- - Wednesday, April 9, 2014


By Jennifer George
Abrams ComicArts, $60, 192 pages

In the world of comic strips, many great cartoonists have left their indelible mark. Few have had the brilliance, artistic talent and creativity of Reuben Garrett Lucius “Rube” Goldberg, however.

University-educated and scientifically trained, Goldberg was a cartoonist like no other. He created several legendary comic strips, including “Boob McNutt,” “Foolish Questions,” “The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies’ Club” and “Mike and Ike (They Look Alike).” His most memorable strip, “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.” for the magazine Collier’s Weekly between 1929 and 1931 introduced readers to a wide assortment of wacky machines and screwball contraptions.

Goldberg’s lasting impact is even more astonishing. He was the National Cartoonists Society’s first president. The organization’s cartoonist of the year gets the appropriately named Reuben Award. The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, inspired by Prof. Butts’s nutty inventions, has become an annual event. He even has his own entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (The adjective “Rube Goldberg” is defined as “doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary.”)

Jennifer George, a jewelry and clothing designer — and Goldberg’s granddaughter — has lovingly compiled a witty, intelligent and well-researched book about the late, great cartoonist, “The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius.” Individual chapters were contributed by comics historian Brian Walker and Mad magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee, among others.

The piece de resistance is the cover: Paper engineer Andrew Baron created a working model of a 1939 Goldberg machine (“Simple way to get fresh orange juice upon awakening”) from the cartoonist’s Sunday-only comic strip, “Rube Goldberg’s Side Show.” Ms. George’s book is therefore the perfect tribute to her grandfather’s incredible life and storied career over seven decades.

New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik’s introduction stands out for its clarity and originality. He wrote that “the additional charm of Goldberg’s machines, more than might be apparent on initial inspection, rises from their observational precision, their period detail, their lovely inventory of a now-vanished time — one that saw itself as perfectly modern but now looks, inevitably, touchingly past.” Moreover, these inventions “show not so much the maximal effort for the minimal effect so much as the extraordinary effort for ordinary results.”

It’s an interesting way of looking at the complicated machines tasked to do simple things like blow up water wings, a “never-failing” way to test liquor and the famous self-operating napkin. This is why “Goldberg’s cartoons touch the edge of modern art,” and if his “great subject was the chain reaction, then his great discovery was that the chain reaction is often more interesting than its end product.”

In a twist of irony, Mr. Gopnik writes that England’s Heath Robinson “created, in almost exactly the same period as Goldberg, a reputation for the same kind of thing.” There were differences between the two cartoonists, of course. Robinson’s work “comes out of children’s-book drawings and fin de siecle illustration” and his “tree houses and fountains still belong in the world of Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.”

Meanwhile, Goldberg “is thoroughly a cartoonist in the American, point-scoring style, with the harder, tabloid, American edge of drawing.” In another clear distinction, “Robinson’s machines are eccentric,” Mr. Gopnik notes, whereas “Goldberg’s are practical … and, because they are practical and buildable, they are, in another way, sinister. They appear too close to actual machines to be dismissed as mere whimsy.”

For all his talents, Goldberg appears to have been (unsurprisingly) a complex private figure. According to Ms. George, her grandfather told “his sons to change their name for their own safety” owing to concerns about anti-Semitism.

Her own father “struggled with his relationship with Rube” and constantly lived in his shadow. She knew him as “Papa Rube, the sculptor” — someone to play cards and dominoes with, compare drawings of elephants, or put together “small plastic models of his drawings that were as baffling to him as they were to me.”

Even so, a talented cartoonist like Mr. Jaffee was “proud and honored to have had Rube as my giant.” It was a career that extended well beyond the funny pages. Goldberg wrote the script for “Soup to Nuts” (1930), the first Three Stooges film. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1947 “Peace Today” editorial cartoon in The New York Sun. He even took up sculpture, and became quite prolific at it.

There will likely never be another Rube Goldberg. Fortunately, his granddaughter’s wonderful book ensures that we’ll always remember this one-of-a-kind cartooning legend.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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