From Phyllis to Felix:
One Book's Backstory
If you were living in New York City in 1969, you may have seen press coverage about a procession of horse-drawn Hanson Cabs that paraded down Fifth Avenue one day, my college friend Julie Brumlik perched in the forefront.

With the flair that anyone who has ever known Julie has come to expect, the youthful entrepreneur from Alabama successfully made the jaded journalists of the Big Apple take note. She was launching a new alternative tabloid called Granny, and did she have a publicity stunt for them!

On page 12 of that first issue of Granny was the premier installment of a comic strip called Muddlebrow, drawn by yours truly. Ms. Brumlik, you see, was in the habit of providing showcases to her creative friends whenever she had the power to do so.

Granny's life on the city's cluttered newsstands was flashy but brief — too brief for all of the Muddlebrow episodes I had at the ready to actually see print. Tucked away amid my batch of orphaned strips was a two-part tale featuring an annoying little girl named Belle who, thanks to an unlikely birth defect, would float helplessly into the sky if not constrained by a string held by some grudgingly dutiful friends. Muddlebrow itself was never revived, but I had trouble turning loose of that particular story-within-a-story.

I decided, roughly a decade thereafter, to see if Belle's story could be expanded into a satirical picture book. True, its comedy might be a bit black for some sensitive tykes, but that didn't stop me from thinking that the snarkier branch of America's youth — the branch that waited breathlessly for each successive issue of Mad magazine — might find my fable amusing. And if the pictures, narration, and dialogue were entertaining enough, some grown-ups might take to it, too.

My enthusiasm was stoked by a cheery book agent from Louisiana who was certain that she would be able to find a suitable publisher for my book. Buoyed by her optimism, I set about creating a newer, bigger fable fueled by the same premise as Muddlebrow's brief, unpublished version.

In an early draft of the new text, Belle's name was changed to Phyllis because of the euphony thus lent to my projected book's title, Phyllis's Friends. Then I got nervous about gender issues. Were there unconscious overtones of misogyny at play when I chose to hold up a chubby, unlikable female to ridicule? Yikes! (True, the real-life person whose behavior was the model for Felix's excesses had indeed been both female and chubby, but still...)

To take that touchy issue off the table, Phyllis's Friends became Felix's Friends before Phyllis ever got a chance to get drawn. Still euphonious, but less likely to provoke feminist ire.

Below: Belle and Felix. (My title character never made it onto paper during her Phyllis stage.)

I wrote and drew the book in its entirety on spec, with no contract having been signed. Hey, in those days I had more free time than I do now! My agent gathered up photocopies of my illustrated manuscript and set off to work her marketing magic.

At least, magic-working was what I imagined to be happening during the lon-n-n-ng stretch of time that unfolded before I discovered — first from other of her clients and eventually from my own experience — that I had apparently hitched my fortunes to a likable flake who, after many excuses, would cease returning phone calls without offering evidence that my book had actually been viewed by a single editor.

Strung along by an agent wannabe who talked big! Darn! I was no happy camper when I withdrew my book from her custody.

It was a set-back, but Belle's literary descendant still found a future of sorts several years after the aforementioned fiasco, when I decided to rearrange its pages into a comic-like format for inclusion in Dancin' Nekkid With the Angels, the 1987 St. Martin's Press collection of my strips and stories that (with a few exceptions, Felix among them) had previously appeared in underground comix and elsewhere.

Below: Felix's tale reconfigured into a four-pictures-to-a-page, comic-booky version appropiate for a comics collection.

As relieved as I was that Dancin' Nekkid could finally usher Felix into print in some fashion (no other avenues being apparent in 1987), the reality nagged at me that an anthology largely occupied by uncensored underground comix wasn't the best platform for a story that itself was fair game for adolescents and younger kids of a snarky bent. And I was frustrated that Felix hadn't managed to star in a stand-alone book of his own, darn it! But I had first Wendel and then Stuck Rubber Baby to distract me, so life went on.

Within a few years the dreaded out-of-print axe fell on Dancin' Nekkid, thereby ending the public's access to Felix while Toland Polk was busy agonizing about his sexual identity on my drawing board. Neither the softcover version issued by St. Martin's Press nor the hardcover, limited-edition twin simultaneously produced by Kitchen Sink Press, have been anywhere near a bookstore shelf since then, and Felix's Friends has been re-consigned to limbo.

But maybe not forever. I began thinking a short time ago about the tantalizing new options that have arisen within the publishing realm — options that are especially viable when making big money isn't an author's prime motivation.

OK, I'll admit to still hoping that Felix's Friends will someday be a "real" book, the way Gepetto hoped Pinocchio could become a "real" boy.

But neither Blue Fairies nor enthusiastic agents have been able to work that magic so far. The "real" publishers at whom I've dangled the book in recent years have told me they wouldn't know how to market it.

Meanwhile, at least these days I can do more than twiddle my thumbs while waiting for Felix's stars to align. Inexpensive POD (print-on-demand) self-publishing has arrived, and with it my edition of Felix's Friends. It's Felix's tale told in the format I waited twenty-five years to see.

I'd like to think that Belle and Phyllis would be pleased.

(Or maybe not; taking pleasure in anyone's enjoyment but their own hasn't come easily to any of Felix's successive incarnations.)

Anyway, Felix's Friends is available from the Lulu Marketplace and could be the perfect gift for that snarky nephew or niece of yours. You might even get a kick out of it yourself when you feel like getting in touch with your own Inner Unpleasant Child.

Go to Felix's Friends Home Page
Check out excerpted pages from the book
Read a review of Felix's Friends

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