Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Making Faces II: Charles Addams

Photograph by Al Fenn (1946)

Another image unearthed while exhuming researching the thesis was this one of Charles Addams, who came back to my attention (or, one should say, was resurrected) as a result of focusing on single-panel cartoons. Addams work, exemplified by his distinctive, signature style, can be held up as a prime example of the upper echelons of the medium. Aside from the weird and twisted nature of his panels (in league with Gahan Wilson), his popularity and position among the pantheon of cartoonist greats is evidence of Addams' influence and legacy. His lush, hallmark washes created pieces and iconic characters that were not just infamous because of their macabre subject matter, but also due to his craftsmanship and skill in creating often detailed compositions and subtle, if not outright creepy cartoon atmospheres. Many years ago my father gave me a copy of the huge hardcover tome "The World of Chas Addams" that was published in 1993, and it's a wonderful way to look over the cartoons in such a luxurious and large format, which only deepens ones appreciation for his work.

Along with the many other collections in book form, and the infamous "Addams Family" adaptations, he was probably foremost known as one of the flagship artists in The New Yorker magazine's stable of talent. For example, in the compilation My Crowd (1970 Simon & Schuster, NY), 185 out of the 189 drawings had originally appeared within The New Yorker. Another example spotlighting Addams' relationship with the magazine was the 2005 catalogue Art and Artists: New Yorker Cartoons from the Melvin R. Seiden Collection (published in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science), where one of his panels is prominently displayed on page one. In an accompanying interview, current New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says that "The more you look at a cartoon as a wonderful piece of art, the less it's doing its job as a cartoon. Cartoons are unpretentious, utilitarian art. They are art in service to another cause" and adds "Ultimately, I say that cartoons are only jokes; they have to be perceived as that. They shouldn't be overanalyzed. Let's enjoy them. They should be fun."

In contrast to functionally limited interpretations of the work of cartoonists such as Addams, one of the more exciting discoveries made during my recent studies was to stumble across a book in the sequential art collection of SCAD's Jen Library called The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg (2005 The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore/London). Author Iain Topliss has written by far and away the best breakdown of the dynamics behind the single-panel cartoon that I've ever read to date. This book adds - if not single-handedly creates - a benchmark entry to the groundswell of academic interest on comic art as it relates to the study of popular culture. As one of the four creators focused on, Topliss investigates and explores  Addams' cartoons in particular with a fascinating, scholarly perspective. As well as providing some unique insights about the artist himself, he analyzes and places the cartoons themselves within the context of a multitude of other factors. For example, Addams' work at times appears out of place or at odds with the readership demographics of the The New Yorker magazine, serving as more of a ghoulish and guilty pleasure for what, according to Topliss, is an "almost embarrassingly hegemonic document." From the perspective of a practicing cartoonist, it is humbling to recognize to what extent race and (middle) class play upon the field of cartooning - not just as the usual sexist catering to adolescent male markets, but the arguably narrow, solipsist appeal of your basic gag panel. It's one thing to tacitly admit the appeal of cartoons still has its detractors who think they are somehow beneath anyone's dignity and maturity, it's another to recognize one major reason why the medium has no connection with people not immediately inside of the "converted."

While Topliss calls Addams "justly famous as one of the best known, most influential, and funniest cartoonists of the twentieth century," he also wades into the reasons for why that is. Much is devoted to establishing the cartoons within the framework of psychoanalytical theories of humor, such as applying the Freudian terms of "tendentious wit" "mordant" and "gleeful venom" to Addam's panels. Transcending the label of "American Gothic" there is still a tremendous appeal behind Addams' work that crosses over into mainstream acceptance and still continues to this day, amongst both devotees and practitioners of the cartooning medium.

Severed hand-in-glove is the biography Charles Addams: A Cartoonists Life (2006 Random House, New York) by author Linda Davis (listen to an NPR interview here). A must-read for fans of the cartoonist and his work, Davis documents the life of a fairly unprepossessing fellow: kind to children, and a ladies man. Addams would often recount how disappointed folks would be upon meeting the master of the macabre for the first time, only to find out how relatively normal and unassuming he really was in person. The biography follows Addam's life from childhood, to his first panel printed in The New Yorker (1933) when he was twenty-two years old, and throughout the many successes in his career. In between relationship and marriage gossip the book is leavened with fascinating snippets of artistic insight, including his creative routine and behind-the-scene exposés of Addam's professional and commercial enterprises.
Ultimately both this book and Topliss' give an overall enthralling and insightful portrait of the man behind the infamous imagery and ghastly gags.

“I'm a wallflower.” - Lurch

No comments:

Post a Comment