These iconic American cartoonists showed us death isn’t just macabre or inevitable. It can be…funny?
“When I die, I wanna go like my grandpa…peacefully…in my sleep…unlike the passengers in his car.” Did you laugh the first time you heard that joke? Did you feel bad about it? Well, you shouldn’t have. Enjoying the joke doesn’t make you bad or insensitive. You’re not laughing at the idea that an elderly man passed away in a tragic car accident. You’re finding humor in the absurdity of the scenario.
Gil Greengross, PhD, states, “Humor has been long established as a good coping mechanism against many of life’s adversities. When feeling ‘down,’ many people find comfort in watching a comedy film, reading a funny book, or joking with friends.”
Many people seek out and enjoy things others consider morbid. While some may think it’s an unhealthy obsession with death, in reality it could be a healthy way to process mortality.
Two icons of the frightfully funny are Charles Addams and Edward Gorey.
American cartoonist Charles Addams (January 7, 1912 – September 29, 1988) was raised in Westfield, New Jersey. As a child, he was fascinated by the macabre and fond of coffins, skeletons and tombstones. He also liked to spook people on occasion.
He recalled: “We had a dumbwaiter in our house, and I’d get inside on the ground floor, and then very quietly I’d haul myself up to grandmother’s floor, and then I’d knock on the door, and when she came to open the door, I’d jump out and scare the wits out of her.”
After leaving college in 1935, Addams moved from Westfield, made his way to the bustling haze of New York City and enrolled at the Grand Central School of Art. In 1952 he was hired as a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Through his tenure with the illustrious publication, he was free to explore his own macabre sense of humor.
You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know Addams’ most iconic creation, a kooky family that made readers gasp, shiver and inevitably laugh: the Addams family. Audiences were charmed by Gomez’s insidious penchant for all things dark and terrifying, and they were enticed by his slinky, vampiric, smoky-eyed wife, Morticia.
The Addams family was introduced in one-panel morsels, which only added to their mysterious presence and unique deathly humor. Though they were depicted in dangerous and sometimes deadly situations, they were never known to be evil. In fact, they were quite the opposite, a very close-knit family with exemplary parents.
This Charles Addams illustration originally accompanied Ray Bradbury’s “The Homecoming,” which is included in From the Dust Returned, published in 2001 by Wm Morrow.
Though mostly known for the Addams family, Charles Addams spent years creating all kinds of fantastic pieces of art and even met with science fiction writer Ray Bradbury after creating an illustration for Bradbury’s short story “The Homecoming” in Mademoiselle magazine in 1946.
Even after his death in 1988, Addams’ legacy lived on. His work inspired many other artists, such as Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925 – April 15, 2000).
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Gorey taught himself to read when he was young. Unsurprisingly, in light of his work, he preferred books like Dracula and Alice in Wonderland. Pursuing a passion for art, he studied in Chicago at Francis W. Parker School, and he took a couple of courses at the Chicago Institute of Art in 1942. He had a stint in the army but didn’t see any frontline combat. He attended Harvard University before moving to New York City, where he landed a job in the art department of book publisher Doubleday. As an illustrator, Gorey developed a quirky, macabre style that would influence the work of artists like filmmaker Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler.
While at Doubleday, Gorey created The Unstrung Harp, a bizarre, elegant-looking book that in essence is a story about Gorey, the writer, writing the story of the unstrung harp. It tumbles from one end of the spectrum, anguish and defeat, to the other, where parties and miasma lay in wait.
An iconic American cartoonist, Gorey is perhaps best known for the witty pen-and-ink drawings used in the opening animated credits of the PBS series Mystery.
Both Addams and Gorey showed us that even though all of us will experience death, we don’t have to be afraid of it.
Our time on this whirling marble is limited. Some shy away from that fact, but Addams and Gorey embraced and even celebrated their mortality through humorous illustrations and stories.
So is interest in death healthy? Some say yes. According to Greengross, “Not all thoughts about death need to have negative outcomes. It is possible that when facing death anxiety, humor can help serve as a buffer, and people who think about death are actually funnier.”
We don’t have to paralyze ourselves with images of a grim specter that wants to terrorize us while dragging us, kicking and screaming, into the afterworld. Instead, Gorey and Addams showed us we can think of death as a kooky friend waiting to welcome us home.
Who’s your favorite American cartoonist?