"It's like seeing where it all began... and it continues to this day," exclaims author Jennifer George. "Rube was cartooning at the dawn of the industrial age in America... "it was the first moment in time when syndication, which was the mass media of its day, was possible. Rube created a drawing in New York City and within 24 hours it would be printed and distributed all across the country -- and a cartoon could become the topic of conversation from coast to coast much like a celebrity tweet or a viral YouTube video does today. Rube's words and images spoke to the human condition -- and made us laugh in the process; as a result, his work is as relevant today as when it was conceived almost 100 years ago."
- Jennifer George: author, writer, clothing and jewelry designer, and coincidentally, beloved granddaughter of Rube Goldberg
Regardless of our age, political bent, geographic origins, and economic status, among other defining physiognomies -- we Americans are indeed living in the age of Reuben Garrett Lucius "Rube" Goldberg -- though many of us may not be cognizant of that fact in the present tense. That is about to change thanks to Ms. George, who has brought us the timely and entertaining The Art of Rube Goldberg (A) Inventive (B ) Cartoon (C) Genius, which is out now on Abrams Books.
Ms. George has compiled what is essentially Rube's Greatest Hits -- a stunning collection of newspaper and magazine reproductions that cherry-pick highlights from Goldberg's expansive body of work, bridging his earliest high school drawings to his most popular comic strips, inventions, advertising work, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoons, in addition to photographs, letters and other fascinating memorabilia. The core of the book is based on the family collection of original drawings, many of which are stored beneath Jennifer's bed in her Upper West Side New York City abode -- a state of affairs that the author nonchalantly admits "has enraged archivists to no end." George, who has inherited her grandfather's yen for glibly reproaching so-called "experts," is finally beginning to take the experts seriously. She is meeting with an archivist from the Morgan Library in the new year.
Of his many artistic triumphs in a career that, in essence, spanned the entire 20th century (Goldberg was born in 1883 and began drawing at the age of 4, he was first published in 1900, and was active until his passing in 1970 -- it is estimated that he created over 50,000 drawings), Rube is most renowned for his outrageous, laugh-out-loud hysterical, yet scientifically accurate inventions. Rube, who earned an engineering degree at the University of California Berkeley, was endlessly fascinated and enormously entertained by advancements in technology. Goldberg's take on a simple invention might connect a penguin, a bowling ball, a palm tree and an ice-cream maker in an elaborate chain reaction device that would eventually complete the task of closing a garage door, or carving a turkey. His invention drawings not only made him a household name -- still used liberally in the American lexicon, but also won him the honor of being an adjective in the Miriam Webster Dictionary. Rube opined: "Machines are a symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results."
... there is so much depth to my grandfather's work... I think his is one of the last great untapped archives of the 20th century. His comic influence is everywhere. When you consider how many iconic moments in film pay homage to Rube Goldberg -- reference Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, or Martin Scorsese, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of videos on YouTube.Com, the best of which go viral with millions of views, Rube Goldberg machines are part of the comic landscape in America. Foolish Questions, another wildly popular cartoon strip of Rube's that debuted at the dawn of Vaudeville, became a construct for repartee in modern comedy -- from Burns & Allen, to Lucy & Desi, to the Smothers Brothers, to Letterman and Paul Schafer. Working on the book it became pretty clear that funny was what mattered most to my grandfather.
Observers of contemporary pop and socio-political culture will revel in the illustrations -- almost 750 -- in The Art of Rube Goldberg and notice the stark correlation between Rube's classic comic strips and life in America as we now know it. Rube's Tuesday Ladies Club could be a template for Real Housewives; the characters "Mr. Windbag" and "Lawyer" in Rube's respectfully biting And They Get Away With It mirror the questionable economic activities and rational of Messrs. Alan Greenspan, James Dimon, and Ben Bernanke; Tosh.0 and Jackass are in line with Rube's Boobs Abroad and Boob Family; and the provocative and cheeky comedy of Key & Peele was predated by Rube's Mike & Ike; they look alike!
And it's hard not to be struck by how prescient many of Goldberg's inventions were. One device, to avoid a contentious confrontation between a wayward husband and unsuspecting wife, implements a lion, a toy sailboat and a steak -- and evokes comparison to the various mobile applications available today for cheating spouses. The first selfie appears on the last page of the book and features a photo of Goldberg sitting in a working full-scale model of his "Simple Device for Taking Your Own Picture."
To complement George's insightful personal ruminations and analysis, The Art of Rube Goldberg also features several guest essays: among them include perceptive missives by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, Al Jaffee of MAD magazine, and comics historian Paul Tumey -- and if you can't get the book because it's sold-out on Amazon and you need to wait for them to restock, try downloading Rube Works, a newly released mobile game app, that will hook anyone, young or old, on Rube Goldberg Machines.
George's book, seven years in the making, serves as the cornerstone for her many planned Rube projects, which include digital and broadcast media, feature film, interactive media and museums, merchandising and additional books. George's other agenda is education. Rube Goldberg Machines are taught as part of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) and STEAM (add the "A" for Arts) curricula nationwide. And annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contests (which I encourage you to check out on www.rubegoldberg.com) are thriving as middle-school, high school and college students, nation-wide and around the world, construct chain-reaction contraptions that would likely astonish and flatter their madcap mentor.
When I asked George where she saw herself and her Rube enterprises ten years from now, she replied, "Waiting on line for the Rube Goldberg Roller Coaster. I mean, who doesn't want to take that ride?" She paused for a moment, smiled, then added, "Maybe I'm already on it."
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