The clan of cartoon matriarch Morticia Addams first moved into the pages of The New Yorker magazine eight decades ago, and the ghoulish characters finally got names in 1964, when The Addams Family found a prime-time TV home for two seasons and snapped their ooky-kooky way into the American consciousness — soon establishing permanent pop-culture residence that's proved as immortal as their opening-theme earworm.
The numerous adaptations since, in film and on Broadway, have brought Oscar and Drama Desk nominations, and Morticia remains a mother of reinvention.
As a Halloween-ready animated film, The Addams Family opened in the United States last week, featuring the voices of Charlize Theron, Oscar Isaac, Chloe Grace Moretz and the ever-busy Finn Wolfhard.
Yet just what is it about this oddly gothic brood, forever clad in black humour, that keeps audiences gleefully returning to the Addams' webbed doorstep?
Conrad Vernon, who directed the new movie with Greg Tiernan, grew up on reruns of the hit '60s series. A Cal Arts-trained illustrator, he would eventually be drawn into the enormous Addams catalogue of lush and dark-toned New Yorker cartoons — only a fraction of which featured the long-anonymous "family" characters.
Vernon was initially bewitched by the show's quirkier creature aspects — "All that stuff was really fun," he says — but the lure of what was beating beneath that haunted facade kept him tuned in.
"At its core, it was a family that really cared and loved each other," says Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens, Sausage Party). "As frightened as I might have been as a kid by the stuff in their house, I always knew that Morticia and [husband] Gomez loved their children and wanted the best for them.
"It kind of made you feel safe in this unsafe environment, which is a really fun place to be."
Besides some of the previous screen projects, the filmmakers kept returning to the source illustration for inspiration. There is a textured reason that his trove, well beyond the Addams family images, is such a treasure.
"Charles Addams is one of the few New Yorker cartoonists who was consistently laugh-out funny," says Francoise Mouly, the magazine's art editor since 1993. "From his first cartoon in 1932 to a few years after his death in 1988, we published 1200 of his drawings and 64 covers, and they aged well."
For all the master artists who have populated the pages of the New Yorker, few of its gag cartoonists have created such a consistent aesthetic and coherent worldview that the work can survive decades of worthy adaptation. Such a "rare feat," Mouly says, is supported by how deftly Addams wove that outlook throughout his art, with "the most consistent thread being his embrace of the free spirits, of the deviant and the dreamers among us".
"In a 1986 cover," Mouly says by way of example, "the artist known to picnic in graveyards gave us a witch lovingly sharing a taste of bubbling stew with her black cat." The artwork is rendered in black and white, save for the hot coals and a candy-coloured potion.
And by working behind the black mask of the macabre, Addams — a New Jersey native distantly related to the two Adams presidents — felt free to satirise social conventions, including the pressure to conform. (The new animated film plays off that motif, with a villain whose reality-show goal is blind communal assimilation.)
"He set out to undermine cliches," Mouly says. "His target was conventional wisdom and conformity, but in crafting his loving portrayal of loners and monsters, he established archetypes that survived the test of time" — including the Addams children, Wednesday and Pugsley, plus looming butler Lurch (voiced by Vernon in the new movie), odd Uncle Fester and the potion-happy Grandmama.
Often, to pierce those social facades, the best rapier — as swordsman Gomez could appreciate — was the wit of the weird.
"Addams was one of the first to realise how much weirdness could be tolerated in a cartoon — how far apart the frames of reference could be and still mash up to make a joke work," says Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for Air Mail and CartoonCollections.com. "And he was a progenitor of understanding the connection between humour and horror, [which] is hilarious because it's both disturbing and at the same time friendly.
"He tapped into the paranoia that is with us now more than ever and poked at our capacity for evil," continues Mankoff, a long-time New Yorker cartoonist and cartoon editor. (Some of Addams' animal covers even seem to depict death camps.)
In doing so, Addams' work unmasks fear of "the other." In service to the humour, his elegantly decrepit Victorian homes are effectively furnished with two-way social mirrors and artfully turned tables.
"We laugh at Addams' cartoons because they burst through the polite conventions that shield us from our fear of death and decay and of those who aren't like us," Mouly says.
One New Yorker cartoon, from Christmas 1946, remains a telling favorite of many fans. In Boiling Oil, the Addams family is standing on the roof while gathered around a cauldron, about to douse the roving carolers below.
While the joke is "forever amusing," says H. Kevin Miserocchi, director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, "it is the angle from which the viewer is witnessing the event that makes the cartoon a masterpiece." By looking down upon the singers, the reader identifies with the family — and is prompted to cheer for the evil deed.
From his darkly bent mind to his draftsman's eye, in fact, so much of what is timeless about Addams boils down to his unique perspective. And so keen was his comic wiring that the power to pleasantly shock doesn't dim.
• The Addams Family is in New Zealand cinemas from December 5.