Charles (Samuel) Addams Essay - Critical Essays

Addams, Charles (Samuel)


Charles (Samuel) Addams 1912–

American cartoonist.

Addams specializes in the macabre. His use of black humor, a literary device in which humor is grounded in morbid situations, often through the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unexpected, is a significant aspect of Addams's cartoons. Despite the grotesque satire in much of his work, Addams's themes are relatively conventional; he examines family relationships and ordinary aspects of everyday life. As John B. Breslin notes, Addams's world "is only a slightly distorted mirror vision of the world we read about in our daily papers." Addams's work has appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine since the 1930s and continues to be immensely popular.

The first Addams cartoon appeared in The New Yorker in 1933. By 1936, every second or third issue of the magazine carried one of his drawings. Although Addams's early work dealt with rather mundane subjects, by 1938 he had begun to depict his "family" of ghoulish characters: the emaciated, stylish young vampire-woman; her bug-eyed, demented lover (Addams said he could not bear to think of them as married); the old hag; the bald, flabby old man; the Boris Karloff-like butler; and the two satanic children. When, beginning in 1964, a television series aired starring this gruesome household, they reached an even wider audience. Addams was reluctant to allow his characters to be adapted for television, and he insisted on personally approving the names selected for them. The characters of "The Addams Family" show became: Morticia Addams, Gomez Addams (obviously the censors decided that the two had better be married), Grandmama, Uncle Fester, Lurch, Pugsley, and Wednesday. Soon after the show began, however, Addams complained that the characters were too nice, the situations too cute. The show was quite popular, nevertheless, and ran as a prime-time situation comedy for two seasons.

Because of the nature of his work, Addams has always been the source of much curiosity. Stories of his brushes with insanity abound. But Addams is, as Saul Steinberg defined him, "aggressively normal." He has said: "I attribute my success with the macabre to children. I guess my cartooning is sort of in a state of arrested intellectual development." Addams's depiction of wicked, antisocial behavior has long been favored by the monstrous child in young adults and adults. Addams has won the distinction of having his work exhibited in several important museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. He also won the 1954 Yale Humor Award and a special award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1961.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Boris Karloff

Why a collection of the drawings of Charles Addams [such as Drawn and Quartered] should need any written introduction at all is as far beyond me as the writing of one! Addams seems to me to be the one comedic artist today whose drawings need no letterpress at all. Supremely he has achieved the primary and essential purpose of any drawing serious or comic, which is to tell a story graphically in one blinding flash without a single written word of explanation…. [Few] men have realized and practised the earliest and most eloquent of all forms of story-telling as has Addams. When he does weaken and use an explanatory subtitle, it is nearly always an attempt to bolster up a story which is on the thin side. But that rarely happens. And even when the written comment does add a little spice, the drawing really does not need it. (p. i)

Perhaps Mr. Addams is happiest in his dealing with the macabre. His preoccupation with hangman's nooses and lethal doses is always innocent and gay. He has the extraordinary faculty of making the normal appear idiotic when confronted by the abnormal, as in his scenes of cannibals, skiers and skaters. Somehow one never dreams of questioning his premise, but only the rather childish alarm of the onlookers. (pp. i-ii)

Boris Karloff, in an introduction to Drawn and Quartered by Charles Addams, The World Publishing Company, 1942, pp. i-ii.


Readers of The New Yorker … know Artist Charles Addams as a tireless illustrator of the now commonplace question: Is the world going insane?… He cares not who makes a civilization's laws so long as he can draw its neuroses. Last week Artist Addams' screwy drawings were collected for the first time in book form (Drawn and Quartered …).

"The Art of Lunacy," in Time, Vol. XL, No. 19, November 9, 1942, p. 48.

Iris Barry

Naturally, an album of drawings ["Drawn and Quartered"] that comes prefaced by words from Boris Karloff [see excerpt above] would, in the normal course of events, turn out to be slightly macabre. As a matter of fact, the character that Karloff enacts on the motion picture screen lives, in between movies, inside Charles Addams's drawings. Here it feels thoroughly at home with the sinister sirens, pots of poison, reams of hangman's rope which are also often found therein.

There is considerable variety in Mr. Addams's cartoons—as witness the very unlike drawings of the taxidermist eying his fellow worker with professional interest, the stylish stout lady trying on a bullet-proof corset, and the elderly hag attempting to make a deposit in a mid-town bank—the deposit being a lumpy mattress no doubt hiding miser's pelf of some value. All of them make mock of quite every-day happenings and phrases which have been examined with a sharp beady eye and had a little salt thrown on their tails.

Yet what could be more deliciously pretty than a cartoon of the suburban lady who finds a besmocked yokel on her lawn with his woolly flock? "Crop thy lawn, lady?" he asks. This makes the present reviewer laugh immediately, for some reason. One or two of the others, however, are somewhat baffling. I think this may be because one fears to understand them.

Iris Barry, "Anyway, You Chuckle," in New York Herald Tribune Books, December 13, 1942, p. 6.∗

Wolcott Gibbs

New Yorker cartoons can be roughly divided into two classifications, which, back in the days when I was the most insanely miscast of an almost endless procession of art editors, were conveniently designated as "straight" and "nutty." (p. 5)

[The latter type], rather menacingly displayed in the pages of this book, [Addams and Evil] is harder to define, since it is less a criticism of any local system than a total and melodramatic re-arrangement of all life. Unlike the reportorial artist, whose scenes and personnel are ready-made, the man who draws pictures like those assembled here is obliged to create a nightmare landscape of his own and to people it with men, beasts, and even machines whose appearance and behavior are terribly at variance with the observable universe. He is, generally speaking, successful to the precise extent to which his creations seem peculiar, disturbing, and even outrageous to the normal, balanced mind. In my opinion, the subject of these notes—a man named Charles Addams—is one of the most outrageous artists in America in the sense that his work is essentially a denial of all spiritual and physical evolution in the human race. Some of this book is merely disconcerting—if, of course, it is no more than disconcerting for a couple in a hotel room to watch the sprouting of a pattern of knife points in the wall, unmistakably outlining a shrinking female form—but most of it is frankly devoted to man's crazy, triumphant return to the mud from which he came. The monsters in Addams' world are still in the minority …, but it is only too clear that actually these are the dominant strain, that somehow, as if God had shrugged His shoulders and given up the world, natural selection has reversed itself and presently our civilization will once again belong to the misshapen, the moonstruck, and the damned. (pp. 5-6)

Wolcott Gibbs, in an introduction to Addams and Evil by Charles Addams, Simon & Schuster, 1947, pp. 5-7.

William Germain Dooley

["Addams and Evil"] is the latest collection of irrationally sinister cartoons by Charles Addams from The New Yorker, a macabre mixture from the lower levels of Havelock Ellis case histories, centered upon a family group bound together in feline complicity and a murderous but happy neurosis. They have scalding cauldrons for Christmas carolers, their children's school activities include counterfeiting and coffin building, the nursery is decorated with octopi and a platypus…. Yet somehow it is all outrageously funny, probably because no matter how bad things are with you, they were never like this. It is the triumph of a family well adjusted to its environment.

This Addams version of the Jukes...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Mr. Charles Addams, in a very high and broad album of drawings [Addams and Evil], supplies … [an] element native to The New Yorker, an element constantly and ferociously at variance with the observable universe. Some of the cartoons in the magazine are, as Mr. Gibbs in his introduction to Mr. Addams's book points out [see excerpt above], social criticism of the normal and orthodox variety; but others, and Mr. Addams's are among them, are "less a criticism of any local system than a total and melodramatic rearrangement of all life." Gothic has gone to the artist's head, and a rash of drawings of a haunted castle inhabited by a sinister half-breed, a ruined and haggard beauty, a child with six toes and a...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Lisle Bell

If there is social significance in "Addams and Evil," the only thing to do is shudder and laugh it off. This can be done simultaneously. In a superb gallery of contented cretins, Charles Addams has gone about as far as imagination and wit can travel artistically in this direction—hovers diabolically on the macabre brink. What haunts us is not that these toads, vultures and vampires in subhuman form never have been bright since they were spawned out of the woodwork, but that they are so manifestly happy in a creepy sort of way….

[We] salute the artist who has a uniquely sardonic way of saying: People are fungi.

Lisle Bell, "Autumn Outburst of Cartoons,"...

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Charles Poore

The quality of Chas Addams is not strained—it is a pictorial explosion of the demonic instincts in civilized man. As you look at his gruesome masterpieces week by week in The New Yorker you are somehow chillingly cheered to find that his satanic little children have survived their past ventures in walling each other up behind their basement's bricks, blowing the household to bits with thriftily home-made bombs, serving arsenic at their lemonade stands, and so on—and are still merrily working at simple problems in murder….

Mr. Addams gets away—a very long way, indeed, too—with murder. What is the widespread appeal of his beautifully drawn examples of distinguished depravity? For, as John...

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John Mason Brown

[The following essay first appeared in The Saturday Review, November 11, 1950.]

[Mr. Addams's] hilarious derangements can now be relished in a collection of his cartoons inspirationally entitled Chas Addams's MONSTER RALLY.

Monsters, young or old, four-legged or two-headed, prehistoric or contemporary, simpering or nonchalant, are very much Mr. Addams's affair. His is a hobgoblin world of bats, spiders, broomsticks, snakes, cobwebs, and bloodletting morons in which every day is Hallowe'en. If his creatures hold life lightly and play with death as if it were a toy, it is because they are, each witch's or mother's son or daughter among them, jubilant nihilists....

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Lisle Bell

At this date, there is little need to dwell upon Mr. Addams's eerie magic and sinister charm as artist and master of the macabre. [In Monster Rally] he has preserved the family group of fiends we have cherished since we first met them. They are wonderful people, miraculously evoked from the woodwork and cobwebs in which they live, and the essence of their appeal—it seems to me—lies in their manifest domestic harmony rather than in their methodic diablerie. If the average American home reflected this fireside felicity, courts would be less clogged with cases of juvenile delinquency, marital discord and similar manifestations of family friction.

Study the record and you will agree. Between...

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There must be a special reason why Americans find Addams's stuff refreshing. Perhaps it is because the cartoons, which deal largely with family life, provide a healthy antidote to the saccharine treatment of the same subject in our advertisements and other forms of mass culture. After the depressingly cheerful families of the beer ads, the pious celebrations of marital bliss on the radio, the sentimental gushing over the kiddies everywhere except in the home, it is wonderfully relaxing to see these themes treated with a reverse twist, a bend sinister. Addams works this profitable vein with great diligence.

He also, of course, exploits the American public's peculiar, and in some ways rather...

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Best Sellers

The genially fiendish imagination of "Chas" Addams is bountifully explored [in The Groaning Board] in more than a hundred cartoons and drawings, including eight in full color, which later (nisi fallimur) graced covers of The New Yorker…. Not all by any means feature the "Addams Family." In fact some of the best are not gruesome at all, just delightfully outlandish.

A review of "The Groaning Board," in Best Sellers, Vol. 24, No. 15, November 1, 1964, p. 306.

(The entire section is 73 words.)

Russell Lynes

The clanking of Addams' chains has become as seasonal as sleigh bells. If you have seen the TV show that is based on the characters he invented and have not been so revolted that you can never look in Addams' direction again, you will find his The Groaning Board … the standard Addams product with its reliable and perhaps soon to become tiresome quality of morbidity and expert drawing. (p. 142)

Russell Lynes, "Funny, Ha, Ha!" in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 229, No. 1375, December, 1964, pp. 141-43.∗

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John Gruen

[The following essay first appeared in 1967.]

[Charles Addams is] still tops when it comes to projecting the nervous side of life. Thirty years on The New Yorker has not diminished his sting—nor, for that matter, his style, which is as unmistakable as a gabled and turreted Victorian house, an architectural vintage he seems, in effect, to have invented.

But for all his dipping into the well of black humor, Addams, the man, emerges an aristocrat. He's a gentleman of enormous charm—and talking with him is, unfortunately, not even a little bit painful. He comes on smooth and easy—and funny. (p. 161)

[Ask] him about black humor, and the answers get a...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

George A. Woods

The rhymes are true Mother Goose, but the illustrations are pure Charles Addams which means you'd better start the very young on a more traditionally illustrated collection than "The Chas. Addams Mother Goose"…. Unless, of course, you want wee ones to know that the farmer's wife cut off the tails of those blind mice with an electric carving knife or to see the size of the ghoulish thing that upset Miss Muffet or what Jack Sprat and the Mrs. subsisted on. Better not let them see Wee Willie Winkie peering through the glass they'll never go to bed. Come 7 or 11 you won't be able to keep them away from the book; meanwhile enjoy it yourself.

George A. Woods "A Gaggle of...

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Della Thomas

It isn't even necessary to open [The Chas Addams Mother Goose] to recognize the unique Addams brand of humor—the Mother Goose on the cover, aloft over a Neo-Gothic landscape, is the ubiquitous Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes! Of course, there will be those who will object to such macabre interpretations as that of "Pease Porridge Hot" (in a witch's cauldron), "Dr. Fell" (a fiendish doctor turning on a Rube Goldbergish array of switches while a strapped-down patient looks on in alarm) or "Boys and Girls Come Out to Play" (in a cemetery).

The rhymes are untouched, but the illustrations are good gruesome fun for adults and young sophisticates. The publisher's "all ages" designation, however,...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Zena Sutherland

Some element of the usual Addams style seems lacking [in The Chas. Addams Mother Goose], perhaps a spontaneity due to working with a prescribed text, so that the macabre touch seems, in some of the illustrations, superimposed and the pictures just aren't funny. There are a few pages that have high humor, a few that are grotesque, and the rest are simply a mite dull. Here and there, a picture demands the background not all children have: for example, the farmer's wife (and the farmer) in "Three Blind Mice" are adapted from "American Gothic." Older children who usually enjoy Addams may be put off by the nursery rhymes; not all children find this humor appealing, but those who do are a special group of readers who...

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Regina Minudri

Some [of the cartoons in My Crowd] are old favorites and some are new, but all are delightful cartoons in the inimitable, macabre, Addams' style. An archaeologist looking at cave drawings sees E = MC2; a respectable-appearing devil asks Avis if they'd like to be No. 1; Santa Claus suggests to his elves that perhaps this year they ought to charge a little something; a family smilingly views the vista through their new picture window—a graveyard. As cartoons and monster movies are usually popular with YA's, this ought to do quite well.

Regina Minudri, in a review of "My Crowd," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal, Vol. 17,...

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John B. Breslin

[We] must not let go unnoticed a new collection of Charles Addams cartoons, Favorite Haunts …, especially when it represents one of the bargains of the season. It's been a dozen years since the last and those readers who open their New Yorker every week wondering whether the master has struck again can sate their appetites on this book. What a bizarre mind he has! And yet, after turning these pages you have to admit that the world he creates is only a slightly distorted mirror vision of the world we read about in our daily papers. Luckily for me, his art defies verbal description, so I can leave you to your own memories of favorite cartoons. (p. 426)

John B....

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A. J. Anderson

As almost everyone knows, Addams has been drawing cartoons for The New Yorker for many years. This latest collection [Creature Comforts] represents sketches he has done for the magazine since 1976. It is no small praise to say that he is second to none as a master of the insidious effect. His nightmare vision leads him to construct designs of a ludicrous nature in which the qualities and employments of the persons depicted are incongruous or incompatible. What you respond to is what is intended—a subtle haunting mystery that slowly engulfs you, like washed-out figments of a dream. His creatures, all of which wear that patented Addams expression, are horrifyingly funny, and his images exquisitely...

(The entire section is 132 words.)