'The Art of Rube Goldberg'
From Abrams in November
Published: 09/11/2013, Last Updated: 09/12/2013 05:06am
When is the book coming out?
Art of Rube Goldberg is a Fall book that comes out in November. It’s written by Jennifer George, who is Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter. I met her father, George W. George, probably about six years ago.
Do you mean George W. Goldberg?
No, George W. George. He changed his name. There are two family stories that they talk about in the book. One was that because of anti-Semitism, Rube felt that changing the name to George would be a little bit more beneficial and help him. The other answer was that it’s a big shadow to be Rube Goldberg’s son, and he changed his name to have his own identity and own personality.
Did the Goldberg family have the originals of the cartoons?
They had a lot of originals. They had tons in terms of archives--a lot of family photos, recordings, archival recordings, things like that. So we had access to that, and then collectors and museums had a lot of things.
There are two collectors who helped out a lot with this book. Paul Tumey from Comics Journal; Art Spiegelman told me about Paul. Paul Tumey does a Screwball Comics blog, and through that blog Paul got in touch with Jennifer George, the granddaughter. So he helped us out a lot because he really knew Rube Goldberg. He had scans of all sorts of original strips--not original art necessarily, but strips. The other was Carl Linich, another collector, and we got to know Carl through Paul. So whatever Paul didn’t have, Carl had, and vice versa, so it was really nice.
This book includes a lot of material. How long did Goldberg produce comics?
He did 50,000 cartoons--a staggering number of cartoons. He was born in 1883 and died in 1970. He started working in high school, so 1897 or so would have been his earliest works, and he basically worked doing single panel editorial cartoons almost to the mid-1960s; then he started doing sculpture.
50,000 cartoons. That’s like working over 100 years every day.
And it wasn’t just cartoons that he did! He did sculpture; he wrote novels; he wrote short stories. He was incredibly prolific and he was always working. He has an unpublished memoir, unpublished short stories, and many that were published in Colliers and other major magazines of the time. He was as famous as it gets. There’s a great photo (in the book) where you see him at a party at his house and there’s George Gershwin and Groucho Marx sitting on either side of him. That’s the company he kept. He was really, really famous.
There are a lot of photos in the book.
You’ll see in the book, we have Geoff Spear (who works with Chip Kidd), who does photographs of all of Rube Goldberg’s stuff. We went to Jennifer George’s house [to photograph]. She has Rube Goldberg’s desk, there’s a photo of him using the desk.
We also went to Rube Goldberg’s nephew, John, who had a lot of original art; but he also had Goldberg’s shot glasses and flask, and his T-square, some sculpture, his diploma, things like that. It was really wonderful to have access to all that.
And then how did you shoot the cartoons?
One of the nice things in the book is that you see the original art. A lot of Rube Goldberg books that were done, especially in the 70s and 80s, were shot off of newspaper strips. They were dark and muddy. It’s like the revelation, I feel, that Peter Maresca did with his Sunday Press Books where he showed Little Nemo at the size that they were. We tried to show this material as full page as we could, showing the original art. You see really delicate brush work that was really lost in all the previous editions because they were reproductions from printed newspaper strips.
So there’s a lot of original art and things that had never been published. Certain things where we have no idea where it’s from, but it’s beautiful. Lots of sketches, lots of ads. Not only was he endorsing things with his cartoons, but endorsing things with his name and face. He did a cigarette advertisement (but he didn’t smoke cigarettes, he smoked a cigar), socks, and Smith’s Brothers cough drops, and Tuxedo tobacco, Philco radios, water heaters. He also did all kinds of sheet music.
You mean he produced the artwork that accompanied the songs?
Yes, but he wrote the songs, too; he wrote the lyrics. We found acetate archival recordings in the family estate--it was either for copyright or he went into one of those recording booths, and recorded the songs he wrote the music for with him singing them. Really pretty amazing. There are two pages in the book of all the known sheet music and then after we were finished, one more cropped up. So you think you know how much he’s done, but then even more crops up.
It looks like you had a lot of contributors for this book.
Yes. What I love doing, in this book in particular, is having multiple contributors. There’s this Rashomon effect, giving you different points of view.
We have an introduction by Adam Gopnik, which is really great. Andy Baron, who did the moveable pop-up on the front cover, wrote a nice little essay about putting it in the context of movables. There are original essays by people like Al Jaffee (because he knew Rube Goldberg), Carl Linich, Peter Maresca, and Paul Tumey. Peter wrote an essay on other strips that were being done at the same time, so you’re getting a sense of Rube in context and what was happening before him and after him. Brian Walker wrote an excellent biographical essay that walks you through his life, step by step.
You mentioned before that you will be doing an e-book as well?
We’re going to do a couple of different e-books: the verbatim e-book, and an enhanced e-book that will have the home movies and recordings and interviews that he did. There was a biography of him by Maynard Frank Wolfe. All of those tapes were in the family archives. They’ve all been digitized and will be part of the e-book. You’ll be able to listen to hours and hours of Rube just talking to his biographer and telling stories.
I think we have 600 or 700 strips in the book but for every one we included, but there are thousands that we didn’t include. For example, he did this strip called Doc Wright. It was a big failure for him, but it was a serious continuity strip. We show one example in the book, but we have the complete run, so with the e-book you’ll be able to get access to all that stuff as well.
When did he stop working?
He died in 1970. He was sculpting up to the end. The Smithsonian did a show on him, a summation, and he died two weeks after the show premiered. So he was working almost until the end of his life, working on preparation of the Smithsonian retrospective. There were a couple of collections since then, they were all black and white, and they were all smaller in scale and were shot off the newspaper strips. We shot off the originals when we could, and when we did shoot off of newspapers, we shot them as objects so we’re not converting them to line art and trying to clean them up. We had access to a lot.
Like IDW’s Artist’s Editions?
The book’s a nice format but his originals were even larger than that. The Artist Editions do everything at 100%, which is fantastic.
But Artist Editions are rather expensive, usually around $150.
This is $60, but there’s that physicality aspect to Comic Arts and Abrams books that’s always been part of it, and the production. Having a movable cover wouldn’t make sense for any other book but Rube Goldberg. It’s almost like if I did a straight cover, you’d say, "Oh, it’s too bad it doesn’t move." It made sense for this and it was worth raising the price a little bit to compensate for it, because it felt like it would be the difference between some of the other books on Rube Goldberg and really the book on Rube Goldberg.
He did so much work. He did so many different kinds of work, and the book is a really great overview, thanks to people like Paul Tumey and Carl, who really helped keep the book on track in terms of filling in the historical gaps that even the family didn’t know.
Jen was eight years old when her grandfather died, and she wrote a beautiful preface. She had very vivid memories. There’s a photograph in the book of the two of them together. There are also some drawings where he drew an elephant and then said, "now you draw an elephant," and she drew one underneath and he gave it a grade like "nice job."
She’s really keeping the spirit of the family alive. She’s been organizing these annual machine contests, she’s been working with company for a movable Rube Goldberg iPhone app, so when you put all the pieces of the invention together, it actually moves and works. And then the cover of the book is one of the levels of the game app.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It’s a real passion project for me and I feel like there’s a Rube Goldberg moment happening. People are aware of Goldberg. I have a Google alert set to his name, and pretty much three or four times a day his name comes up. At least once a week in The New York Times alone, whether it’s in a crossword puzzle or in reference to a Rube Goldbergian kind of answer. As an adjective it comes up all the time. It’s constantly part of the vernacular, whether it’s the commercials that are the Rube Goldberg devices that are being done.
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