Saturday, January 7, 2012

The 100th Anniversary of Charles Addams' Birth

It was 100 years ago today that Charles Addams was born. He was quite possibly the most famous cartoonist to ever have his work appear in The New Yorker, well known for his at times macabre cartoons. Over time a family of recurring characters would begin appearing in his cartoon: a tall, slender, dark haired woman; her shorter, stout husband ; their two children; a Frankensteinian butler; and so on. Colloquially these recurring characters became known as "the Addams Family." With the classic 1964 television series based on the cartoons, the name became official.

Charles Addams was born on 7 January 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey. He started drawing at an early age, a pursuit in which his father encouraged him. He drew cartoons for Westfield High School literary magazine, Weathervane. After high school he attended Colgate University in Hamilton, New York and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He later studied at the Grand Central School of Art in New York City. In 1933 he went to work for the magazine True Detective, where among other things he retouched photos of corpses so there was no blood.

It was on 6 February 1932 that his first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker. It was in 1938 that the first cartoon that identifiably featured members of the Addams Family appeared--a vacuum cleaner salesman's encounter with Morticia and Lurch (who at this point had a beard). Charles Addams' cartoons would appear in The New Yorker from that point forward until his death. Of course, The New Yorker was not the only publication to feature Mr. Addams' work. Charles Addams' illustrations also appeared in Collier's, LifeMademoiselle, TV Guide, and others. It is important to know that not all of Mr. Addams' cartoons featured the Addams Family, although almost all of them tended to be absurdist or macabre in nature and most often both.

During World War II Charles Addams served the Signal Corps Photographic Centre in New York, where he made animated training films for the United States Army. Bob Montana of Archie Comics fame, fellow New Yorker cartoonist Sam Cobean, dramatist William Saroyan, and Canadian cartoonist James Simpkins also worked in the Signal Corps Photographic Centre.

Both during and following World War II Charles Addams' popularity as a cartoonist and illustrator grew. His first anthology of drawings, Drawn and Quartered, was published  in 1942. It would be followed by eight more anthologies of his cartoons. He also provided illustrations for Afternoon in the Attic, an anthology of John Kobler short stories. He also compiled Dear Dead Days, a scrapbook of grotesque images ranging from Victorian woodcuts to old medicine show advertisements.

The popularity of the Addams Family cartoons may have made either a television or motion picture adaptation inevitable. It was in 1963 that television producer David Levy was walking with a friend down 5th Avenue in New York City and passed a display of Charles Addams' books in a store window, including Homebodies, which featured a portrait of the entire Addams Family. Mr. Levy realised that that the Addams Family cartoons could provide the basis for a hit TV series. He approached Charles Addams with the proposal of the TV series, which Mr. Addams approved. Charles Addams provided names for the various characters, as well as brief descriptions of each of them (prior to the TV series, none of the Addamses were named). While it is often assumed that  Thing (a disembodied hand)  was created for the series, this was not the case. Thing appeared as early as 1954, as a disembodied hand changing records on a phonograph in the Addams mansion. Only Cousin Itt was created for the show, although he appeared in the cartoon before the TV series. At the suggestion of David Levy, Charles Addams added a hair covered creature. The new character made his debut in the 12 October 1963 issue of The New Yorker, the cartoon featuring the character answering a phone with the words, "This is it speaking." David Levy add an extra "T" to the characters' name and he became "Cousin Itt."

Although The Addams Family woud only run for two seasons, it would become a cultural phenomenon all its own. In the Seventies there would be a reunion telefilm, Halloween with The Addams Family. The Seventies would also see an animated series based on both the cartoons and the TV show. The Nineties would see two major motion pictures, a new animated series, a TV movie, and a new live action series. In 2010 musical based on the cartoons and the TV series debuted on Broadway. Most recently Universal obtained the rights to Charles Addams' drawings with the goal of a stop motion picture based on them with Tim Burton set to produce it.

Even prior to the television series, however, Charles Addams had an impact on Anglo-American pop culture. Edward Eager's fantasy novel Knight's Castle referred to "Chas Addams (which is how Mr. Addams always signed his drawings). Alfred Hitchock was known to be a fan of Mr. Addams' cartoons, so it should come as no surprise that Mr. Addams in mentioned in North By Northwest (1959)--Cary Grant's line,"The three of you together. Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw." It is a common assumption that the house in Psycho (1960) was inspired by the Addams mansion (the two do admittedly look a good deal alike).

Except for possibly James Thurber, Charles Addams may well have been the most famous cartoonist to ever appear in The New Yorker on a regular basis and he was most certainly the most famous whose success emerged from the appearances of his work in that magazine. As to why Charles Addams' cartoons, both those featuring the Addams Family and those that did not, became so popular, it is perhaps for the same reason that Ronald's Searle's St. Trinian's School cartoons and fellow New Yorker cartoonist Edward Gorey's work also attained popularity. Quite simply, the work of all three men allowed people to face our very worst faces and laugh at them. The Addams Family poised to spill boiling oil on carollers, a skier going through a tree without harm, an octopus rising from a manhole to grab an innocent victim, these images allowed us to laugh at death. In the mid to late 20th Century, when the threat of nuclear destruction sometimes seemed imminent, Charles Addams put us all at ease by bringing us face to face with the grotesque and making us to see the humour in it.

Of course, Charles Addams' most popular creation was the family that bears his name. Most certainly the Addams Family helped society laugh at death, but their appeal goes even further than Mr. Addams's other cartoons. The Addams Family were an extended family who enjoy the bizarre and the macabre. Even though it is apparent even in the cartoons that they are a family of means, they are still very much outsiders when it comes to society. Despite this, the Addams Family can hardly be said to be dysfunctional. Morticia and Gomez not only love each other, they are very openly affectionate. Despite some very odd hobbies, their children, Pugley and Wednesday, are well taken care of.  They also care for members of their extended family--Grandmama and Uncle Fester (in the original series he was Morticia's uncle, not Gomez's brother). The Addams Family were proud of their eccentricities. In fact, they were a much healthier extended family than many more "normal" nuclear families. Quite simply, the Addams Family not only allowed us to laugh at the macabre, they also told us that it was all right to be different and that was all right to even be proud of those differences. Indeed, the Addams Family made it clear that it was better to go one's own path than it was to simply conform to society's expectations.

Certainly, Charles Addams never conformed to society's expectations.  Over the years he never toned down his cartoons nor did he look for success elsewhere. When the television series came about, it was David Levy who went to Mr. Addams, not the other way around. Much like the family he created, Charles Addams was a success because he was different, because he chose his own path and worked in his own style. Even if there had never been an Addams Family TV series, Charles Addams would still be one of the most famous cartoonists of the 20th Century.


Unknown said...

Can I ask where you found the cartoon of the hand beckoning out of the subway? It's not in any of Addams' books as far as I'm aware. I would be very interested to know as I think it's a great one.

TIA, Simon

Terence Towles Canote said...

Hi Simon, I wish I could tell you where I found it, but it has been so long ago that I can't remember! I know it was one of several that was displayed at an exhibit of Mr. Addams's work at the Museum of the City of New York in 2010.