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 on 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 ads that sell 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.

"downhill skier," <em>The New Yorker</em>January 13, 1940″ srcset=”https://npr.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/0f166c0/2147483647/strip/true/crop/750×525+0+0/resize/1760×1232!/quality/90/?url= https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.npr.org%2Fassets%2Fimg%2F2022%2F10%2F18%2F646-theskier_d46f46aba9a54e66bef9929f83297489_custom-ece529497b9e769367431a4e4216eff95″. brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/ef14805/2147483647/strip/true/crop/750×525+0+0/resize/880×616!/quality/90/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.npr.org%2Fassets% 2Fimg%2F2022%2F10%2F18%2F646-theskier_d46f46aba9a54e66bef9929f83297489_custom-ece529497b9e769367431a4e4216eff95fb33571.jpeg” loading=”lazy” bad-src=”data:image/svg+xml;base64,PHN2ZyB4bWxucz0iaHR0cDovL3d3dy53My5vcmcvMjAwMC9zdmciIHZlcnNpb249IjEuMSIgaGVpZ2h0PSI2MTZweCIgd2lkdGg9Ijg4MHB4Ij48L3N2Zz4=”/></p>
<p>  / Tee & Charles Addams Foundation</p>
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<p>Tee & Charles Addams Foundation</p>
<p>“Downhill Skier”, The New Yorker, January 13, 1940</p>
<p>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.
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<p>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.
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/ Photo courtesy of AddamsFest

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Photo courtesy of AddamsFest

“Have you ever noticed how some people resemble their pets?” by Nadia Rego.

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,” said 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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