Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Origins of Rube Goldberg's Professor Lucifer Gorganzola Butts, A.K.

In 1928, Rube Goldberg created one of his most famous characters, the screwball inventor, the sage of the test tube, Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K. We don't know what the "A.K." means, but some have speculated that it stands for "All Knowing." In later years, Rube expanded the middle initial "G." into "Gorganzola," one of his favorite goofy words.

Be sure to visit the official Online Rube Goldberg Machine Contest and vote for the screwball invention you think should win the  2013 "People's Choice" Award!

Rube later said that Professor Butts was based on a couple of college professors he studied with while earning his degree from the College of Mining and Engineering at the University of California from 1901-1903. However, it's clear that the character also functioned as a sort of alter ego of Rube Goldberg. In fact, the Professor's first name, "Lucifer," is very similar to Rube's middle name: "Lucius." In any case, once he created Professor Butts, Rube knew he had finally found the ingredient in his beloved Rube Goldberg machine cartoons that transformed them into icons of perfection. As he wrote in an unpublished memoir, written later in his life:

In my cartoons Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts invented elaborate machines to accomplish such Herculean tasks as shining shoes, opening screen doors, keeping moths out of clothes closets, retrieving soap  in the bathtub and other innocuous problems. Only, instead of using the scientific elements of the laboratory, I added acrobatic monkeys, dancing mice, chattering false teeth, electric eels, whirling dervishes and other incongruous elements… (from an unpublished memoir by Rube Goldberg) 

Primarily a newspaper cartoonist, Rube created the character for a new cartoon series that appeared exclusively in the pages of the nationally distributed weekly Collier's magazine. The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K. ran roughly every other week from January 26, 1929 to December 26, 1931. However, the character's very first appearance was in a prose piece, "It's the Little Things That Matter," a humorous story by Rube, published about a year before, on November 3, 1928 the cartoon series started. It's not widely known, but Rube was a very accomplished (and published) writer in his time. In this typically screwball piece, Rube poses as "Strathmore" (a brand of the thick artist's paper that cartoonists often used).  He realizes that there is a fundamental problem with the daily technological advances of humanity:

'While all the big inventions were giving the astonished world fresher and louder gasps of incredulity, I could see around me many things that by their glaring deficiencies were crying out for urgent reform." 

Strathmore laments the lack of inventions to help with the little problems of every day life, like gravy stains on vests and "grapefruit that, with the touch of a spoon developed into the morning shower bath."

Strathmore recalls his old college chum, Butts, and realizes he might be the answer. Here then, is the very first appearance of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K., as Rube Goldberg first drew him for his November 3, 1928 Collier's story, "It's the Little Things That Matter:"

The first manifestation of Professor Lucifer G. Butts by Rube Goldberg
Collier's - November 3, 1928

And here is how Rube first describes Butts:

No doubt you have heard of Professor Butts. But, to refresh your memory, I will recall the fact that his outstanding achievement was the invention of the park bench. He made it possible for the great mass of the retired population to sit down and give the Board of Public Works a chance to fix the streets. He also invented the Christmas card and thereby built up large practices for physicians who did nothing but treat letter carriers for lumbago. (It’s The Little Things That Matter by Rube Goldberg, Collier’s Weekly, November 3, 1928)

In the article, it's clear that Rube's idea is the Professor is a genius at inventing trivial, over-complex inventions. The very same ones Rube himself had been creating in the funny pages for about 15 years. You can read the entire article here (page 1) and here (page 2). 

About a year after the Collier's article introducing Professor Butts appeared, Rube began a new cartoon series called The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K. To great effect, Rubeadded the element of a continuing character to his invention cartoon formula. Many people and even noted comics historians have ascribed ALL of Rube's cartoon inventions to   the Professor Butts character. In actuality, Rube created about 60 Butts cartoons from 1929-1931, and then only used the character sporadically after that. With so few actual Professor Butts cartoons in actual existence, the fact that he is still  fondly remembered and so highly regarded is a testament to both the power the character's concept, and to the masterful work Rube did in these invention cartoons.

Each bi-weekly episode of The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K. appeared very prominently as an oblong rectangle occupying roughly the top or bottom third of a page in the magazine, which was read by millions.  Here is an example of how the cartoons originally looked on the page:

March 16, 1929

It's my own assessment that these cartoons represent the creative peak of Rube Goldberg's career. These cartoons, each of which took Rube 30-50 hours of work, are the creme de la creme of his cartoons, and have become the work he is best remembered for. The Self-Operating Napkin (see here) cartoon image chosen for the 1995 United States commemorative Rube Goldberg stamp comes from one of the Collier's Professor Butts cartoons. More than that, the cartoons still resonate with us today. They have a mysterious, timeless quality about them similar to paintings by masters of Surrealism.  This is certainly the case with the very first Professor Butts invention cartoon, A Simple Appliance For Putting Postage Stamps on Envelopes . A man is frozen in mid-sneeze, a dog races away, and a bizarre contraption involving a hat rack, a water cooler, and a nut cracker has a remarkable inner logic, giving it solidity and dreamlike presence.

The first  Rube Goldberg Machine cartoon ascribed to Professor Lucifer G. Butts, A.K.
From Collier's magazine, January 26, 1929.

One of the most ingenious aspects of the Professor Butts cartoons is that the Professor himself is never drawn into them. he is mentioned in the text at the right, usually deriving inspiration for a new creation from a screwball accident, such as sleepwalking across a field of cacti. 

In my next post tomorrow, I'll delve more into the aesthetic, cultural, and technical perfection of the Professor Butts cartoons and share more examples. 

And don't forget -- be sure to visit the official Rube Goldberg Machine Contest to see some of this year's finalists and winners! 

More of Rube Goldberg's  Rube Goldberg Machine Cartoons:

That is All,
Screwball Paul Tumey

Monday, April 29, 2013

Rube Goldberg Machine For Testing Liquor In 1930s Prohibition America

Here's a rare 1930 Rube Goldberg invention cartoon to celebrate this year's Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. Check back every day this week for more  Rube Goldberg machines!

Since the 1950s, various groups of smart, resourceful, and  wonderfully geeky university students have built Rube Goldberg machines in competition with each other.

The official Rube Goldberg Machine Contest for 2013 is sponsored by Rube Goldberg, Inc. and presents the challenge of making the most ingeniously complex device to accomplish the simple task of hammering a nail. In addition to the live competitions, there's also an online contest. You can visit the official online contest page, which goes live May 1, 2013, by clicking here.

You'll be able to see this year's entries and cast your vote for your favorite. Your vote will count in the "People's Choice" category for this year, which will be announced May 10, 2013.

I'll be posting a rare Rube Goldberg invention cartoon every day this week to celebrate the occasion!

In case you don't know, Rube Goldberg was a real guy. He was a very famous cartoonist in his day. Rube made tens of thousands of great cartoons, mostly forgotten today -- but his invention cartoons continue to appeal and inspire us today. His first invention cartoon appeared in 1914. Rube had attended engineering and mining school in California, but his true love was cartooning -- so it made perfect sense that he would spoof the detailed engineering diagrams and complicated devices of the day in his cartoons.

Today's cartoon comes from 1930, and offer's Rube's idea for a Rube Goldberg Machine to test liquor. Note, in the text, the clever pun made with the word "jack," which was a slang word for liquor.

Rube Goldberg Machine - May 14, 1930

Why would anyone need to test liquor? Well -- from 1919 to 1933, it was illegal to make, transport, and sell alcoholic beverages, although drinking them was OK. The movement was called "Prohibition." The idea was to make our country a more healthy and sane place, but actually the laws (which included a gol-darned Constitutional Amendment) led to the rise of organized crime in the United States. Another result to pour from this movement was that rivers of homemade and poor quality alcohol circulated widely through the country and its citizen's bloodstreams. It was actually dangerous to consume this "bathtub gin," and many people suffered for their pleasure from liver damage, brain damage, and even loss of eyesight. It's this very problem that Rube lightly commented on in 1930. Here's another cartoon from the same year, offering some further screwball solutions:

Rube Goldberg's Ideas for Coping with Prohibition in 1930

The 1930 Rube Goldberg Liquor Tester Machine is relatively simple, as they go, with only 8 steps. It does, however involve a cat willing to drink booze and a mouse with the fortitude to remain within pouncing range of said feline. This year's online Rube Goldberg Machine Contest entrants will very likely offer devices with more steps, but lacking the inclusion of animals -- something Rube delighted in putting into his cartoons, as we'll see this week -- be sure to check back every day this week for MORE Rube Goldberg Machine Cartoons!

Raising My Glass to the Great Rube Goldberg,
Paul Tumey

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The First Dave's Delicatessen by Milt Gross - 1931

Here's the very first Dave's Delicatessen Sunday by that inimitable achiever of screwballosity, Milt Gross. 

Dave's Delicatessen ran as a Sunday from June 7, 1931 to January 13, 1935. It was accompanied by the toppers Count Screwloose (an abbreviated version of an earlier full page incarnation) and That's My Pop. The comic also ran as a daily strip from July 13, 1931 to August 5, 1933. Here's three examples of the daily:

The basic idea of the strip was that Dave ran a Jewish deli and each episode featured a different eccentric character or characters coming across Dave's path. It was a toned-down, inverted variation on Milt Gross' theme of insanity in everyday life. Where Papa Feitelbaum in Nize Baby over-reacted in crazy ways, Dave is always grounded in a world of crazy characters. In his previous Sunday pages, Nize Baby (1926-1929) and Count Screwloose of Tooloose (1929-1931), Gross created epics in miniature around the comedy of escalation. You can read some of these operas of comic destruction and frustration  in these postings:

Why Don't He Twitt: An Insane 1928 Milt Gross Nize Baby

The Escalated Hypocrisy of Milt Gross' Count Screwloose

Dave's Delicatessen moved to a different, more subdued rhythm -- but saying a Milt Gross strip is subdued  is a little like saying a half dozen bottle rockets is not as explosive as a roman candle. In his new strip, Gross -- ever the growing artist -- challenged himself with moving from episodic to narrative humor. While each episode of Dave's Delicatessen remains a single unit with very little continuity, Gross often presented entire little compressed stories with a beginning, middle, and end -- all worked into a single Sunday page.

Such is the case with the very first 18-panel episode of Dave's Delicatessen, in which Dave is completely conned by two silly swindlers. It's a brilliant debut, jam-packed with Gross' visual and verbal play, oddballs, and goofy scenes -- such as in panel 8, in which a woman shoplifts a sausage with a expanding grabber thingie protruding from the pocket of her socialite dress.

The first Dave's Delicatessen by Milt Gross
June 7, 1931
(courtesy of Carl Linich)

Look at how, in the last panel, Gross makes the mug shot book unrealistically gigantic -- allowing us, the reader, to see what it is. This sort of freedom to expertly stray from one-on-one representation reveals the true mastery of Gross. While Dave's Delicatessen doesn't provide as many visual pyrotechnics as his earlier strips, it does offer some of the most stuffed comics ever -- and belongs among the greatest of Milt Gross' achievements.

Many thanks to Carl Linich, who provided this beautiful paper scan from his own collection.

All the Best,
Paul Tumey

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Harvey Kurtzman's Pigtales for Parkinson's - Sizzling Screwball Comics From 1946!

Ya gotta admit: cartoon pigs are funny. One of the undisputed masters of screwball comics is Harvey Kurtzman, who certainly seemed to appreciate the comedic possibilities of porcine antics. In today's post, I've snuffled out the rare, first Kurtzman Pigtales story that sits like a truffle in the mud of Timely's lackluster golden age humor comics.

If you like the Pigtales comic below, you can buy the entire series of six in a digitally restored ebook (in cbr format) for only $3.00 (please allow 24 hours for email delivery as I sending these out manually to keep the cost low).

Here's the Table of Contents page from the ebook:

You'll also get links to download FREE .cbr viewers for PC and Mac.

Kurtzman's work stands in direct lineage from screwball masters Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross and Bill Holman (with a little Jack Cole thrown in). Kurtzman's work has the skewed perspective, exaggerated action, and zany energy found in screwball comics. It also has the characteristic compression of information, with jokes buried within jokes. In the early 1950s, Kurtzman's MAD brought self-awareness to American pop culture and profoundly influenced generations of creative minds, including art spiegelman and Robert Crumb.

I won't attempt a recap of Kurztman's career and influence, here. There's a few books out there that do a pretty good job of that, especially The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics by Dennis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (New York: Abrams Comic Arts, 2009) - which currently (April 2013) is available from Amazon for a bargain price of $18 (regularly $45).

Most fans of Kurtzman's comics know about his wonderful early surreal Hey Look! one-pagers, and a few folks even have the excellent 1992 Kitchen Sink collection (long out of print). Here's a color paper scan from Willie Comics #7 (Timely, April 1947).

Harvey Kurtzman loved drawing pigs. From Willie Comics #7  (April 1947)
It's always been fascinating to me to consider that the editor who bought and published these experimental-type comics was none other than Marvel mogul Stan Lee. That's right, before he hooked up with William Gaines at E.C. Comics and created MAD (as well as Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and a stream of brilliant and under-appreciated science fiction comics) Harvey Kurtzman did humor comics for Marvel/Timely under the editorship of Stan Lee. Talk about a study in contrast! Still, it's great that Lee gave Kurtzman this early outlet and encouraged his development.

Eventually, Stan Lee imposed his editorial control over Kurtzman with the Rusty stories, a dismal Blondie knock-off that Kurtzman -- professional that he was -- dutifully created for nearly a year before he jumped ship and eventually found E.C. Comics. Here's a couple of pages from a Rusty story, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Harvey Kurtzman.

Well, you get the idea. When Kurtzman drew the Hey Look! pig- piggybank one-pager above, he may have been thinking of his Pigtales series, which in the last half of 1946. As forgotten as Rusty, the Pigtales stories are worth rooting out, because they are both written and drawn by Kurtzman and show him working out some of the self-reflexive concepts and graphic treatments that would get so crispy and tasty in his later work.

The Pigtales stories appeared in extremely obscure Timely humor titles like All Surprise and Krazy Komics. Below is the very first episode featuring Homer and Hickstaff, from Kid Movie Comics #11 (June 1946).

As you hoof thru this story, notice how Kurtzman is artfully playing with self-awareness as humor. Homer and Hickstaff know they are only lines on paper, and encourage us to see them that way. Essentially, this is a science fiction premise: what if characters drawn on paper were sentient beings? The logical conclusion is that they would be painfully aware of their own limitations as ink on paper, and yet they also posses unlimited potential to go anywhere and do anything:

Carefully considered, the spiral that winds back on itself that is a pig's tail makes a fitting visual metaphor for Kurtzman's approach to humor, which also winds back on itself.

Kurtzman's figures in the 1946 Pigtales have the form, but not the total verve they would assume in later years. Compare the above pages with this visually sophisticated 1949 Hey Look! page:

from Patsy Walker 22 (May 1949)

Here's a rare WWII 1944 Kurtzman cover from his army days that recently surfaced (and as of this writing on April 7 2013 is still available on ebay here). You can see the little heavily outlined blobby figures in this piece have the same playful presentation as Homer and Hickstaff, once again carrying the awareness that they are only lines on paper.

As an army Private, Kurtzman drew this cover for the Camp Sutton, North Carolina base paper

As another example of the embryonic early style of Kurtzman, here's what is believed to be Kurtzman's first professional job in comics, a one-pager than ran on the inside front cover of Four Favorites #8, published in May, 1945. Notice the exaggerated perspective from above and below -- the very same visual approach we see in the Pigtales stories a couple of years later.

Kurtzman's first pro comics page? From Four Favorites #8 (Ace, May, 1945)

In all, Kurtzman wrote and drew six curly Pigtales stories. In the six months he worked on these stories, his art and storytelling style grew richer and more confident. here's a page from the last published story, from December, 1946 where he hams it in fine style:

Page 5 of Kurtzman's last Pigtales story, from Krazy Komics #25 (December 1946)

If you enjoyed the Pigtales story in this post, you might like to pork over three measly bucks and get the whole run. These ain't easy to find, and they are a lotta fun to read. You also get a BONUS section of goodies:

-  Four Giggles and Grins pages which feature nine surreal, silly, color Kurtzman gag cartoons
- The complete rare 5-page Rusty story excerpted in this blog - by Stan Lee and Harvey Kurtzman
- Eight rare Hey Look! page scans from their original color comics publications

I hope you'll go for it, as these fine Pigtales deserve to be re-read. But mainly I hope you'll go for this because I could really use the three bucks -- hoo ha!

Actually, all proceeds from this ebook sale will be donated to the National Parkinson Foundation in honor of Harvey Kurtzman, who suffered from Parkinson's Disease.

Note: This is not connected with any organization -- it's just a little thing I'm doing on my own. I don't expect we'll sell many at all -- other ebooks I'm associated with sell about two or three a month, so it's a pretty small amount we're talking here -- but even so ... it's something.

National Parkinson Foundation

Harvey Kurtzman's Pigtales for Parkinson's
55 page ebook delivered as a download link via email for only $3.00

(please allow 24 hours for delivery as this is a true rinky-dink one-man operation and I'll be manually emailing this to you to keep the costs down on the product):

Yours in all things Screwball,
Paul Tumey