Book Review

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Review by Doug Ogg

02/04/07  

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"Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life"
by Linda H. Davis
Published by Random House
Release Date:
10/24/06

Book review by Doug Ogg

 

One of the most commonly asked questions of cartoonists is, "Where do you get your ideas?"  

And of course when the cartoonist is Charles Addams, this question leads to unrivaled speculation and disinformation, which over the years created its own brand of peculiar mythology.

Now comes an impressive new biography by Linda H. Davis. In "Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life"
Davis takes on the stories that Addams slept in a coffin and drank martinis with eyeballs in them. Instead, what emerges is a surprising portrait of an amazing artist who led a full and colorful life.

Yes, Addams certainly had quirks and odd obsessions. But he was also universally loved, and so charming that he dated the likes of such luminaries of his time as Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jackie Kennedy Onassis (along with untold numbers of others). He drank hard, raced cars, and no party or social gathering was considered complete without him. His fan base ran the gamut from the criminally insane to Sean Connery and Alfred Hitchcock.

In this first ever biography of the subject, Davis charts Addams' meteoric rise and more than 50-year career as the most esteemed cartoonist at The New Yorker. With his cartoons, Addams became a significant cultural force by combining horror and humor, a genre that continues to flourish today. His impact and influence on generations of cartoonists is impossible to calculate, but it's fair to say that Gary Larsen's Far Side would not have existed without him.

Addams' own unique creation of The Addams Family began as print cartoons which went on to inspire a popular TV series, animated cartoons and two Hollywood feature films. With these characters, Addams provided role models for eccentrics and nonconformists everywhere. The message of the Addams Family was simple: Namely that love and laughter can--and does-- flourish everywhere, even within families and social groups that seem outside society's norms.

An esteemed biographer whose previous subjects have included Stephen Crane and Katherine White, Davis spent over six years on this book and interviewed more than 130 persons who knew Addams well, or as well as anyone could. Although Addams died in 1988, Davis had exclusive access to his personal effects and papers that had been in the possession of his wife Tee until her death in 2004. Addams' two other wives also participated in helping Davis to define the man nicknamed "Chill" by his friends.

Davis provides a wealth of detail, but wisely avoids drawing hard conclusions or offering up pseudo-psychoanalysis. Instead, the dichotomy between the artist's urbane and cheerful public persona and his morbidly dark humor are presented in a way that leaves the reader, if nothing else, even more appreciative of Addams' depth, genius and mystery.

With this approach Davis reframes the question of "where" Addams got his ideas to that of "why."  Addams was unlike anyone else, and so it is only natural that his ideas would be unlike those of others. As for why he was the way he was, that's a question Addams seems to have taken to the grave with him. In "A Cartoonist's Life" we see that just as one question is put to rest, another rises up a conclusion that Addams himself would have no doubt enjoyed.

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life is available at Borders, Barns & Noble, Amazon.com, and fine book sellers.

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Copyright © 2006  Jon A. Davis. All rights reserved.