The Art of Rube Goldberg, or, The Art of Inefficiency

The Rube Goldberg Variations are finally given a museum-quality recollection by none other than the artist's Granddaughter. It's hardly what you'd call "very simple".

The Art of Rube Goldberg (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Length: 192 Pages
Author: Jennifer George
Price: $60.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11

The joy of The Art of Rube Goldberg begins before the book is even opened. The cover itself features a window featuring a remarkably far-fetched “Rube Goldberg Contraption” illustrated by Goldberg himself. While the book is packed with these illustrations, the cover also features a finger-controlled slide that brings this Rube Goldberg device (a 1939 invention called “Simple Way to get Fresh Orange Juice upon Awakening” to hilarious life.

In essence, this “Simple Way” involves sunlight shining through a magnifying glass to heat a water bag whose steam drips upon a strange, waiting animal who gets a headache and thus leaves for aspirin, thus pulling the string his tail is tied to, releasing a Jack-in-the-Box with a baton who conducts a waiting cymbalist to smash the two halves of his instrument together around a hanging orange, thus filling the glass (and, one might imagine, awakening the sleeping juice-fan).

You see? Very simple.

For those unfamiliar with the man named Rube Goldberg or his art and inventions, one might look no further than Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which defines his name as an adjective. “Accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.” For those needing a more immediate visual clue, think of the board game “Mouse Trap”, which involves the construction of a Rube Goldberg contraption (although the game-makers refused to credit or pay Goldberg for this inspiration).

The Art of Rube Goldberg (subtitled (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius) is not “merely” a collection of cool comic strips and bizarrely inefficient inventions. This four pound, 10.6 x 14.5 inch, 192 page tome works as a biography, history, remembrance and tribute to the man himself with dimensions, weight and length worthy of a Rube Goldberg Contraption in and of itself.

The care and love put into this collection is partially due to the fact that the book’s collector and editor is Jennifer George, the daughter of Goldberg’s son, George W. George. (Due to the political nature of Goldberg’s cartoons during World War II, Goldberg gained more than his fair share of detractors and thus insisted that his sons change their surname for their own protection.) George offers a reflective preface to the life and work of her “Papa Rube” with a biographical angle that can only be told by a family member. This insider’s look also includes private illustrations, family photos and rare rough drafts.

George’s own contributions are hardly the only prose works in this book. Essays from no less than eight contributors, including historians, photographers, scholars and Mad Magazine’s own creator of the famous back-cover “Fold-Ins” and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”, Al Jaffee. There is something remarkably fitting about the affect this piecemeal approach to Goldberg’s life and career has on the reader. Goldberg specialized in A-B-C list-annotated illustrations, creating an entire (usually very funny) picture, piece by piece by piece. Thus, seeing the image of this influential artist, writer, inventor and family man from, multiple angles, a little at a time fits Rube Goldberg like a Rube Goldberg contraption.

The real attraction of this book, however is, and ought to be, the art inside. Goldberg’s artwork is hilarious and clever, ranging from the ludicrously complex (like the strip Boob McNutt) to the hilarious showcases for “The Goldberg Variations” (like the strip Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts) to the political (his one-frame political cartoons are as hard-hitting today as they were in the '30s and '40s) to the commercial (like his Pepsi and Pete: the Pepsi Cola Cops strip) to the incredibly influential (Goldberg’s Foolish Questions books and postcards read like, and served as the inspiration for Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”).

A Lucifer G. Butts invention

Nor, as this book shows us in many ways, was Goldberg mere fun and jokes. The man we call Rube (nee Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg) was a talented inventor who patented and trade-marked his works and a skilled, detailed illustrator whose variable styles could fool most anyone into believing they were created by different artists. Beyond his own trademarks and humorist strips, The Art of Rube Goldberg also details the artist’s career in animated film (all based on his strips) as well as his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1948. Yes, all this from the pen of the same man.

In fact, Goldberg worked on so many inventions and so very many comic strips (of various names and styles) that even a book of this size may not quite cover everything that fans want to know and collect about this amazing talent, either in a retrospective of his works or in a biography format. While it’s true that one might need an entire museum to truly pay homage to Goldberg’s work, The Art of Rube Goldberg is a brilliant collection focusing on the man’s artwork (of varied styles), a great collection of essays about his career and life and also contains a surprising amount of extras from cover to cover.

Goldberg was, in fact, so famous during his own lifetime that he appeared in testimonial print advertisements for Scotch whiskey, cigarettes, pipe tobacco, cough drops, clothing and more (whether or not his own drawings accompanied his profile picture). The Art of Rube Goldberg dutifully includes many of these ads as well as family photos and career highlights (including his encounters with Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Truman and Johnson).

Still, what makes The Art of Rube Goldberg special is exactly what made the art of Rube Goldberg special. This is a great coffee table volume worth revisiting for the illustrations and, perhaps, the occasional re-read of the essays to remind the reader of the man behind the pencil. From the darkly political to the hilarious inappropriate to the brightly charming, if it’s Rube Goldberg, you will find some variation thereof in this book.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.