Awesome Men Throughout History: Charles Addams
People my age have fond memories of weird/smart comic strips like The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes, as well they should, but the work of Charles Addams puts just about everyone else to shame. His cartoons appeared in The New Yorker, Collier’s, TV Guide, and in the syndicated strip Out of This World, as well as several collections. Oh, and his characters were adapted into two TV shows, two animated cartoons, three movies (two of which were good), and a Broadway musical. So yeah, I think that’s enough to consider him an Awesome Man.
Addams was also an awesome kid, described by neighbors as a “rascal” who skipped school and broke into old houses. He also drew cartoons a lot, prompting his mother to bring some of his drawings to the the New York Herald, where they were coldly dismissed by cartoonist H.T. Webster. Fittingly, no one’s really heard of him.
Still, his parents encouraged his artistic tendencies, and Addams went to art school for a time, eventually dropping out to work in True Detective magazine’s layout department; he retouched photos of corpses to remove the blood from them before publication. He kept drawing though, and eventually got published in The New Yorker, which began his career as a freelance illustrator.
Addams’ cartoons were surreal and dark, much like the work of fellow Awesome Man, Edward Gorey. However, Addams’ sense of humor was more obvious and more deranged than Gorey’s. The 1942 Addams cartoon in which a cleaning lady raises the leg of her bound and gagged employer to sweep under it is just one example of what I’m talking about here.
Some of Addams’ recurring characters were portrayed as a wealthy family who weren’t aware of the creepy vibes they gave off, and those characters were further developed (and named) by Addams when ABC approached him about making a TV show starring those characters. It only lasted two seasons, but there was still enough popular interest in Addams’ creations for two separate animated cartoon series, followed by two pretty successful movies that featured a young Christina Ricci.
Morticia Addams, by the way, was based on Charles Addams’ first two wives, and Addams had a reputation as a bit of a ladykiller (not literally), and was seen with women like Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, and Jacqueline Kennedy at various social functions.
Addams also developed a public reputation as a morbid eccentric, which he encouraged by picnicking in cemeteries and welcoming gifts of skulls, thighbones, and frozen cow hearts from fans. He also answered fan mail on stationery whose letterhead was “The Gotham Rest Home for Mental Defectives.”
To be that successful and proudly weird is a triumph of the human spirit, and Addams’s name shouldn’t live and die on the film and stage adaptations of his work. Pick up one of his collections and enjoy his cartoons for the gruesome, sinister little gems that they are.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.