September 16, 2010


The Addams Family: An Evilution. By Charles Addams. Pomegranate. $39.95.

The Black Doll: A Silent Screenplay. By Edward Gorey, with an interview by Annie Nocenti. Pomegranate. $17.95.

The Awdrey-Gore Legacy. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Remembered Visit. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Utter Zoo and Alphabet. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     They are two of the great American illustrators, as unique in their odd visual styles as Edgar Allan Poe was in his not-unrelated verbal techniques: Charles Addams (1912-1988) and Edward Gorey (1925-2000). Gorey is the more mysterious and difficult-to-fathom of the two; Addams, the more popular and more overtly humorous. Thanks to a series of new books from Pomegranate, Addams and Gorey can now be readily compared, analyzed, discussed, debated and simply enjoyed. And there is a great deal to enjoy, for those of a suitably skewed temperament.

     The Addams Family: An Evilution is a big, handsome volume about the artist’s most-famous creation, that compendium of husband Gomez and wife Morticia (assuming they are married, which is never clear), children Wednesday and Pugsley, Granny Frump, Uncle Fester, Lurch the butler, the Thing and various and sundry hangers-on. From their first appearance in The New Yorker in 1938, when they had not yet acquired a name, through the mid-1960s TV show, two films and a new Broadway musical, the family has spread its wings (bat wings, most likely) and evolved into something iconic (and occasionally ironic). Because The Addams Family: An Evilution is packed with illustrations of family doings, it is enjoyable simply as a cartoon collection – but it is even better the more a reader focuses on the explanatory material. Addams’ character discussions, written for the producers of the TV show, are simply wonderful: Morticia is “contemptuous and original and with a fierce family loyalty,” and “never uses a cliché except to be funny.” Gomez is “a crafty schemer, but also a jolly man in his own way.” Wednesday is “on the whole, pretty lost,” and “has six toes on one foot,” while Pugsley, a “genius in his own way,” is able to “turn himself into a Mr. Hyde with an ordinary chemical set.” Lurch “will gladly undertake to dump the boiling oil on the carol singers [a reference to one of Addams’ most famous drawings, which of course is included in the book], but, generally, the family regards him as something of a joke.” Seeing how these and other characters have developed over the years is wonderful, and choosing individual panels as favorites is great fun – perhaps the one showing bats approaching their house, which is a duplicate of the Addams’ mansion; or the one of a bemused Wednesday with the string of paper dolls she has just made – one of which has three legs; or the Publishers Weekly cover from 1973, showing each family member reading something appropriate or just odd: Morticia, “Foodless Recipes,” Uncle Fester, “A Return to Morality,” Pugsley, “Bugging Everybody,” and a very concerned-looking Wednesday, “The Comfort of Sex.” Directly opposite that delightful cover is a truly revelatory drawing of the family showing, utterly amazingly, that Morticia has legs – Adams elsewhere says she always wears the same costume, “the form-fitting black gown, tattered or cut to ribbons at the elbows and feet,” leaving her legs and feet invisible. There are many, many delights and surprises of this sort in The Addams Family: An Evilution, a book that is about as close to a definitive portrait of this most unusual family as we are likely to get.

     Addams can be called a cartoonist – and often is, although his work is broader than that. But it is highly unlikely that anyone would apply the “cartoonist” label to Gorey, although in a narrow sense it could be said that he drew cartoons. Really, Gorey was really an illustrator, a broader category than “cartoonist,” and an excellent one. Nor was that all he was. Writer, film buff and all-around creative thinker, Gorey was involved in opera, dance and theater as well as books and TV (his famous creation of the animated opening for PBS’ Mystery!). And some of his work can still surprise, even a decade after his death. Thus, The Black Doll is a must for Gorey fans who know only his illustrations. It is nothing less than a full-blown screenplay for a movie – a silent movie, although the screenplay dates to the early 1970s. Playful, erudite, silly and portentous, it includes everything from historical-religious background to such title cards as “The Fiend, dear child, interests himself in the treasures of Blug,” and “You will notice the dancing palace adjoins the abattoirs.” Playful and indeterminate, The Black Doll includes Gorey drawings of 21 characters (displayed on the inside front and back covers and, individually, on various pages of the screenplay) and is virtually incapable of being summarized – it is a sort of Maltese Falcon by way of D.W. Griffith. The Pomegranate book gives the full screenplay as well as a highly informative interview that Annie Nocenti did with Gorey in 1998 – which highlights not only Gorey’s general knowledge of film but also his specific interest in a number of very different directors, many of them European. This is a fascinating book that focuses on a very important but very little-known aspect of Gorey’s life and art.

     But the seeds of dramatic presentation are there in much of Gorey’s work. The complex theatricality of The Awdrey-Gore Legacy is a perfect example. The book is about the murder of a 97-year-old author of mysteries (three supposed covers of which appear on the front of The Awdrey-Gore Legacy itself); but instead of a straightforward narrative – there is little straightforward in Gorey – the book deconstructs murder mysteries of the Agatha Christie type from start to finish. Included are the highly peculiar murder scene; the famous detective (shown in an amazing series of pictures that take him from ordinary-looking man to one-legged, one-handed, one-eyed, bearded and vastly overdressed oddball); 17 beautifully drawn characters who may be one thing or another – depending on the needs of the never-fleshed-out plot; various places where bodies are typically discovered, each of them including a pair of protruding feet; forms of dispatch, ranging from “gradual” (28 “arsenical buns”) to “instantaneous” (a boulder); all sorts of “clue bits” that may or may not mean something; notes on possible things that the killer could have failed to realize; the obligatory confrontation scene (where nothing is confronted, much less revealed); and many possible fates of the guilty party. A seamless mixture of text and illustration, a brilliant sendup of murder mysteries, and a fascinating put-it-together-for-yourself book, The Awdrey-Gore Legacy is pure Gorey and pure enjoyment.

     There is always a sheen of pathos, if not necessarily something murderous, in Gorey’s work. The Remembered Visit and the apparently harmless ABC book, The Utter Zoo and Alphabet, both show this clearly. The first of these is the story of a young girl named Drusilla whose parents take her abroad, where she tries unsuccessfully to appreciate all the cultural wonders to which she is exposed, and where a family friend introduces her to an elderly man who does not wear socks and who may once have been or done something important. The enigmatic meeting – enigmas are Gorey’s stock in trade – leads to a promise that Drusilla makes, unthinkingly breaks, and then discovers, much later, that she can no longer keep…leaving her sad and wistful. What is the book’s meaning? Perhaps there is none; perhaps it is about a rite of passage to adulthood; perhaps it is about the consequences of failing to keep a promise, even one that seems small; perhaps it is simply an exercise in meticulously rendered melancholy, as so many Gorey books seem to be. The same question of meaning can actually be raised about The Utter Zoo and Alphabet, which is no “mere” alphabet book, since it consists entirely of nonexistent creatures whose names Gorey weaves into hauntingly odd couplets: “The Ombledroom is vast and white,/ And therefore visible by night.” “The Ippagoggy has a taste/ For every kind of glue and paste.” One of the strangest things about this peculiar little book is how many of the imaginary creatures the reader does not see. That Ippagoggy is covered with paper pasted all over it; the Dawbis hides behind window blinds; the Jelbislup is kept inside a jar – only the jar is shown; and so on: “The Ulp is very, very small;/ It hardly can be seen at all.” Even creatures that are visible are usually not entirely viewable: only the rear end of the Xyke is seen as it walks away; the Quingawaga’s back and large wings are shown, but not its head, which its turned-away body conceals; etc. This sort of illustration, in which much more is implied than shown, is typical Gorey – he uses the technique in many of his stories that are about violent things but never quite show them. In fact, this approach carries right through to the letter Z, whose illustration shows four feet sticking up out of a box: “About the Zote what can be said?/ There was just one, and now it’s dead.” This is not exactly rolling-on-the-floor-laughing humor: it is sharp, subtle, sophisticated and superbly shown in the inimitable style of one of America’s great modern illustrators.

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