Book review: ‘The Addams Family: An Evilution’ by Charles Addams and H. Kevin Miserocchi

Special to the Los Angeles Times

If Leo Tolstoy had seen the cartoons of Chas. Addams, he would have had to rethink his famous dictum, “All happy families are alike.” Gomez and Morticia’s misbegotten brood may have been creepy and kooky, but they were also happy, as the cartoons in the delightful anthology “The Addams Family: An Evilution” attest.

Addams, born in 1912, sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1932, while he was still a student at the Grand Central School of Art in Manhattan. Six years later, he began the Addams Family saga with a drawing of a cheerfully oblivious door-to-door salesman demonstrating a vacuum cleaner to early versions of Morticia and Lurch: “Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver. No well-appointed home should be without it.”

The slightly plumper proto-Morticia wears her hair in a severe bun; Lurch’s beard makes him look more like the Wolfman than Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. But the cobwebby Victorian mansion is instantly recognizable, with a bat cheerfully flapping by. Over the next several years, Addams reworked and refined his outré clan, until his “altogether ooky” family was complete.

H. Kevin Miserocchi has assembled more than 200 cartoons of the Addams Family characters, including posters, magazine covers, book jackets, sketches and family greeting cards. He also provides a lot of appropriately offbeat information: Wednesday’s name comes from the old nursery rhyme “Wednesday’s child is full of woe”; Pugsley was originally named Pubert, which was considered too racy for America in the 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately, Miserocchi cites but doesn’t include the introductions Boris Karloff and Wolcott Gibbs wrote for collections of Addams’ drawings.

For the first time, Miserocchi, who serves as director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, presents the notes the artist wrote when “The Addams Family” TV series went into production. Lurch is “not a very good butler, but a faithful one.... The children are his favorites and [he] guards them against good influences at all times.” Addams said Uncle Fester was “like me — or how I feel I look — with a bit more hair.”

Morticia, he explained, was the “real head of the family and the critical and moving force behind it. Low-voiced, incisive and subtle.... This ruined beauty has a romantic side, too.” In interviews, Addams said there was a little of Gloria Swanson in Morticia and that she represented “an ideal, a kind of good looks, with eyes slightly up center and dark, snakelike, hair.” Miserocchi notes that Addams’ three wives were all slim, statuesque “raven-haired beauties” and that “he created what he adored.”

With depressingly few exceptions — Lee Lorenz’s elegant brush drawings of contemporary neurotics and Ed Koren’s loopy critters who seem to be macramé-ed out of old Brillo wool — contemporary New Yorker cartoons are loose, simple and often sloppy. Addams belonged to an earlier generation of cartoonists who were accomplished draftsmen as well as humorists. When Gomez contemplates a raging gale and announces, “Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive,” every line reflects his cozy satisfaction.

Addams rarely worked in color, but he didn’t need to: His elegant ink washes suggest a full palette. Bone whites and pallid grays capture the blighted landscape of a graveyard, while stygian tones evoke the fustian reds and greens of a decaying Victorian interior.

He used his artistic skill to create a world that was simultaneously macabre and mundane. Watching Pugsley and Wednesday build a roaring blaze in the parlor fireplace, Gomez fondly observes, “The little dears! They still believe in Santa Claus.” Granny Frump bakes cookies for the children shaped like skulls, bats and serpents. When a messenger delivers a caged basilisk, Morticia cautions, “Now, remember, you can have him as long as you feed him and take good care of him. When you don’t, back he goes.”

Twenty-two years after Addams’ death, his characters are more popular than ever. An Addams Family musical recently opened to more than $15 million in advance ticket sales (despite devastating reviews). Tim Burton has announced plans to make a stop-motion animated feature about the characters. Audiences love the Addams clan, which has always been a happy family — but one that’s happy in its own way.

Solomon is the author, most recently, of “The Art of ‘Toy Story 3.’ ”