Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Genius of Charles Addams

While I may prefer The Munsters to The Addams Family as a television show, I cannot deny the wonderfully macabre work of Charles Addams the cartoonist.  I have provided an Addams cartoon below to illustrate this sense of macabre humor:

ENLARGE FOR BETTER VIEW  Caption reads, "Wait a minute, can't you?  I've only got three hands."

Addams was a master at visual shorthand and cultural context, a necessity in single panel cartoons for the New Yorker, which is where his work was published, primarily.  While the majority of Mr. Addams's work is from the perspective of an older generation (not when it was published, obviously, but from our current vantage point), he works with some timeless concepts, such as marital strife or public annoyances which appeal to a large audience.  Visual shorthand relies upon using images that will be instantly recognizable to the target audience in as broadly a manner as possible.  In the example above we have several concepts that are rolled into a single image that should quickly elicit a chuckle, but if we take the time to deconstruct it we can see the many layers that make up this petit four of humorous delight.
 The caption has a wife making a quick complaint to her husband (we assume) about not having the ability to perform a task requested (presumably) before the events depicted in the scene itself.  We should all be familiar with the term "I've only got two hands" or some variation, meant to simultaneously exonerate yourself while castigating the requesting party.  In the comic above we see that the wife has 3 hands, all at work, while the husband sits idly by drinking coffee and awaiting his food.  The room appears cluttered and small, and the unshaven appearance of the husband suggests, if not squalor, an extremely poor income. 
The husband rests his arms upon a makeshift table that is, in fact, a large trunk.  We can see partial words on the trunk "McD" and "CARN" thus we understand that the trunk reads "CARNIVAL" and given the era that Addams's was cartooning (and the look of the family and surroundings) this implies human oddities (commonly called freaks).  The husband appears heavily tattooed, which in the context of the time of publication was most uncommon (only sailors, "foreigners" and carnies would be so inked as that, although this is far more common in today's society).   Thus the "three hands" comment and picture make sense.  We have a scene of simple domestic inequality and minor strife twisted by Addams's particularly skewed, but delightful, sense of humor.  The visual shorthand is obvious, easily understood at a glance, possibly a second glance once the caption is read, causing the reader to re-examine the cartoon panel, at which point the joke hits home.  I think it hits home all the better because the initial view of the picture, likely a quick scan, is likely to miss the joke, seeing only an unhappy couple (evidenced by the angry looks on the faces, the crying baby and the images of poverty, or at least hard living), but upon reading the punchline we are forced to look at the image again, at which point the lingering tropes of marital strife are forever altered by the realization of what the image really is. 
And that is the genius of Charles Addams, he is sneaky, subtle and devilishly witty and pulls this off in single panel cartoons (or occasionally split panel 'before and after' jokes).  Visual shorthand can so often go wrong, especially as much humor is a matter of timing, including generational timing, but Addams often works in timeless concepts of human nature and was such a deft wit at succinctly showing it in a cartoon.  Ironic, isn't it, that I am being the opposite of succinct in explaining it?  That's how good he is.  He can cram a world of wit and humor into a single panel.  In his case a picture really is worth a thousand (in this case 806  ) words.

I've owned or read several collection tomes of Mr. Addams's work and cannot recommend them highly enough.  Often macabre, always witty, there is much to love about Addams's cartoons.  Of course I must not neglect to mention that in his cartoons he created the creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky altogether ooky, Addams Family that would later be brought to real-life on the television screens.  The members of that family were developed over several years of work, but I believe Morticia was the first to see print (although he had not named them prior to the development of the television show). 

 While I can enjoy Charles Addams's work anytime, as we head into the Halloween season, I feel it is appropriate to pay tribute to the great man and the inspiration his work provides.

Keep your pumpkins lit.

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