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Black Humorist

The funny-macabre century of Charles Addams.

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Though Addams’s faces and hands are rounded and smoothed off in the manner common to caricatures, there is no question but that he was a superb draftsman in a way that other acclaimed modern comic artists—Charles M. Schulz or Garry Trudeau, for example—are not. This was integral to his work. Just as Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau was not merely a bumbling idiot, but one who aggressively insisted upon his own dignity and importance, Charles Addams’s characters determinedly labor to deny the perversity of what is in front of them. 

Characteristic of this is the cartoon which first brought Addams to national attention. In it, a skier observes the tracks of another skier moving away from him. The first skier’s expression tells us that he does not want to admit that he sees what he (and we) plainly do: The other skier’s fresh tracks go on with the person’s right and left skis passing, without a hitch, around opposite sides of a broad tree. The joke works because the observer’s face and posture show us his willful disbelief.

Often crucial, too, is Addams’s use of perspective and suggestion. Thus, a famous panel shows a frumpy, middle-aged woman racing along a sand dune, visibly balked, crying out, asking her husband simply to give her their car keys. Looking up imploringly towards the sky, she holds out her hands to receive them. On the sand next to her is a shadow indicating the shape of a giant birdlike creature with an airborne man, her spouse, in its clutches. The mechanical patterns through which the husband and wife express their enmity for one another have not been altered by the situation. 

Brilliant as the greater number of these drawings are, it must be admitted that many were not originally conceived by Addams. Rather, from early in his career, Addams paid friends for ideas, or looked to ideas suggested by editors, fans, and even other cartoonists. Still, when working from other cartoonists’ “roughs”—sketches for his finished panels—he almost always improved on the original. The ski cartoon, as initially proposed, lacked the essential detail of the puzzled observer.

And though the characters in the Addams Family cartoons are subtly different from the ones in the 1960s television show, they were all pure inventions of the artist. (In the original cartoons, Lurch is presented as a mute and Gomez looks less like John Astin or Raul Julia and more like Peter Lorre.)

Sadly, the success of the TV show prompted editor William Shawn to tell Addams to discontinue the series—and it did cease until the arrival of Shawn’s successor at the New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb, in 1987, towards the end of Addams’s life. This is especially regrettable because the Addams Family captured so much of what was best about Addams’s humor. Take, for instance, a panel showing a disdainful Morticia instructing her complaining daughter Wednesday, fleeing from her troublesome brother Pugsley: “Well, don’t come whining to me. Go tell him you’ll poison him right back.”

Especially excellent, as well, are the artist’s many drawings that work without captions. Addams worked long hours doing sketch after sketch for his completed compositions, carefully working out all the details and trying innumerable variations for each. Most often, he labored on the drafts at his New Yorker office; then he would finish the works either at his place in the Hamptons or at his townhouse. Addams also deliberately avoided topical subjects, as he wanted his designs to last. Yet this did provide critics with reasons to ignore his work, even as they promoted a thousand poseurs. 

Still, one cannot help wondering: How many of the artists now in the permanent collection at Addams’s Manhattan neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art, will be remembered, or so rightly treasured, in another hundred years?

Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.

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