Thursday, December 24, 2020

Charles Addams and Harry Bliss: Fanning the Flames

In the cover for this year’s Cartoon Issue, Harry Bliss pays homage to Charles Addams, whose macabre work routinely appeared in The New Yorker, and whose most famous creation, the Addams Family, has spurred countless adaptations.
Françoise Mouly

And how exactly does one pay homage to Charles Addams? The inspiration for cover artist Harry Bliss is actually a particular Addams cartoon published in The New Yorker on December 27, 1952, that year's Christmas issue.
"The little dears! They still believe in Santa Claus."
Charles Addams
The New Yorker, December 27, 1952, page 23

You might recognize some or all of the characters here, but in the years before the 1964 "Addams Family" TV series they were as yet unnamed. Addams's mastery is everywhere in evidence. The primary light source is the fireplace which indicates the main action while the secondary light source behind the sliding doors illuminates the speaker—let's call him Gomez—and two others (no names, please) who are observing the action from a distance. Addams's two-point perspective creates a formidable three dimensional architectural space incorporating many macabre elements. If one were to look at the drawing alone, the atmosphere would be striking but the actions of the children—let's call them Pugsley and Wednesday—might not have a clear purpose. The caption would then serve to totally confound one's expectations. If, on the other hand, one could somehow ignore the drawing and instead read the benign-sounding caption first, it then would be the drawing that would totally subvert the meaning of the words. Either way, it's a treat even sixty-eight years later to see all the workings of a cartoon come together so flawlessly. 

Harry Bliss's cover illustration for this week's issue of The New Yorker is meant to mark both Christmas as well as the New Year. It is also meant to comment on this unique moment in our political history and in the pandemic. It seeks to do all this with a design based on the Addams Family cartoon of December 27, 1952.

Harry Bliss
The New Yorker, December 28, 2020

So, the central satirical idea here, Donald Trump burning his old tax returns with the assistance of his servile, perspiring lawyer Rudy Giuliani, seems almost trivial in relation to the omnipresent political peril in Washington during this most irregular transition. The secondary theme, that of an elderly 2020 being replaced by an infant 2021 in a mask, and which gives this cover the title "In with the New," refers simultaneously to the New Year, to the transition, and to the pandemic. The political figures and the New Year figures don't seem to belong together in that room. Perhaps that garish hanging COVID-19 light fixture is supposed to be a unifying element here. (Compare it with the fine gothic lamp Addams furnished.) There's more, including QAnon conspirators and more rodents than you typically see on a New Yorker cover. In short, there are too many things going on here and while they are in some way interrelated, it's a lot to take in at once and, for me at least, there's no synergy.

And we've seen some of it before. This is the fourth cover published by The New Yorker this year to feature Donald Trump, the tenth to include at least one face mask, the second with a large image of the coronavirus, and the second in a row with a lit fireplace. For what it's worth, it is the first cover with QAnon.

"Greetings, Friends! [1952]" by Frank Sullivan, cartoon by Charles Addams

Note:  This Halloween, I posted Joel Jacobus's Charles Addams scrapbook, which included a clipping of the fireplace cartoon. I wonder whether Harry Bliss might have stolen a glimpse at this blog around then. Of course, there are many other places he could have come across the cartoon—in Homebodies (1954), for example—but still I do wonder whether I've had some ever-so-slight sway over the content of a New Yorker cover.

Scrapbook image

This Addams cartoon has been quite influential over the years, it seems. The blog Long Forgotten argues quite plausibly that the drawing influenced the design of the ballroom in Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction. Check it out here.


No comments:

Post a Comment