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WHAT'S BLACK AND WHITE AND WEIRD ALL OVER?

MY CROWD
By Charles Addams
Fireside
192 pages, $10.95
THE BIG BOOK OF HELL
By Matt Groening
Pantheon
169 pages, $10.95

IT'S ONE of the classics: a large matronly sunbather in two-piece bathing suit is sprinting madly across the beach. On the sand, you can see the shadow of a mammoth, primordial bird with her husband squirming and flailing around in its beak. The matron's hands are cupped. She is screaming in panic: "GEORGE! GEORGE! DROP THE KEYS!"

Charles Addams was the master. Never mind the friendly sitcom that once bore his name in the lovable petting zoo of '60s television. He was the undisputed patriarch of American cartoon madness; he is the patron saint of the Far Side, the whole universe of oddity, inanity and conceptual devilment that came to the fore in the '80s with Roz Chast, George Booth, B. Kliban, Sam Gross, Gary Larson and Matt Groening.

Addams was the omnivorous python in a trade that had hitherto been populated by contented and grazing sheep.

The New Yorker published its first Addams cartoon in 1935. The astonishing thing about Charles Addams is that his work in the New Yorker 53 years later, just prior to his death in 1988, was every bit as fresh and inventive as his earlier work, if not fresher. It was, in fact, starker, cleaner and weirder in conception -- much less apt to make cutesy use of "the Addams family."

And thereby hangs a bizarre tale -- not as bizarre as an Addams cartoon, but bizarre in any case. None of Addams' wonderful work from his final years is available in book form. Nor, for that matter, are those delightfully diabolical and grisly earlier collections which used to be piled high on bookstore tables at Christmastime. To all intents and purposes, America's most macabre cartoonist has fallen down the well.

Knopf was planning to publish "The World of Charles Addams" this Christmas, but the book's editor and Addams' widow couldn't agree on the best cartoons and format -- all of which makes the paperback reprint of "My World" weirdly valuable in an age of temporary Addams blackout.

According to Knopf, "The World of Charles Addams" is still a couple of years off. Consider it, then, one of those books that ought to exist but don't.

"My World" is a collection from the best of his first six books which first appeared in 1970 -- the book to buy to find witches' brooms parked by the curb, Mona Lisa smirking at the movies while everyone around her is in hysterics and -- my favorite -- a meek little man coming home from work to find an unusually large and ominous overcoat and hat hanging on his hall coat rack.

Until the definitive Addams collection appears, "My Crowd" may have to do.

"The Big Book of Hell" is a rousing and savage collection of the best of all five "Life in Hell" books by Matt Groening, the newest cartoonist to become a household word as a TV sitcom. In Groening's case, his creation is "The Simpsons." Unlike Addams, Groening's Homer and Marge are animated and he maintains a guiding hand over them.

In the World According to Matt Groening, the Simpsons are to his "Life in Hell" books what "The Addams Family" was to Charles Addams' wild and beastly paper fantasies. Groening's goofy little rabbits ponder such things as reasons to live, the possible faces of God and the traditional "parental brain twisters" of standard child-rearing ("You'd lose your head if it weren't attached" or "Quit acting so childish" or "This hurts me more than it hurts you"). He is the cartoonist who'd have materialized if R.D. Laing had mated with James Thurber and R. Crumb had delivered the baby. All of life is a tyranny of the pompous, and the only defense is a cartoon overloaded with ideological revolt.

He has even been known to get political every now and then ("A Brief History of the Little Moron Joke" begins with the 1903 question, "Why did the little moron throw the clock out of the window" and ends with the 1984 question, "What did the little moron say to the microphone?" Answer: "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.")

Put it this way -- Bart Simpson is Matt Groening's Tom Sawyer. As with Twain, a whole world of vastly darker and angrier musings awaits the intrepid explorer. In Groening's case, "The Big Book of Hell" is probably the place to start.

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