How the cartoonist behind ‘The Addams Family’ defused fear, with deadly humor

In 1932, Addams sold his first spot sketch to The New Yorker. His big break came in 1940, with an uncaptioned cartoon of a skier whose tracks pass on both sides of a tree, earning him a spot as a marquee contributor.

In a comic strip, a skier looks confused at another skier who has apparently gone through a tree.‘Downhill Skier’, as seen in ‘The New Yorker’ on January 13, 1940. (Tee & Charles Addams Foundation)

Cartoonist Roz Chast first discovered Addams’ work when she was eight years old visiting the Cornell University library while her parents were attending summer colleges with other adults. At a time when most of The New Yorker’s cartoons poked fun at boardrooms and cocktail parties, Chast says Addams’ work stood out. “I loved almost everything the kids were in,” she recalls. In one of her favorites, a delivery boy appears to be returning children from summer camp to their parents — in animal-protective carriers.

In another, one of Addams’ most famous, it’s Christmas, 1946. Members of the yet-to-be-named Addams family stand on the roof of an eerie-looking mansion, ready to put out Christmas carols in the street with the contents of a steaming kettle.

Characters we now recognize as Lurch, Gomez and Morticia Addams are depicted high on the roof of a tall, eerie mansion, as they get ready to drop a barrel of oil on carolers below.‘Boiling Oil’, as seen in ‘The New Yorker’ on Dec. 21, 1946. (Tee & Charles Addams Foundation)

“You know, instead of it being like, ‘Look at these hostile psychotics, what’s wrong with them?’ It’s like when you just can’t stand the carolers stuff and you just want to dump boiling oil on them,” Chast says with a chuckle.

Over time, those loosely connected characters experienced an “evolution” in a family: Morticia, her husband Gomez, their offspring Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandma Frump, the butler Lurch, and a mysterious disembodied hand named Thing. They became internationally known denizens of the dark side in the mid-1960s thanks to the TV sitcom The Addams Family, which starred John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia.

That’s about the time cartoonist Alison Bechdel came across Addams’ work, including an illustrated book of nursery rhymes. Bechdel says that even an innocent verse like “girls and boys come out to play, the moon shines as bright as day” can take a grim turn as members of the Addams Family burst into the graveyard with shovels. On a personal level, she says she can empathize.

“I really felt like I was part of the Addams Family,” explains Bechdel. “My parents looked like Morticia and Gomez, we ran a funeral home, we lived in this big old Victorian house like the Addams’s. I even looked a bit like Wednesday, especially in my prime photo where I’m actually wearing a black velvet dress with a white collar.”

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