Deconstructing "The Art of Rube Goldberg"

For almost a century, Rube Goldberg's work has been known the world over, to the point where the man's name was adopted as an adjective in 1931 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. A well-known political cartoonist who received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize and wrote the 1930 Three Stooges movie "Soup to Nuts" among other films, Goldberg is best known for his comic strips. He worked on several during his lifetime, often at the same time, including "Boob McNutt," "Mike and Ike" and "Foolish Questions." The elaborate contraptions he designed in these strips became known as "Rube Goldberg Machines."

Goldberg's inventions have spawned thousands of imitators and continue to be an inspiration around the world. The National Cartoonist Society -- which Goldberg co-founded -- named its highest honor "The Reuben" and the statue is based on a sculpture that Goldberg crafted. This month, Abrams ComicArts has published a new book "The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius." Edited by Goldberg's grand-daughter Jennifer George, the book includes essays by acclaimed author Adam Gopnik, cartoonist Al Jaffee and others. George, a designer and writer herself, spoke with CBR News about her famous grandfather's life and legacy.

CBR News: To start, I was wondering if you could talk a little about who Rube Goldberg was, because while he's a name people likely know, may not know who he is -- other than an adjective.

Jennifer George: True! Rube was a cartoonist with a highly technical and imaginative mind, best known for his wacky contraptions that set off a series of chain-reaction events out of fairly ordinary objects that, in a humorous way, complete a very mundane task. Think "Mouse Trap," or the famous OK Go video. In addition, Rube Goldberg was my grandfather.

Where did the idea of assembling this collection of his cartoons come from, and how long have you been working on it?

Charlie Kochman, the head of Abrams ComicArts, approached my dad eight years ago about doing a comprehensive book. I found out that the project was green-lit the day of my father's funeral. My father had formerly run all of the licensing requests and other business aspects of my grandfather's IP, so after his death, these responsibilities, along with the book, fell into my lap. The making of this book has been a seven-year journey that has taken me back and forth across the country multiple times -- from the archives at UC Berkeley to private collectors to family members. I would say this book has been a labor of love.

Can you talk a little about the interactive cover, because -- it's great!

The cover was Charlie's brain-child. He fought hard to get it, and I'm thrilled with it, too. Andy Baron, who is a prize-winning paper engineer and does amazing pop-up books, has been working on a collection of paper-engineered Rube Goldberg inventions for a long time, and we were very lucky to have him design our cover.

How big of a challenge was it going through archives and finding a way to decide what should be included in the book?

It was very time-consuming. Rube's oeuvre consists of 50,000 drawings -- a behemoth amount. I went through around 13,000 of them to come up with the approximately 500 that are included in this book. It was daunting. I tried to find examples, for the most part, that allowed you to see the inner-workings of his mechanical mind, not to mention his vivid imagination and wit. I'd say we have enough material for another ten books, at least -- one of which I'm hoping to work on with Charlie in the aftermath of this project.

Were you a fan of comics, not just your grandfather's work, but in general? Did you have a sense of this field and his influence on it?

I was never really a fan of comics, short of perhaps Charlie Brown. When I was a kid, I never read them. I knew my grandfather the way anyone knows their grandfather. He was "Papa Rube," the sculptor, first -- even though his cartoons were always framed and decorating the walls. Now, after having met so many wonderful collectors and cartoonists at the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Awards -- not to mention Charlie's astounding office, full of comic art books and ephemera, and his influence of me over the last seven years -- I have come to appreciate the world of cartoonists and cartooning.  In fact, I have a Windsor McCay (given to me by Carl Linich, one of the collectors whose work is featured in our book) hanging in my dining room right now. I think he's my favorite, in addition to Rube.

As I got older, I knew that my grandfather had been wildly influential -- so much so that his is the only full name, of anyone, in the dictionary -- but I didn't really understand the breadth of his genius until I started compiling the works for this book. There was a real learning curve for me, and I'm very appreciative that I got to know my grandfather in this way at this stage of the game -- how lucky to be able to do that.

Adam Gopnik, who wrote the introduction for the book, mentioned the board game Mouse Trap, which is a game I remember. He said it was not just inspired by Goldberg, but also got lawyers involved and there were lawsuit threats and money was exchanged, which was fascinating. Can you talk a little about this story?

I can only say what I've heard through family recollections/remembrances -- apparently, the game itself was indeed based on Rube's cartoons and a one-time single payment of $5,000 was made to my grandfather. 100 million games later (and it keeps selling) -- I'm not sure it was the single greatest business move he ever made!

People are aware of his comics and Rube Goldberg Machines, but he was also a political cartoonist. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1948. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that aspect of his career and why your father and uncle's last names were George.

My grandfather, while best known for his crazy contraptions, as you said, also drew many other cartoons, including editorial cartoons. His political cartoons are wonderful and well-represented in the book, and it's true he won a Pulitzer Prize for a cartoon called "Peace Today," which figures into Adam's piece at the front of the book.

There are two different stories to the name change -- one that was passed down to me on my side of the family, through my mother and father, who told me that Irma (Rube's wife, my grandmother) had explained how there had been anti-Semitic threats to Rube during WWII as a result of his political cartooning and his last name. My uncle contends that the name change, which Rube had requested of his sons when they each turned 18, was due to the fact that he wanted them to have their own identities and not live in the shadow of their famous father. It's possible the truth lies somewhere in-between.

He was also a sculptor at the end of his life. He retired from drawing and took up another art form, which is a deeply intimating and inspirational act.

Rube didn't believe in retirement. He seemed to have heard the muse his entire life, and when he lost his ability to use his fine motor-skills, i.e. line-drawing in pen and ink, he moved to a different medium that allowed him to express himself in a more rudimentary fashion. Clay, at this juncture, perfectly suited his needs.

Similarly, my father never retired and one of his biggest successes came posthumously -- the musical he conceived and worked on for the last decade of his life, "Memphis," won the Tony for Best New Musical, 2010, three years after he died. I've got two incredible role-models in my father and grandfather.

Do you have a favorite project of Rube's, or a cartoon that really sticks out in your mind?

Many. I love the wearable inventions.  As a fashion designer, they always surprise me because they actually attach to the body in such elaborate and comical ways. I also love several lesser-known strips of my grandfather's -- "People Who Put You To Sleep," and "The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Women's Club," both of which are represented in the book, will be given more space in our enhanced eBook that comes out in the spring. But there are so many wonderful drawings I've yet to discover -- in an archive as large as Rube's, I keep finding new ones every day!

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