Addams Family

Charles Addams was a U.S. cartoonist, known for his sinister, macabre work. He was a household name in the pages of the influential magazine The New Yorker from the mid-1930s throughout the 1980s. His most famous creation is 'The Addams Family' (1938), an eccentric family of ghouls, ogres, witches and other creepy monsters. Their popularity skyrocketed when a sitcom series, 'The Addams Family' (1964-1966), was broadcast on ABC. The franchise later inspired several other TV series and films, of which Barry Sonnenfeld's live-action pictures 'The Addams Family' (1991) and 'The Addams Family Values' (1993) are the most fondly remembered. Today the Addams Family are still a pop culture mainstay, though general audiences might not be aware that they originated as one-panel magazine cartoons. 

The New YorkerThe New Yorker

Early life
Charles Samuel Addams, or "Chill" as his friends called him, was born in 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey, where the Addams' lived on Summit Avenue. They moved several times before taking up permanent residence on Elm Street in 1920. Charles attended public school in Westfield and was fond of visiting the Presbyterian Cemetery on Mountain Ave. When he was a youngster, he was caught by the police breaking into a house on Dudley Avenue.  Throughout his entire life Addams had a fascination for the macabre. On the second floor of the garage behind the main house there was a chalk drawing of a skeleton, believed to have been drawn by him. The house on Dudley, and the one on Elm Street, are said to be the inspiration for the famous 'Addams Family House'.Urban legends even state that Addams slept in a coffin, drank martinis with eyeballs in them, collected torture instruments and received chopped-off fingers in the mail from fans.

Downhill Skier by Chas Addams
'Downhill Skier'.

Cartooning career
Addams graduated in 1929 from Westfield High School. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, then studied at Grand Central School of Art in New York City. One of his first jobs, in 1933, was retouching the blood from pictures of corpses for True Detective magazine. He always wanted to work for The New Yorker and published his first drawing as early as 1932. He regularly started submitting cartoons from 1935 on, and rose to become one of their most iconic contributors, along with Peter Arno, Gluyas Williams and Helen Rokinson. He signed his work "Chas Adams" because it looked better than "Charles Addams". His first submission was titled 'I Forgot My Skates', and showed an ice skater apologizing to his teammates.

Downhill Skier
On 13 January 1940 he submitted the classic cartoon 'Downhill Skier', which showed an impossible situation of a skier passing a tree. This particular gag has become so iconic that it has been plagiarized and referenced by numerous other cartoonists since. Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas had Sam in his self-reflexive comic strip 'Sam's Strip' try and do the same but bump against the tree because someone switched the gag. Both Andy White and Jef Mallett have used the same gag in one of their own cartoons once, but paid homage to Addams as their source of inspiration within the same drawing. The skiing cartoon became Addams' ticket to a full-time position at The New Yorker. 

Cartoon by Charles Addams

The Addams Family
Charles Addams is however most famous for his grim, horror-themed wash drawings. Many of his cartoons take place at night and are set in or around dark mansions, castles, graveyards, torture chambers and swamps. They revolve around murder, torture instruments, ghosts and monsters. The majority feature no recurring characters. In a mere 150 of his 1.300 cartoons Addams portrayed a rich family, who debuted in 1938. They live in an eerie mansion and wouldn't feel out of place in a gothic horror novel. The characters originally were nameless, but in 1964 ABC adapted them into a live-action TV sitcom, naming them after the cartoonist: 'The Addams Family'. At this occasion every family member received a name and specific personality. Gomez Addams is the father and a creepy rich businessman. His wife Morticia is a witch. They are both passionately in love with another, calling one another "cara mia" ("my love"). Their children, daughter Wednesday and son Pugsley, have a habit of trying to torture and kill one another, but never seem to endure much harm. Another close relative is Uncle Fester, a ghoul who loves getting tortured and has the ability to generate electric power by sticking a lightbulb in his mouth. In the TV version he was performed by former child star Jackie Coogan, best known as the child in Charlie Chaplin's 'The Kid' (1920). Grandmama is a witch too, while Cousin Itt is a dwarf fully covered with hair. Itt is also the only character not created by Addams but by TV scriptwriter David Levy. The family has a giant grumbling butler, Lurch, who resembles the Frankenstein Monster, and a servant named Thing, who is a walking hand. The Addams Family is quite eccentric. They enjoys stormy weather, own spiders, bats and snakes for pets and rejoice whenever they feel depressed or have bad luck. Many newcomers are scared of them, but in reality the Addamses are friendly and harmless. 

The Addams Family

Although 'The Addams Family' (1964-1966) TV show thrived on a gimmick, it was nevertheless very suitable for the sitcom format. Charles Addams and the scriptwriters (among them producer Nat Perrin, who also scripted several Marx Brothers comedies) had a lot of fun writing creepy gags and horror plots. Compared with the far more bland TV sitcoms that were in vogue at the time 'The Addams Family' really stood out. The finger snappin' theme song by Vic Mizzy is extraordinarily catchy. The comedy is black and surreal. Many episodes make use of exotic animals and special effects. Here was a prime time family comedy where all the characters were monsters or creeps. They often torture each other, but all in good fun. In other words, a show about people whose behaviour would normally be frowned upon by moral guardians. 'The Addams Family' was therefore particularly beloved with children, who like a fun, macabre family show without preachiness. Yet, this isn't to say that the show had no heart. As "creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky and altogether ookie" the Addams Family are, they are very sympathetic. They don't go out frightening people and do show a close bond with one another. Gomez and Morticia in particular are far more sensual towards each other than most TV couples at the time. 

A similar TV sitcom called 'The Munsters' (1964-1966) was broadcast by CBS during almost the exact same time period. Fans have often wondered which of these shows is superior and which one of them ripped the other off? Yet the broadcast dates of their debut episodes were so close together that both shows were obviously in production without each other's knowledge. In the end nobody denies that 'The Addams Family' has remained far more famous than 'The Munsters'. The show has remained a cult hit in reruns and also popularized Addams' cartoons. In the 1970s Gold Key Comics launched a comic book series about the characters, but drawn by Bill Ziegler.

The Werewolf of Paris
'The Werewolf of Paris'.

More spin-offs of 'The Addams Family' followed, including a 1977 Halloween TV special, two animated TV series by Hanna-Barbera in 1973 and 1992, another sitcom in 1998-1999 and a 2009 musical. The series was successfully adapted to the silver screen by Barry Sonnenfeld with the movies 'The Addams Family' (1991) and 'The Addams Family Values' (1993), in which Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci and Christopher Lloyd had starring roles. The films were box office successes and received good reviews from critics. Ricci's performance of Wednesday Addams added another personality trait, namely that she never smiles. In issue #311 (June 1992) of Mad Magazine Dick Debartolo and Mort Drucker satirized the first film in a parody comic. New Addams Family films have been created since, with a forgettable direct-to-video sequel with a different cast, 'Addams Family Reunion' (1998), and a CGI-animated picture, 'The Addams Family' (2019) starring the voices of Charlize Theron and Bette Midler, among others. 

1959 Charles Addams cartoon

Later career
Charles Addams continued drawing cartoons for The New Yorker until his death in 1988. While he created many of his own gags, some were supplied by colleagues of him like Arnie Levin, Sam Gross and Mick Stevens. He also made a syndicated cartoon feature called 'Out of this World' in 1956. Addams' work was collected in books like 'Drawn and Quartered' (1942), 'Monster Rally' (1950), 'Black Maria' (1960) and 'Favorite Haunts' (1976). When Hal Seeger founded his own animation studio in the 1950s, Addams was one of his early contributors. Addams also provided animated opening titles and the posters for the horror film comedies 'The Old Dark House' (1963) by William Castle and 'Murder by Death' (1976) by Robert Moore and designed the album cover of Dean Glitter's record 'Ghost Ballads' (1957).

In 1961 Charles Addams received a special Edgar Award for his entire body of work. He was the first non-novelist to receive this honour. 

Celebrity fans, legacy and influence
One of Addams' close friends was film director Alfred Hitchcock, who referred to his cartoons in the auction scene in his film 'North By Northwest' (1957). Carl Barks based his evil sorceress Magica De Spell on Morticia Addams. Novelist Steve Preisler often uses 'Uncle Fester' as a pseudonym. Other artists influenced by Addams have been Jerry DumasGahan Wilson, Bill Plympton, Clive CollinsRoz Chast, Alison BechdelRichard SalaSteve and Matt Groening. Chast drew a two-page comic strip homage to Addams in 1997, published in The New Yorker.

Books about Charles Addams
For those interested in the man's life Linda H. Davis' 'Chas Addams: A Cartoonist's Life' (2006), published by Random Books is a must-read.

Charles Addams

Series and books by Charles Addams in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.