A prolific artist, Charles Addams offered America and the world a view of life and death that is still surprising and hilarious today. Despite over 1300 different cartoons, he is still remembered for a series of darkly-humorous cartoons that inspired a hugely popular TV series - The Addams Family.
'I'm Just An All American Boy'
Charles Samuel Addams was born in New Jersey, USA, on 7 January, 1912. An only child, he enjoyed the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe and spent hours recreating scenes from the books in his art books. Even at an early age, he enjoyed the more ghoulish aspects of life and liked to play tricks on people. He told of one occasion where he climbed into a dumb waiter (a pulley-operated service lift used to transport food or small objects between floors in a building) and quietly pulled himself up to his grandmother's floor, then knocked on the hatch door and waiting for his grandmother to open the hatch before he jumped out at her and scared her witless.
At Westfield High School, Charles became the art editor for the Weather Vane and drew many cartoons. He graduated in 1929 and attended Colgate University for one year, after which time he switched to the University of Pennsylvania and then studied at Grand Central School of Art in New York City. His dream was to work for The New Yorker magazine and he started submitting cartoons on-spec (ie, without a commission). One cartoon, entitled 'I Forgot my Skates', was accepted for publication. Addams made his first appearance in the New Yorker in February, 1932. In 1940 he submitted 'Downhill Skier' (in which the individual tracks from a skier's skis seem to have passed around both sides of a tree at the same time, much to the bafflement of a fellow skier going in the opposite direction) and that got him an offer to come on board at the New Yorker full time. He also occasionally did work for other publications such as Collier's1 and TV Guide (America's biggest TV listings magazine). He would, however, continue to illustrate for the New Yorker for the rest of his life.
World War II interrupted his work slightly when he was commissioned to make an instructional film on behalf of the US Army Signal Corps, on the dangers of syphyllis and other sexually-transmitted diseases!
'They're Creepy and They're Kooky...'
Addams's most familiar creations were a grotesque, morbid bunch who went on to become some of the most well-known characters in TV history - The Addams Family. Their first appearance came in 1937 with a strip that featured the character we now know as Morticia (the characters didn't originally have names - they came much later) opening the door to a vacuum salesman, with Lurch standing just in the shadows. In later strips, Addams introduced the father, Gomez, the children, Wednesday (who is blessed with six toes on her left foot) and Pubert (after the manufacturers of Addams Family dolls objected to the suggestive name of the Addams family's son, he was renamed Pugsley2) and the mysterious ghoul, later revealed to be Uncle Fester3. The family had a keen sense of the individual and celebrated a distinctly dark side of human experience. One famous strip (recreated for the first Addams Family movie in 1991) depicted the brood standing on the roof of their house, gleefully preparing to pour a vat of boiling water down onto a choir of unsuspecting carol singers down below.
David Levy, a television producer, approached Addams to do a situation comedy based on his characters. All Charles Addams had to do was give his characters names and more characteristics for the actors to use in their portrayals. The Addams Family series, produced by Filmways TV Productions, aired on the ABC network and ran for two years from 1964 to 1966. Addams received $1,000 a week for the use of his characters, plus a share of the merchandising rights. Sadly, he handed over these rights to his second wife, Barbara Barb, after their divorce, meaning he made very little from the TV deal at all.
Ironically, after the TV version of the Addams Family proved to be a great success, the then-editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, decided to pull the cartoon version from his magazine; the belief was that he felt it beneath his magazine to be affiliated with a primetime network TV show.
'Never Call a Witch Doctor a Clever Illusionist...'
Addams's work shows a fine balance between the charmingly ironic and the genuinely disturbed. Early cartoons showed situations such as a pair of Indians lying on a bed of nails and suggesting they have a pillow fight, a plague of rats abandoning a docked ship, or a bat complaining to its mother about the blood rushing to his head when he hangs upside down. But it's the truly unsettling images that really stick in the mind: a fakir doing the Indian rope trick so he can hang himself; the children stoking up the roaring fire in the hearth in preparation for the arrival of Santa Claus; the sight of abandoned unicorns watching Noah's Ark disappear into the distance; Bo Peep finding a ransom note for her missing sheep; and the recurring themes of cannibalism and spousal murder.
Though his friends would always attest to his charming, friendly nature, Addams revelled in his notoriety as someone to be worried by. A story that often went around about him was that he'd once drawn a cartoon of an alley-way with a door open ajar. Through the door, a nurse is shown holding a baby, standing in front of a shady-looking man, saying 'Don't wrap it, I'll eat it on the way home.' The story goes that the cartoon was rejected by every editor he ever worked for as being just too much. Whether or not the tale is apocryphal or not has never been proven, but Addams never dissuaded anyone from believing it; he felt anything so dark could only enhance his reputation as an artist prepared to go that little bit further. Why else would he frequently reply to fan-mail on notepaper headed 'The Gotham Rest Home for Mental Defectives'? Why else did he allow people to claim that the inspiration for his best work often came to him during periods where he was close to mental breakdown; that he would reach the edge of mania and when he recovered a new idea would be in his head? And why else would he have married his third and last wife, Tee, in a pet cemetery?
'His House is a Museum...'
Addams's home was filled with exactly the kind of bric-a-brac familiar to fans of his work: torture devices, crossbows, suits of armour, skulls, an embalming table (which he used as a coffee-table in the centre of one of the rooms in his house) and even a rosette of human hair which was framed and labelled as having belonged to ex-President of the USA, Abraham Lincoln.
Addams was also a car enthusiast, and along with his collection of cars from the 1920s, he was often found to be behind the wheel of a modern speedster - the faster the better. On 29 September, 1988, Addams drove out of New York in his Audi 4000 to visit some friends in Connecticut. Parking his car, he suffered a heart attack and died. According to his wishes, in place of a wake, a party was held in his honour at the New York Public Library. In an interview some years previously, Addams had been asked how he'd like to be remembered: 'As a good cartoonist', was his modest reply.
Though The Addams Family remains as popular as ever, thanks in part to reruns of the original series, as well as three feature films made in the 1990s, a number of animated cartoons and even a remake TV revival, it is the essence of Addams' other work that can be seen in cartoons such as Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes and - most clearly - in Gary Larson's The Far Side, both of which have brought odd views on life to millions through the powerful medium of the cartoon.
Further Reading - The Collected Works of Charles Addams
- Drawn and Quartered (1942)
- Addams and Evil (1947)
- Monster Rally (1950)
- Homebodies (1954)
- Night Crawlers (1957)
- Black Maria (1960)
- The Groaning Board (1964)
- My Crowd (1970)
- Favourite Haunts (1976)
- Creature Comforts (1981)
- The World of Charles Addams (1991)