Thursday, February 9, 2012

Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails

Few cats have ever loomed so large in the public mind as Felix the Cat.  During the silent film era, Felix was the only animated superstar, his status rivaling that of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  Iris Barry (founder of the film department of the Museum of Modern Art) wrote that Felix was unique in that he was both “popular” and “distinctly high brow.”  In fact, Aldous Huxley wrote an article on Felix – cementing the sleek, black feline’s bona fides as a media superstar and pet of the intelligentsia.

The mania for Felix was huge, his cultural currency once greater than that of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.  Felix adorned toys, cups, clothing, and even was the subject of a jazz number by the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman (1923’s Felix Kept on Walking).  Felix was the totem Charles Lindbergh carried while crossing the Atlantic and he was the first balloon to float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1927. 

Felix was created for the movies, and his origins are clouded in debate and uncertainty.  The name on the cartoons was that of Australian cartoonist and entrepreneur Pat Sullivan (1887-1933).  However Sullivan’s lead animator, Otto Mesmer (1892-1983), was most likely the creator of Felix.  Once the film series was successfully launched, Mesmer was also the man behind the extremely popular comic strip, which began in 1923. 

Felix’s meteoric fame burned brightly and quickly.  By the early 1930s Felix lost critical ground to other cartoon characters whose creators embraced sound earlier.  Sullivan would die in 1933 and, following three interesting, colorful cartoons from the Van Beuren Studios in 1936, Felix faded from view.

But proving the cats have at least nine lives, Felix returned again in a series of cartoons designed by Joe Oriolo (one of Mesmer’s former assistants).  These cartoons are the ones most fondly remembered by Baby Boomers, where Felix carries a ubiquitous Bag of Tricks and spends most of his time outsmarting a villain called the Master Cylinder.  These cheaply made and poorly animated shorts were a marked come-down from the surrealist fantasias of the silent era, but kids seemed to like them.  Oriolo’s son, Don, was involved in The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat which aired from 1995 to 1997 and tried to return the character to his more mischievous roots.

So, it was with great delight that I recently received my copy of the newly published Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, edited and designed by Craig Yoe with an introduction by Don Oriolo.  This is a lavishly put together book, superbly bound with heavy, non-reflecting paper, allowing for minimal glare on the images.  This is how Americana should be reproduced.  In addition, along with the comics themselves we have a feast of Felix imagery in the opening pages – if you have even a small interest in The Cat, this book is for you.

The comics collected in this volume range from 1945 to 1954, and reflect the sense of Post-War relief and prosperity many remember from the era.  While I think the earlier, black-and-white daily newspaper comic strips are more interesting and bizarre, these comic book pages still retain an oddly domesticated weirdness.  Felix lives in an ordinary suburban home (complete with armchair!), and works at various jobs.  However – his adventures still have the quality of fun mixed with extreme strangeness.  There is tons of slapstick humor, but also a sense that Felix realizes that he is unfettered by the constraints of physical reality (at one point, Felix lands his spaceship on the bottom point of a crescent moon).  Of the tales included Felix in Candy Land -- where everything and everyone is made of some type of sweet -- is perhaps the most outré and most satisfying.  A great book for your kids … or for yourself!

No comments: