Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Charles Addams, absurd cartoonist

“Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive!”
Caption from cartoon above, by Charles Addams

Today it is raining. It is a dark overcast day. People say it is a gloomy day.

But why should it be gloomy? It is a natural occurrence, as natural as the sun and the wind, as days and nights and the turning of the seasons.

Now maybe there is some chemical reaction in our brains that makes us feel less cheerful on dark days. But our guess is that we can change our perception by changing how we think about the world.

We’ve made a conscious effort over the years to buck this natural tendency to impute some kind of emotional content in the weather. When we hear someone say “What a miserable day!” we immediately think to ourselves, “Nope… it’s just a day like any other.”

In fact, we’ve managed to go further and enjoy the weather, whatever it may be. Rain is wonderful. Feel the water dribble down the back of your neck and moisten your face.

Our thoughts on weather today made us think of the Addams family. Yes, the Addams family.

They were the cartoon creations of Charles Addams. We have his first collection of cartoons from 1942, “Drawn & Quartered.” The vast majority of the cartoons appeared in the New Yorker in the 1930s and 40s. Of course, the Addams family has since gone on to the world of TV and movies. If you know the Addams family at all, it is likely through these mediums, not Addams’ original cartoons.

We loved the TV show as kids and remember watching re-runs. Some years ago we sought out the original cartoons. They are quite an achievement of wit and black humor. They give you a window to a bizarre world where our darker sides enjoy a little fun. (And not all the cartoons involved the Addams family.)

As Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times:

“We enter a world so perverse even wind-up toys commit suicide, bitter matrons ask in department stores to be directed to “blunt instruments,” and beams of light bearing divine illumination stream from the heavens only to shine on television antennas… One of the strange characteristics of contemporary bourgeois life is the sheer pleasure we take in inverting it. Uncomfortable with its promised comforts and disbelieving its reassurances, we maintain its manners but stand it on its head.”

Addams was brilliant. If the absurd has a cartoonist, we’d nominate Addams. For his gift was to turn traditional perception on its head. Invert, he did, with charm. He takes familiar scenes and makes them absurd, both in the philosophical sense and in the sense of making life ridiculous.

In the world of Addams, death is ever present. Suicide is an ongoing theme and the hangman’s noose a regular touchstone. But Addams treats these subjects lightly, without judgment. He makes death something to laugh at, something to accept.

One cartoon has a caption that reads: “In a rut, men?... Discouraged?... Life look hopeless?” And there on a street is a man selling hangman’s nooses, as casually as if he were hawking watches.

Or the boy scout who walks in on his father who is standing on a chair ready to hang himself… the caption reads, “Hey Pop, that’s not a hangman’s noose.”

Then there are the cartoons that deal with the Addams family itself.

You surely know these characters by now… Morticia, Gomez, Lurch, Wednesday, Pugsley, Grandmama and Uncle Fester, not to mention a small constellation of relatives and pets.

One thing that always struck me about the Addams family is that they were nearly always happy and accepting. It didn’t matter what others thought of them, they continued on their merry way. They had all kinds of oddball interests that they indulged enthusiastically (Gomez's love of destroying toy trains, Morticia's enthusiasm for meat-eating plants, etc.) And life for them always seemed a kind of game.

We think there is much that is absurd in Addams’ worldview. It makes us smile to think of his cartoons. And it makes us look out of our window, at the rainy, windy, dark day in a different way, in an absurd way… Today is a day like any other.


  1. So true, so true.... to enjoy everyday be it raining, stormy, sunshine or snow is an ability that apparently only a few of of us absurd, dreamer peaple are able to enjoy. If I awake, then I shall enjoy the day. If I do not awake, then I shall enjoy wherever I am.


  2. The word "perverse" and "perverted" mean, ethimollogically, something that is in a way turned upside down or inside out. But many times, indeed very frequently, reality has to be turned upside down, and logic must serve some quirky twisty end; the world, going always clockwise, must be led to be counterclockwise, or even better, clockmad or clockfool. Many did this task before Mr. Addams, among them Apuleius in ancient Rome and Erasmus in nothern Renaissance. The world benefits from this cooky crooked views on itself, sanity comes from this apparently absurd way of the world. Because, first, we laugh, but afterwards, we find that the laugh is quite on us. Philosophy today attacks "Western ratiocentrism" with a lot of snob, abstract and very difficult arguments. Mr. Addams way (and that of his most worthful predecessors) strikes me as more intelligent and gracious.

  3. E pensar que ele tinha medo de escuro quando garoto.

  4. On a windy rainy night in the fall or winter when its cold indoors at night with a cup of hot cocoa watching TV reading a book or on my computer