The Addams Family: An Evilution

Back in October, when I discussed the new Addams Family film, I expressed a hope that we would see some new reprints of Charles Addams’ original cartoons that inspired the TV series and the movies. As it turns out, the only new books I’ve seen are tie-ins to the movie itself and most of them are aimed at kids. Fortunately, one very good book that was published a decade ago by Pomegranate Press is still in print. It’s called The Addams Family: An Evilution and I bought a copy for my wife, who, like me, is a fan of Charles Addams. Once she finished reading the book, she passed it along to me.

Over the years, there have been numerous collections of Charles Addams’ cartoons. What sets The Addams Family: An Evilution apart is that it endeavors to collect all the original published Addams Family cartoons together under one cover, plus many unpublished Addams Family sketches. It also includes Charles Addams’ own notes about the characters that he compiled when the TV series was being conceived plus commentary about the history of the characters by H. Kevin Miserocchi, the director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

The book starts with a description of how disparate characters from one-panel cartoons became a “family.” Each section of the book after that focuses on a particular character from the Addams Family. There are sections devoted to Morticia, Gomez, Lurch, and the others, including the Addams house itself. I thought it was particularly fascinating that Addams’ own conceptions of the characters differed a bit from what we saw on screen, and especially from how they evolved into the movies. For example, Uncle Fester rarely appears in cartoons with the other members of the family and its not clear he was intended to be a blood relative. He may simply have been a close friend referred to as “Uncle” Fester because of his close ties to the family.

This last bit is also interesting because it appears that Addams viewed Fester as something of an avatar for himself. From the photos in the book, it’s clear that Addams himself was a more robust and handsome fellow than Fester. Still, one of the book’s opening cartoons is taken from Tee and Charles Addams’ wedding invitation and shows Fester and Morticia as a couple. This would be quite a twist in the story as we’ve seen it portrayed in the movies and on TV!

Another element I found especially interesting was that “the Thing” was not conceived of as simply a hand or even a hand in a box. I won’t spoil it by revealing who the character was in the cartoons, but I remember seeing an unidentified creature in some of the cartoons and wondering who that was supposed to be. There is a famous cartoon of an Addams record player where hands stick out of the player and change the records and put the needle down. It’s likely this inspired the TV show and it’s even possible those are supposed to be Thing’s hands.

As I read the book, I saw how elements of Charles Addams’ work has inspired me. I see elements of the vampire Alexandra from my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order in Morticia. I see the manic energy of John Astin’s Gomez in Professor Maravilla of my Clockwork Legion novels. Lurch’s frightening and imposing form is reflected in characters like Arepno and G’Liat from my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. As always, I hope you’ll explore my works at http://www.davidleesummers.com. If, like me and my wife, you’re a fan of Charles Addams, I highly recommend adding The Addams Family: An Evilution to your library.

The Addams Family

This has been a busy month for me, but despite that, I made some time to see this year’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family. I first got to know about Charles Addams’s famous family during my college years. The 1964-66 series with John Astin and Carolyn Jones ran in reruns at a time I could catch it during a break between classes. I soon learned that the library at New Mexico Tech had a couple of the collections of original Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker Magazine. I loved the originals so much, I photocopied a handful and put them up as posters in my dorm room.

Like most cartoons from The New Yorker, the cartoons Addams drew were single panels. Not all of them featured his famous family, but they were frequent subjects starting back in the 1930s. A favorite cartoon I remember saving included carolers at the door of the Addams mansion while the family stood on the rooftop, gleefully ready to dump a cauldron of boiling oil. Another depicted the family’s mother looking out at a snowy winter scene and saying to her family, “Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.” A third depicted the children in animal carriers, brought home in the hands of a deliveryman and the mother calling out, “It’s the children, darling, back from camp.”

I deliberately didn’t use the names of the characters in the descriptions, because cartoonist Charles Addams didn’t give them names until the 1964 series was in development. The series added many elements people now consider staples of the family. In particular the dad’s, Gomez’s, wild attraction for the mom, Morticia, especially when she spoke French. Ted Cassidy gave voice to the cartoon’s mute butler, Lurch, with his mournful and deep, “You rang,” when answering the door. Jackie Coogan brought a frenetic energy to weird Uncle Fester, who could make bulbs light up by putting them in his mouth.

I was delighted when the 1991 film came out. Barry Sonnenfeld’s film recalled several of the jokes from the original Addams cartoons, and included some callbacks to the TV series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were wonderful successors to John Astin and Carolyn Jones. They brought their own interpretations to the roles, but kept the sex appeal. The real delight was Christina Ricci bringing young Wednesday Addams to Gothic life. One of my favorite scenes in the movie does a great job of capturing Charles Addams’s macabre sense of humor. A Girl Scout asks Wednesday and her brother, Pugsley, whether the lemonade they’re selling is made from real lemons. She then tries to sell them cookies and they ask her if they’re made from real Girl Scouts. Of course, what I really appreciated about this movie is that reprints and new collections of Charles Addams’s cartoons were made available and I built up my personal collection of books as much as possible in that era.

Now we come to the 2019 movie. What I loved about this movie was that the character designs do a lovely job of hearkening back to Addams’s original cartoons. I liked the origin story for the family presented at the beginning of the movie and I really liked the fact that the son of the Addams family, Pugsley, finally had a chance to be featured without sacrificing a good story arc for his sister, Wednesday. That said, the movie feels a little tame for my taste, closer kin to “safe” Halloween kids fare such as the Hotel Transylvania franchise than a true successor to the wickedly wonderful world Charles Addams created. Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem showing my kids the original comics, the 1960s series, or the 1990s movies. The gags are all built in the anticipation of the horror that happened out of view or the horror about to happen. Today, when anime has gone more mainstream, when we have series like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network exists, I’m baffled that Hollywood still feels compelled to make cartoons as safe and tame as possible, doing absolutely nothing that could be deemed risque or daring. Yes, Pugsley does play with explosives, but they always feel like cartoon explosives where no one really gets hurt. As a result, this Addams Family comes off as just a little weird, without the piquant hints of danger or sexiness their other incarnations have.

I’m glad I saw the movie and I don’t have any problem recommending it for a home video night. That said, if you really want to get to know the Addams Family, get to your favorite library or bookstore and seek out the original Charles Addams cartoons. Those are family albums well worth perusing.