Sunday, January 15, 2017

Updating Noah's Ark: Charles Addams and Howard V. Brown

Reading The New Yorker Album of Drawings 1925-1975 back when it was published, I encountered for the first time the classic 1946 Charles Addams cartoon updating the story of Noah's Ark. A line of animals arranged two by two boards not a seagoing vessel but a rocket ship aimed at the heavens. It is not only a clever idea, it is a beautiful drawing which certainly held up well in the thirty years since its initial publication. Rockets destined for space, we had since learned, would best be fired straight upwards away from the earth's center of mass, but the quaint angulation of Addams's rocket on the launch rail does nothing to detract from its charm even today. The drawing, in the 1946 magazine and the 1975 collection, gloriously occupies a full page on which it invites us to linger.
Charles Addams, The New Yorker, July 13, 1946, page 20

It is only recently that I learned of the pulp illustrator Howard V. Brown, and looking into his work I came across the magazine Startling Stories from November of 1939. The cover illustrates a "novel of the future" called The Fortress of Utopia by someone named Jack Williamson. The illustration depicts a line of animals arranged two by two in the act of boarding the "Ark of Space," and it was published almost seven years before the New Yorker drawing. The rocket is oriented at even less of an upright angle than in the Addams, and it faces to the left, the opposite direction. Of note, the upward sweep of the ramp is very similar in both illustrations. 

Howard V. Brown, Startling Stories, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Nov. 1939).

Could the Brown illustration have influenced Addams or whoever might have come up with the idea for the gag if it was not Addams himself? It's possible. Magazine covers on the newsstand can be seen and casually noted, then immediately forgotten, or so it may seem, only to be unconsciously recalled at a later time. On the other hand, artists often arrive at the same idea coming from different approaches with no cross-pollination whatsoever. 

The two works differ in significant ways. The Brown cover is strikingly busy. Its main focus is the rocket, oversized, garishly colored, and looking—shall we say?—rather virile. The rocket's streamlined appearance stands in contrast to the jagged peaks in the landscape. There is also military action in the foreground with brutal soldiers shooting on a desperate mob that seeks to board the Ark. Brown is illustrating a story about a lot more than just the animals coming aboard the Ark.

Addams's rendition, on the other hand, is more focused and witty, even poignant, conveying with humor a message that goes much deeper than the contents of a pulp science fiction story. It has not only withstood the test of time, it has demonstrated an enduring cultural significance.

Charles Addams, The New Yorker, July 13, 1946, page 20


Note:  Would you like to read The Fortress of Utopia in its entirety? Me neither, but if you like you can still catch the whole issue of Startling Stories, "The Best in Scientifiction," right here.


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