One of my treasured and almost lifelong gifts from my family has been an appreciation of and (coming a little later) subscription to The New Yorker. In my childhood - and truthfully, well after - I turned primarily to the cartoons, and came to look forward particularly to those drawn by the inimitable Charles Addams. Robert Mankoff, who came to The New Yorker as a cartoonist in Addams's later years, spoke recently with an interviewer about the influence of Addam's work:
What influence has Charles Addams’s work had on cartooning and American humor?
I think his influence is, like the man, largish. He tapped into that vein of American gothic that has a touch of paranoia about it, seeing behind every comforting façade the uncomfortable truth about the duality of human nature. But where Gothic literature usually combined these themes with romance, Addams made the horror hilarious: disturbing, but at the same time friendly, identifiable, and acceptable. In cartooning, you can see the direct influence of his work in someone like Gahan Wilson, and in many other cartoonists. Horror films that combine humor with horror, such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” with its wise-cracking Freddy Krueger, are also in his debt. And, of course, Addams’s humor was “black” and “sick” before those terms applied.
But I think his influence extends beyond the horror genre, to humor not as a comforting “laughter is the best medicine” anodyne but as something deeply skeptical of the purported values of middle-class American life. By making us laugh at, and with, his fiendish protagonists, he makes us temporarily share their values, and doubt our own.
Those with an interest in the private and professional life of the man Charles Addams should turn to Linda H. Davis's biography, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life (Unabridged), published by Random House in 2006, now also available as an audio book wonderfully read by Don Hagen. Addams's widow gave the biography her blessing, and it's said to pull out all the stops.
But for this particular Halloween occasion, I want simply to offer to readers of Reckonings a small selection; one of Addams's many covers for The New Yorker, and two of his cartoons.
The first is a cover for the issue of July 8, 1961, depicting ghosts from an upland cemetery watching an outdoor drive-in movie - a Western with a particularly appropriate scene - in the valley below:
The second cartoon below is a Halloween occasion, the lady of the house kindly apologizing to a small alien creature (see space ships and companions in background) she plausibly assumes is a boy in costume.
"I'm sorry, sonny. We've run out of candy."