Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life
"But though his pursuits suggest lighthearted romantic comedy," teases the dust jacket girding Linda H. Davis' biography of macabre cartoonist Charles Addams," . . . far darker than anything Addams created with a brush was his relationship with a dangerous woman who forever changed his life." Oh no, is this going to be one of those biographies when some hiccup in their subject's history gets inflated to catastrophe to juice up a mostly stormless life? Yes and no, for "Bad" Barbara Bard was a monstrous piece of work, right down to her skull-like visage of toothy grin and too-bobbed nose. Addams would have been better off without her, but minus the not-quite-two-year blip of their marriage--and her carnivorous grasp on his fortune--he still carved out a sweet life for himself, full of Sunday drives in his Bugatti and a rotating cast of pretty dinner companions. Plus he outfitted his bachelor pad as he pleased, with vintage crossbows and papier-mâché anatomical models, had Halloween parties where he served beef heart and bone marrow on toast, and made a mostly effortless living from an early age doing exactly what he wanted to do.
Addams' famously morbid wit had no genesis in early trauma--the bright and charismatic boy enjoyed a worry-free childhood cosseted by indulgent and loving parents. Talented and lucky in equal measure, Addams had the good fortune to get his work in The New Yorker while the magazine's legacy was still forming. His inimitable cartoons soon earned widespread appreciation, while his family of ghouls leapfrogged into pop culture as The Addams Family. Despite his reputation for grisly gags, his best creations relied not on shock value but on a creeping realization of things not being quite right, like his famous cartoon of a dumfounded skier wondering how his slope mate has left a parallel track on each side of a large and solid tree.
What was the secret of Addams' mass appeal? How did his twisted, prototypically goth world view earn accolade instead of derision in the relentlessly conformist 1940s and '50s? And what was it about his technique--his moody ink washes, his tendency to time-release the black guffaw by hiding the nugget of the gag--that pointed to his mastery? Unfortunately, Davis' strict biography measures these questions second against Addams' relentless bed-hopping and pursuit of fun. While easy to read, and an overdue record of someone known only by his work, A Cartoonist's Life regrettably doesn't leave the reader with a greater appreciation of its subject's gifts.