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

Mudman #2

The second issue of Paul Grist's excellent Image series, Mudman, seems to exist mostly so that the holes of the first issue, intriguing though they were, might be plugged. Reading it on its own, is, accordingly, a little frustrating; I'm not sure if this way of telling Mudman's origin story, first from the perspective of hero Owen Craig and then again from the perspective of the bank robbers who set in motion the creation of our hero, separated by covers and two months of actual time, is an effective narrative technique. In fact, here it seems like Grist is committing the great sin of comics writing, a sin that he wrote he was trying to avoid in the introduction to the series' first issue, namely, writing for the trade. This part of the story, certainly, is going to read better in a collected edition than it does here, simply because, in order for the story to make sense, a relatively intimate knowledge of what has come before (that is, before in our frame of reference, but concurrently to the events of the first issue) is necessary.

Having read that issue a few times (because it was one of the best single comics of 2011), knowledge isn't really an issue here the way it can be sometimes; my recall on this one seems to be pretty good. That said, it shouldn't be an issue at all; a link in the chain of a serial story is a good, strong, link only when it depends on a basic understanding of what went on, not the ability to exactly review the timeline at any given moment. Because this issue occupies the same timeframe as the last issue, with certain parts lining up so that the two issues make a whole, neither issue actually hangs together on it own, at least plot-wise. I was sort of willing to forgive this last issue, because I thought Grist was doing something formally clever, but it's pretty clear here that, even if he is intentionally mirroring the way comics come together in the construction of his plot, it doesn't really work, at least not here.

Still, Mudman is still an excellent comic book, precisely because this issue, like the last issue, is a masterpiece of the form. If the series so far doesn't appear to quite have the hang of serial storytelling, what it does do well is show that Grist is a master comicsmith, someone who really understands what it is that makes comics (as a medium fundamentally different from other mediums that have a tendency towards serials, say, television or blockbuster movie franchises) tick. There are two, opposite, reasons for this mastery. The first, the more obvious one, is that Grist has an intuitive way of representing sensory input that we usually understand as non-visual in a visual way, particularly subtle things like emphasis in speech. He does the big, bold, BLAMs and so on in an incredibly user friendly way too, but it's the little things, like the increasing line weights on each letter in a climactic use of "SHUT UP," that really shows how good Grist is.

The less obvious evidence of his mastery, though, is how good he is at working with what isn't there, namely, how excellently Grist uses the gutter, how innovative and well-used the interplay between the panels and the absence (that is, the infinity) that exists in the between is. I've dealt with this before, so I'm not going to gush too much about it now, except to say that Mudman is how a comic should be laid out, with a view towards both an aesthetic appeal and a narrative one. The art is similarly consistently brilliant, although Grist has a little trouble with perspective and relative size, a trouble that seems to have to do with his otherwise excellent understanding of negative space.

Mudman, although not a perfect comic book by any means, is a great one, maybe one of the few great ones around right now, and it is this way precisely because it is flawed, precisely because Paul Grist is trying something new and interesting and risky. In some ways, the book is a cautionary tale, a reminder that comics, unlike the visual fine arts, has to have a good working relationship, the appropriate balance, between form and content. Still, although formalism and abstraction are by no means new to the medium, they are new to the populist version of it at the base of what Image Comics (and, by extension, most of the American comics industry) does, and what Grist is doing is gutsy and worth purchasing, particularly if we hope to see more medium bending work like this in the future, from Grist or anyone else.