On his own terms, Felix isn’t all that cool a cat. This cartoon feline, conceived in 1919 by animator Otto Messmer, possesses a perpetually wide-eyed face that’s not particularly expressive; Felix may be the only cartoon superstar who makes Mickey Mouse look macho. But a decade before Mickey was a dollar sign in Walt Disney’s eye, Felix’s silent cartoons turned him into an international pop-culture icon, his likeness reproduced on everything from dolls to dinner plates.
As John Canemaker tells it in his fascinating book, Felix’s sappy grin masked a troubled life behind the scenes. Messmer apparently was a neurotically reticent man who allowed himself to be ripped off by the cartoons’ producer, Pat Sullivan, who took full credit for the creation of Felix and rarely granted the artist a fair share of the profits.
Canemaker, author of the exceptional Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (1987), is a satisfying combination of historian, reporter, and fan. His portrait of the gentle, self-effacing Messmer, who died in 1983, offers a classic example of a sensitive artist unwilling and unable to deal with the real world. Canemaker guides us through Felix’s career, including the witless limited-animation TV show that introduced most baby boomers to this character in the early ’60s.
It should be noted that Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat is a beautifully designed book, stuffed with illustrations and photos that never get in the way of the text. The designing was done by Peter A. Andersen, who really deserves more prominent billing. A-