Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Otto Messmer Cartoon Genius

There were some animators before Otto Messmer, but I can't think of one person who had more influence on the rest of animation history.

Messmer is the founding father of the American style of animation - which in turn influenced the rest of the world.

He created the basic shapes and spongy substance that animated cartoon characters are made of.

Cartoon characters to this day don't have skeletons stuffed with guts and stringy muscles hanging off them. They are instead, made of tight skin wrapped around shell like membranes filled with soft sponge.

I'm willing to bet Messmer also created and developed much of our cartoon film language.

The Disney animators spent years trying to excise the abstract physics and cartoon logic that Messmer innovated, but they hung on to the sponginess and construction ideas even as they tried to make their cartoons more "realistic".

Snow White is not made from observation of a real girl. It's an evolved design made up of Messmer type animation shapes and forms -with all the quirks and fun taken out. Taking out the fun and the style is what many animators call "realism".

Messmer's style is the ultimate in simple and pure appealing cartooniness.
Look how much more stylish this is than the general rubber hose style of cartoons that imitated him.

Steve has put up a bunch of pages of Messmer's classic 30s Felix comic strip.


Take a look at some other great strips from early days of our history.


Buy a compilation of the Felix strips:

For more history, John Canemaker wrote a gripping book detailing the turgid story of Felix, Messmer, Sullivan and the rest:


Barbara said...

yes! Great post, Felix is one of my favorite cartoon characters.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Bill Nolan animated for Messmer. He was the one who redesigned Felix from his earlier angular design to the rounded, softer one that is still the model used today. I think it was Nolan who invented the rubber hose style of animation.

Nolan later worked at Lantz on the Oswald cartoons, and it's his animation that you've mentioned before because of it's cartoony quality. Anyway, I like Messmer's Felix cartoons a lot.

litlgrey said...

Please say you'll do a piece on George Herriman! I place him in the pantheon of American creative geniuses, along with Samuel Clemmons, Walt Kelly, Winsor McCay, and Ted Geisel. In whichever order you like.

lastangelman said...

Yeah, before Mickey, the first international cartoon star was Felix. The first time I saw the original B&W was on WNET-TV, Ch. 13 from New York City. They'd put the toons on at freakin' 11 o'clock at night - a school night - Felix was an anarchic, selfish, freewheeling , totally amazing - way way way better than the 1950's TV shorts.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,
Great comics, thanks for uploading them! You hit the nail on the head with that tight skin comment, I find it funny that animators only start drawing funny expressions as a last resort. Ya know, for scenes that may not be funny enough on their own. If they draw like that for every scene, maybe kids won't get bored!

Pseudonym said...

Just so you know, in Australia, Canemaker's book is considered something akin to high treason for supporting Otto Messmer over Pat Sullivan. So if you're ever there, be careful what you say.

Lethargic said...

I'm glad you finally touched on Felix . The cartoon world he inhabits is at once psychedelic and down to earth. Though the landscape and anything in it may change unpredictably the characters motivations are always easily understood and realistically portrayed. And damned if there's anything funnier than the recurring gag of Felix mistaking the head of a native for the object of his quest.

Mad Taylor said...

I hope they give Felix the same treatment as Popeye and put those cartoons in a nice DVD collection. I have some on dvd but they are hard to watch because the frame jumps all over the place. Strangely, I think Felix commits suicide in one of the first cartoons too. He gets fed up with the female cat and uses his tail to huff gas from a pipe.

Shawn said...

I love Messmer's Felix comics! "Nine Lives to Live" is a great book! Everyone should buy it!

John, I know the post is about Messmer...but I've heard you mention something in the past about Raymond Spum being the unsung father of animation. Was he an actual person? I can't find any info on him.. Will you ever elaborate some time???

Roberto González said...

Man, I have to buy that compilation. My only fear is that after I bought it they could edit it in my country, translated and easier to read for me. Is that compilation an old or a new release? If it's new there is still a chance they will edit it in Spain, if not they probably won't edit it.

I love what I have seen in the internet. I have watched very few Felix cartoons too, but the few I watched were great.

Clinton said...

Do you all remember the Felix the Cat movie?....ugh....thanks for the otto lecture, John. thanks to your generousity and smorgasboard of information you share with all of us, I go insane every month I pay my Art Institute bill :) But seriously, I am learning a lot from you. So how are you training Kali in Otto's work exactly?

Clinton said...

Shawn, I think Raymond Spum is John K.'s alias. I looked it up on the internet, and all my sources say Raymond Spum doesn't exist. I would like to know more about it myself.

March said...

Mad Taylor,

Felix inhales his death in natural gas fumes cause he's overburdened with responsibility for having fathered so many bastard feline offspring in that cartoon, a boffo finish. And speaking of slambang endings, that old credit thief Pat Sullivan died of syphillus. Champion that, Australia.

Crumpled Up John! said...

Didn't Disney rotoscope for snow white to look more human?

John said...

Felix while once being a great character has unfortunately suffered the fate of all good cartoon characters from his time by having hideous newer versions of him. With the horrible modern incarnations of him I sometimes wonder if cartoonists even have any creativity left in their minds at all!

JohnK said...


Yeah Nolan is a great rubber hose stylist too.

I wish there was more info on what these folks did.

PCUnfunny said...

I love those 20's and 30's Felix toons,they were delightfully retarted. There was one were Felix gotw wasted !