why not use those incensed sensibilities and attendant publicity squalls to confront the still-present injustices and inequalities so many people are still enduring rather than take a cheap shot at a bygone, less enlightened world when most creators had no conception of the potential ramifications of their efforts?

Sorry about that, but the point remains that the history of our artform is always going to be curtailed and covert if we are not allowed the same “conditional discharge” afforded to film, ballet, opera, painting or novels. When was the last time anybody demanded that Oliver Twist was banned or shunned because of its depiction of one Jew?

These days the rush to label things racist, sexist or any other “ist” actually shuts down debate before anything can be achieved to fix or even address the problem…

None of which alter the fact that Felix the Cat is a brilliant and important comic strip by an unsung genius. The wonderful work collected here – which includes hundreds of rowdily phantasmagorical Daily and Sunday strips plus comprehensive biography, filmography and TV videography sections – perfectly encapsulate the wonder, universal charm and rapid-fire, surreal gags that enchanted generations and will still delight and enthrall youngsters of all ages.
© 1996 O.G. Publishing Corp.