How the cartoonist behind The Addams Family made fear disappear with deadly humor

On November 3, the Society of Illustrators will induct cartoonist Charles “Chas” Addams into its Hall of Fame. Though he drew thousands of cartoons during his career, Addams is best known for his creepy and charming characters who first graced the pages of The New Yorker in the late 1930s.

After appearing in a TV sitcom that ran from 1964 to 1966, The Addams Family, as they became known, enjoyed an afterlife in syndication, as well as books, animated series, live-action movies, a Broadway musical, a pinball machine, video games and classifieds selling everything from M&Ms to home insurance. Next month, the ever-gloomy tween Wednesday Addams has her own Netflix show, directed by Tim Burton.

The origins of this pop culture dynasty can be traced back to the small town of Westfield, NJ, about 20 miles west of Manhattan. Addams was born there in 1912, and as a child he played in graveyards, imagining those beneath them and awakening them in his sketchbook. “If that’s morbid, then he started out as a morbid person, but it was more of a fascination with death,” explains Kevin Miserocchi, director of the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation.

After contributing cartoons to the student newspaper and literary magazine at Westfield High, Addams followed with short stints at Colgate and the University of Pennsylvania. A transfer to the Grand Central School of Art took him to New York City, where in the early 1930s he was assigned to clean up crime scene photos for True Detective magazine. “They wanted him to ‘jazz’ the stories,” Miserocchi says, “but then he had to back off because it was too much.”

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.

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 cages.

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.

“You know, instead of it being like, look at these hostile psychotics, what’s wrong with them, it’s like you just can’t stand the carolers stuff and just want to dump your boiling oil on them,” says Chast 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, starring 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 did. 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.”

As for Charles Addams, he loved to have fun with his public image, decorating his Manhattan penthouse with medieval weapons and a Civil War embalming table. But he was also known as a gracious and sympathetic man who loved vintage cars and animals. Addams married and divorced two raven-black beauties who resembled Morticia before marrying his third and final wife Marilyn “Tee” Matthews in 1980 in an animal cemetery at her home in Water Mill, Long Island. Of course, the bride and groom both wore black. When the couple died, he in 1988, and she in 2002, their ashes were interred in the animal cemetery on their shared Sagaponack estate, which they affectionately called “The Swamp.”

Miserocchi points out that as a cartoonist, Addams’ aim was never to create fear, but to defuse it, infusing horror with a playfulness that appealed even to those who prefer daylight to witchcraft. “The suggestion of blood, the suggestion of blood, the suggestion of torture is always there, but his cartoons never showed it.” Subtle, yet powerfully subversive, The Addams Family left readers wondering if maybe these crazies weren’t so weird after all… and we were weirder.

Addams’ work is now displayed in prestigious galleries and museums. But perhaps his enduring spirit is nowhere more evident than in his hometown of Westfield, which hosts a month-long celebration called ‘AddamsFest’ every October.

There is a masquerade ball, cemeteries and a gallery exhibition that combines Addams’ cartoons with works by aspiring young artists who took a multi-day course to learn his printing techniques.

“We [then] looked at a list of clues, not knowing they were his. And so we drew what we interpreted from that, and then we got a chance to watch him draw it,” says Nadia Rego, a 15-year-old participant. While Addams and Rego may have been separated for nearly a century, the humor is still dead.

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