Charles (Samuel) Addams Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)