Charles Addams' New York - or- Danana ::Snap:: ::Snap::

Yesterday (January 7th) was the 100th anniversary of the birth of one Charles Addams, a The New Yorker cartoonist whose most famous creations spawned a live action television show (one of my favorites), animated cartoons, movies and, most recently, a Broadway musical. Google recognized the milestone with a Doodle, and I thought that we here at the Long and Shortbox of It! should celebrate the master's birthday by posting a conversation Jon and I started, and never quite managed to finish, about "Charles Addams' New York," an exhibit that ran at The Museum of the City of New York almost two years ago. Enjoy.

Ever since Scott McCloud's brilliant "Understanding Comics" graphic novel was published in 1993 comics scholars have argued over his assertion that single panel cartoons such as most examples of "The Family Circus" and the large majority of cartoons that appear in The New Yorker are not categorically comics because the medium is "sequential art" and "there's no such thing as a sequence of one!" (McCloud, 20)

One of the most prolific cartoonists to work on The New Yorker magazine was Charles Addams. That enigmatic and unique artist whose characters are best known as the inspiration for the famous "The Addams Family" television show (which itself spawned a cartoon, two major motion pictures and, recently, a Broadway musical) is the subject of a new exhibit being housed now at the Museum of the City of New York from March 4th till May 16th. Both his 'Addams Family' cartoons and general delightfully weird cartoons were on display focusing on those that portrayed New York City, as the exhibit's title is "Charles Addams' New York" and attempts to display a sort of semi-cohesive 'alternate universe' NYC springing from Addams' imagination.

On this most recent comics-related foray into the jungles of New York City I was joined by the inestimable Mr. Joshua Kopin. He and I arrived in time for a guided tour of the exhibit given by the dual curators Sarah Henry and Kevin Miserocchi, who is also the executive director of the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation. Because we were both there and we have so much to tell you about the exhibit along with so many open-ended questions about the nature of the medium for us to discuss, we felt it would be great to cover the event in dialogue format, Plato style!

Gorga: I really enjoyed the exhibit. Josh, what did you think of it?

Kopin: First of all, Jon, if this is a Platonic dialogue, than which one of us is Socrates?

Seriously though, I really dug the exhibit. Having had a limited exposure to Addams' work in the past, I figured I would (the morbid absurdity of the cartoons appeals to both to my sense of humor and my sense of wonder), but I didn't realize I was going to like the exhibit as much as I did. I know you had an even more limited exposure to Addams' cartoons than I had had, Jon, and I'm curious: what was it like going in cold?

Gorga: You know... A bit weird, yes, but after the first two or three cartoons, I just began to laugh with you. The wonderful 'Pete's Place' one got me right in the funny bone and after that it was pretty smooth sailing. I really dug the "alternate universe" concept the curator's were trying to put forward.

Kopin: Is it an alternate universe, though? Or is it just a vision of our universe that's a little strange?

It seemed to me that what Sarah Henry was telling us when she emphasized the normal observer in Addams' work (and he or she isn't hard to spot- just look for the figure that seems in place rather than out of it) was that Addams' world is our world- and that's part of the reason his cartoons are so jarring and funny. When its considered in addition to the amount of detail that the artist gives not only to the subjects of the cartoons but also to the backgrounds this becomes even more clear- the normal is contrasted with the abnormal, the strange with the everyday, and what results is less of a window into an alternate universe and more of a commentary on our own.

Gorga: Now Joshie, you wouldn't be challenging the Official Museum-Certified Statement of the Nature of the Artist's Work, would you? I think you're correct, at least in part. We did discuss during our visit the way in which certain cartoons and strips appeared to be depicting an alternate universe, while some were merely a weird POV on our world, and others played on the borders. 'Stan's Place' being of the last type, while this wonderful four panel strip of a woman 'decorating' the advertising in the NYC's subways is entirely plausible to my mind! And the one that had us most excited was a very cool eight panel strip we will get to soon.

Kopin: I'm not sure the distinction you make between the "Stan's Place" cartoon and the bearded lady strip (incidentally, are we sure its a lady?) are necessarily meaningful- in their own way, aren't they both plausible? In fact, I think that's what I like about Addams' work the best: when he's at the top of his game, all of the cartoons are plausible, and they all sort of lull you into a false sense of normalcy. There's a kind of double take that's essential to appreciating these cartoons (and we'll return to this double take in a little bit.) With that said some of the work, particularly those images that lack the "normal observer", is just a little bit strange, isn't it?

Gorga: I think there's a slight but important distinction between the cartoons that live entirely in that 'strange and wonderful' space, i.e. the cartoons living in the Addams 'alternate reality' and the ones somewhere in-between on the spectrum, but that's a pretty fine difference and I won't hesitate to admit a pretty esoteric one.

Speaking of esoteric, I noticed that some of the strange and spooky elements that Charlie Addams allowed to interact with everyday New Yorkers were borrowed from Horror or Science Fiction Cinema and Literature. The Wolfman, for instance. Or the robot hilariously doing his Christmas shopping at Macy's! In a way, Addams was creating an intersection between fiction and reality here not unlike what we find in a lot of contemporary comics, like those I talked about in this post a few weeks back.

Thoughts, Josh?

Kopin: Yea, I think that's true: whatever reality its supposed to take place in, its not so weird as to be bizarre or even all that out of place. Everything fits so well partially because we're so familiar with all of it. It could be that what we were struggling with above has to do with this intersection- where do we place work like this? It's not exactly a traditional cartoon, is it? But if its not a cartoon, what is it? Or is it a cartoon? Or something else?

~ @JonGorga
~ @IamJoshKopin

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