By Sandra White
Public domain characters are a curious sort. From ancient Greek myths to works of classic literature, to tall tales of the American frontier, characters from these kinds of stories and much more travel from ear to ear, eye to eye, and adapt to fit the collective mindset of our time. Yet, as history marches on, splashing in a few puddles along the way, more recent (in a broad historical sense) characters from many different mediums find themselves passing through the threshold of the public domain, waking up in the middle of nowhere, confused, scared, and not entirely sure what to do with themselves.
In that case, it seems only right for us as a creative species to try and help these characters take a few grand steps toward something brighter, telling new stories with them and giving them a chance to show their stuff to the masses, or at least a niche audience who could appreciate them.
Of course, this is not without its pitfalls. The dreaded fanfiction, with all it’s associated (and at times reasonably founded) stigma, as well as overly modernized adaptations of classic works are only two issues that have latched onto pop culture. This is to say nothing of the grand hope of any artist to craft new creative works, to establish new characters and tell new stories with them that will open eyes across the world. And so we find ourselves with the temptation to simply let public domain characters be, to let the past be the past and keep on walking toward an uncertain future, in search of the truth, or some approximation thereof.
Yet, I believe there is an inherent benefit to making use of public domain characters. There’s something wonderful about grabbing a hold of a character who spoke to previous generations and working them into something new that can talk to us now.
But I think that in order to give you a sense of what I’m going on about, I need to tell you a story.
Back in April of 2019, I saw a funny, little clip on Twitter. This clip involved a sardonic black cat and a remarkably blatant parody of the original series of Star Trek. I enjoyed the clip quite a bit, so as with all good citizens of this fair internet, I clicked the tweet to check the replies, hoping to find the source. Thankfully, I was able to get my paws on a name: The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat.
As with most mortals that walk this earth, I was aware of Felix the Cat in name only. All I knew for sure was that they made some clocks that looked like him and that he had been around for a while. Other than that, my view of his situation was pretty pitch black.
Still, I found myself with spare time and piqued interest, so I hit up the Wikipedia article for the show, a short-lived cartoon from the 90s, and found what I assumed was the short I wanted: Star Trash.
I gave it a watch.
And so, I found myself in love.
An important thing to note about myself was at this time I was in an especially deep creative rut. Having previously spent my time writing emotional poetry and serious, introspective works of short fiction, I was experiencing a heavy burnout from writing about the darkest parts of myself and the world around me. In short, I was miserable.
So what I was looking at here was pretty great. Here was a character I liked and that made me happy. Without stopping for the better part of a month, I went all in and learned as much as I could about this cat, hoping to unravel his history and his darkest secrets.
I learned quickly that not only was Felix old, but he was also the oldest cartoon character to make such a startling impact on the public. Beginning with his silent shorts from all the way back in 1919, this guy made the rounds! And with merchandise ranging from dolls to soda pop, you couldn’t escape him. As time went on, he appeared in a variety of mediums under many different interpretations. From old comic strips to television programs in the 50s and 90s, and even with a Christmas special for good measure, he was all over the place. So I took in as much as I could find, enjoying myself all along the way. I also learned that while Felix’s star wasn’t shining as bright as it used to, at the very least, people all around have heard of him.
And as I worked my way through this Felix spree, an idea began to form within me. A tiny spark flickered and grew until I had a fire in my mind. One night, after a quiet dinner and a failed draft or two of some sad story about a sad person, I threw up my hands, mumbled to the heavens, and just went for it. I wrote a story starring Felix the Cat. With surreal comedy. And serious, introspective elements are thrown in because I couldn’t help myself. Then I wrote another. Then another. Soon enough, I found myself with a whole little series of stories that put Felix and a few of his friends in a mix of wacky cartoon fun times and more character-driven narrative elements. Although they are far from perfect, I am glad I made them. By the time I was finished, I knew I had found a muse. Sure, that muse was a cranky alley cat, but we take what we can get, people.
However, as I wrote these stories, my want to insert the more visual, cartoony gags that were popping into my head at an increasing rate left me at a creative standstill. As fun as it is to describe Felix’s eyes growing thrice their size, it’s even better when the reader is actually able to see it. It wasn’t long before I decided to approach a potential collaborator and find out if we could bring a collective vision of Felix the Cat to life.
That artist, Anders K. Sekanina, otherwise known as seetherabbit, is a fan of the frisky fictional feline himself. I had seen him post some cute art of the character on the Comicadia Discord server, as well as mention a desire to make a Felix the Cat webcomic.
Once again, I went for it.
After a few weeks of trading ideas and figuring out our workflow, we settled on a concept for our Felix the Cat fan webcomic, to be creatively named Felix the Fan Comic. It would be a black and white webcomic featuring Felix as a resident of a big, nondescript city, going about his days, and getting into absurd, cartoonish situations along the way.
Although our individual visions for the character didn’t quite match up, our differences allowed us to better work together to make something uniquely ours. While we collaborated on all aspects of the comic, to keep it simple: I wrote it, he drew it, and with that said, we were very pleased with it.
That’s not to say we didn’t stumble along the way, however. When making a creative work with a character in the public domain, it is tempting to sway the scale of interpretation one way or the other. This can mean either attempting to recreate the works of the past associated with the character or placing the character purely within your own unique interpretation. At first, seetherabbit and I tended toward the former.
In fact, we found ourselves rather limited to our idea of what the cat and his stories were supposed to be. I stuck to writing reality-breaking visual gags that fit the more outlandish elements of Twisted Tales, while the rabbit drew what he saw as a more traditional look for the little fella associated with his old silent shorts.
As an example, take our first comic. It has a visual gag as simple as can be with a very round Felix playing the banjo, an instrument featured in many of his previous iterations.
However, as time has gone on, I have started to turn my gags toward more character-based humor and medium-confronting antics, while rabbit’s style for the comic has gotten closer to what he finds natural for him, with both of us experimenting here and there to see what works for the fluffy fella and tweaking it over time.
So as we got more comfortable working with Felix, we also got more comfortable putting in our own personal touches. This goes to show that there is no ideal balance for the scale. Staying true to the character, while finding our own twists along the way, is what worked best for us.
This is an idea best illustrated by our biggest undertaking for the character so far: Clothes, a story arc in part about Felix’s complicated relationship with garments. While it was the first idea rabbit and I came up with together (an idea that was inspired by a throwaway gag from one of my original Felix stories, no less) it was gently pushed aside in favor of working on one-offs that would establish our working relationship and hopefully get people interested in the webcomic.
So after months and months of refining our ideas, we released our first page of Clothes on the ninth of November 2019, Felix’s 100th birthday. Here is that first page, a prelude featuring two of Felix’s friends: Sheba Beboporeba from Twisted Tales and Poindexter, first seen in the classic TV show Felix the Cat.
Rabbit and I both look forward to showing you more.
For rabbit and myself, Felix the Fan Comic has proven to be among the most fruitful collaborations of our creative lives. For me, it is one of the projects I am most proud of, and in the words of the rabbit, it was the first collaboration he was involved in to bear any fruit at all.
So as rabbit and I have spent these months ironing out the details for the little ragamuffin, his friends, and the world they live in, I’ve come to realize that a character entering the public domain allows for their story to continue being told in a way limited only by one’s imagination.
Indeed, writing for Felix has been an incredible experience for me. It allows me to think about creative questions I never before considered, questions such as how exactly an electric fan from the big city should talk.
With questions like that weighing on my mind, I can safely say I’m plenty happy to have what I’ve been given. Meow.
In all, Felix and his friends are as much silly cartoon folk as they are reflections of ourselves. Whether through laughter or through tears, a story is told: their story and our story. Hopefully, we can keep telling their stories the best way we know-how.
That goes not just for Felix, but for any old character out there who’s just waiting for another chance. So while you don’t have to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of old ideas, don’t be afraid to explore. You never know when you might find someone that can take you to a place you never even imagined.
Rabbit has his own webcomic project too. It’s called Vulperra, and it’s awesome in the actual awe-inspiring sense of the word. You can read it here.