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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.


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