Friday, December 20, 2013

Hear Rube Goldberg Sing! (1917)

Presenting the earliest known recording, by far, of Rube Goldberg's voice. In 1917, Rube Goldberg sang on a record. The song, which he also wrote, was "Father Was Right." I'm pleased to present this rare recording to you, with some background information.

At the time he made this novelty record, Rube Goldberg was 35 and one of the the most respected and beloved cartoonists in America. His fame and widespread popular acceptance allowed him to expand his talent and humor beyond the printed page. In 1910, he started a five-year career as a stage performer on the east coast Vaudeville circuit.  He appeared as himself, and drew cartoons to amuse audiences. In 1914, he produced, wrote, and starred (again, as himself) in a Vitagraph film, "He Danced Himself to Death."

Rube also had a musical side. In 1912, he published "I'm the Guy," a popular song that was based on his hit comic strip of the same name. In the years that followed, Rube would write and publish many songs. Some of these were recorded by name artists, such as Rosemary Clooney (who recorded "Willie the Whistling Giraffe" in 1951, a song co-written by Rube Goldberg and C.F. Patterson -- the wife of Rube's friend and fellow cartoonist Russell Patterson ).
January 4, 1918 -- This advertisement featured Rube's record

The only known instance of Rube himself creating a commercial recording of one of his songs is the 1917 Pathé record, "Father Was Right." The actual sheet music was published in 1916, and featured original Rube Goldberg cartoons:

Front cover of sheet music by Rube Goldberg (courtesy Robert Beerbohm)

Back cover of sheet music by Rube Goldberg (courtesy Robert Beerbohm)
The song was based on Rube's cartoon series, "Father Was Right," which he rotated through his daily cartoon space in newspapers with several other series and one-shot comic strips. Rube had a special relationship with his father, Max. His mother died when Rube was very young, and his father, a banker and later the sheriff of San Francisco, raised Rube and his siblings on his own. Rube stayed close to his Dad all his life, visiting often and calling upon him to negotiate his business deals and syndicate contracts.

(April 3, 1918, from the collection of Paul Tumey)
The strip followed the same basic formula each time. In panel one, a father provides his son with sound practical advice. The son ignores it, gets into comical trouble, and in the last panel he comes to realize that "father was right!"

The irony of the strip is that Rube's father wanted his cartoon-crazy son to become a mining engineer, and put him through the University of California for that purpose. Max felt that an engineer was a secure and good living. Upon Rube's graduation, Max pulled some strings and git him a job working the City of San Francisco, designing their sewer system (imagine that!). After six months, Rube could no longer contain himself and squirted out of his well-paying job into a career as a newspaper cartoonist at a substantially reduced salary -- in effect ignoring his father's career advice. Of course, you know the rest of the story -- Rube became a huge success. In fact, when he recorded "Father Was Right" in 1918, he had a millionaire's salary, in today's money.

The "Father Was Right" comic strip saw heavy rotation in 1917 and 1918. Rube also created a companion strip, "Mother Was Right." This one ran much less often. "Mother Was Right" was always drawn in silhouettes -- the only strip in which Rube Goldberg used this visual approach. Perhaps it was Rube's way of acknowledging his mother, Hannah, who had tragically passed away at age forty-four when he only nine years old. 

The 1917 Pathé recording of Rube singing is priceless. We are indebted to "MusicBoxBoy," the collector who made this available at YouTube. Unfortunately, Rube was recorded poorly, and the production standards for making the Pathé discs were considerably less than perfect. However, with some concentration, it's not too hard to make out the words Rube is singing-talking. 

It's worth the effort to listen closely through the hiss and pops, because Rube delivers a richly comic performance. He's not a trained singer, and the song lacks aesthetic beauty -- but as comedy, it's golden. Rube adds a layer of humor beyond the funniness of the lyrics by starting out with a great, big, rude, mock throat clearing. Between verses, he repeats the throat clearing, at one point muttering an aside: "I'm suffering as much as you." Then, the act of saying this has thrown his timing off and he stops in mid-word, and says dryly, "wrong again" and waits until the music comes around the right place before he starts in on the last verse.

We can also spot Rube recycling some of his material as he uses a verse from this song in his October 11, 1926 daily strip, shown below. Luke, of "Luke and His Uke" usurps a piano performance of a Beethoven composition, as he sings: "His wife's relations came to eat/In droves of tens and eights/And so he said, "I guess I married/The whole United States." A person in the audience exclaims, 'Wot a talent!" Rube may have been poking fun at himself with this in-joke, since his one commercial performance as a singer, while quite funny, probably never made Caruso break out in a sweat.

Cartoon Follies of 1926 by Rube Goldberg (October 11, 1926)

All in all, this is a wonderful find, and I'm pleased to bring it to you. Herewith, without "father" ado,  is Rube Goldberg's 1917 recording of his song, "Father Was Right," with the lyrics transcribed below. 

Written and Sung by Rube Goldberg (Pathé Records, 1917)

[Clears throat]
When I told my Dad 
That I made up my mind to wed
"Pick out a girl," he said
"Whose relatives are dead."
Little did I know the wisdom of my dear old Dad
I didn't wed an orphan,
But I wish to the Lord I had!
Father was right
Father was right
My wife has cousins by the dozen
(line garbled)
They all get here at supper time 
And bring their appetites
They wear out all our spoons and plates
They come in droves of tens and eights
I married the whole United States --
Father was right!

(Throat clearing - aside: "It's getting worse")
One day I told my Dad I'd like to own a motorcar
He puffed on his cigar
And said, "You won't go far"
I bought a car to show him that I knew a thing or two
I said goodbye and turned the crank 
And that's the last I knew...
Father was right
Father was right
Now my flivver* has my liver
Twisted out of sight
And when I hear an auto horn
I want to start a fight
My back is stiffer than a board
The springs have cut me like a sword
Does anyone want to buy a Ford?
Father was right!

(Throat clearing. Aside: "I'm suffering as much as you")
One day I -- (realizes he is out of synch with music - Aside: "Wrong again")
Father said move to the country where the zephyr blows
For quiet and repose
Where they have no picture shows
Now I know that father wasn't talking through his hat
There's a moving picture theater right beneath our little flat!
Father was right
Father was right
Now my family's at the movies morning noon and night
My wife's so used to darkness, I'm afraid to make a light
Her only friends are on the screen
Instead of good old Pork and Beans
She seized me movie magazine (?)
(clears throat) Ahem! Father was right

*Early 20th century slang for a car that delivers a rough ride

(Throat clearing) In -- ahem -- other news, the new book THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG (which has my editing and writing in it) has been getting gangbusters press and flying off the shelves. It's appeared on numerous top 10 lists. This little-known little rag called The New York Times did a wonderful piece on the book, which includes a very clever and fun video they made especially for the online article. It's great to see Rube in the public eye again!

That is All,
Screwball Paul

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ving Fuller's Screwball Radio Ads (1944-46)

Ving Fuller is what you get when you turn a hustling American entrepreneur into a screwball cartoonist.

I never cease to be amazed at the number and variety of schemes the man created to sell his cartoons. While he successfully placed cartoons in the nation's leading magazines and newspapers, Fuller didn't settle for this, and hustled his way into many other markets, including animated films for Glen Bray, movies, and advertising. He even made (and patented) a toy and sold it through his comic strips.

Fuller never broke big with a comic strip property. He came close in 1934 when he created the first Betty Boop related comic, but appears to have been stymied by a legal snafu. He tried again a few years later in 1939 when he drew Elza Poppin, a comic strip loosely named after a smash Broadway and film screwball hit, Hellzapoppin. Ving lost the job after six months (according to one story, he attempted to sue the owners of the play for royalties on the strip, and was thrown out of court and a job) and he was replaced after six months by fellow screwballist George "Swan" Swanson (Salesman Sam)

Ving finally had success with his 15-year old comic strip, Doc Syke (1945-1960) but it remained on the fringes of newspaper comics, hopping from syndicate to syndicate. Ving constantly tinkered with the strip to make it sell better, even going so far as to re-tool the strip in the early 1950s to become a doppelganger of the then new Peanuts comic strip by Charles Shulz. 

Cartoonist Ving Fuller and brother Sam Fuller (yes, the famous filmmaker) at a cartoonist's dinner, c. 1940s
As a persistent media archaeologist, my never-ending search for Ving Fuller material is rewarded more often than I'd expect. His eccentric cartoon art turns up in the oddest places. Such as in a 1940s radio trade magazine. I recently discovered a series of about two dozen delightfully screwy comic strips by Ving Fuller promoting advertising time to media buyers ("timebuyers") for the New York radio station WOV.

BROADCASTING featured several full-page trade ads with Ving Fuller's comics in the mid-1940s
A lot of the ads in this magazine used cartoon art, but none of it was one-tenth as screwball (or interesting) and Fuller's work. The earliest example I found is from August, 1944:

Ving Fuller comic from BROADCASTING (August 23, 1944)
The image at the top reminds me a little of Basil Wolverton, in that Fuller is making comedy out of an ugly character. The juxtaposition of a photo with the line art is also attention-getting, in a goofy way. Fuller's WOV ads were aimed at people who worked for advertising agencies. Many of these agencies provided clever creative print and radio ads to their clients, and so it was necessary to use the same sort of offbeat, hip advertising to gain their attention and win their confidence. In this work, Fuller sits firmly (if obscurely) in the tradition of Rube Goldberg, Dr. Seuss and Virgil Partch, iconoclastic cartoon stylists who provided their services to the world of print advertising.

Unlike Goldberg, Seuss, or Partch, Fuller was not necessarily a "name" cartoonist. He wasn't associated with a popular newspaper character (although he does work in his character Doc Syke into one of the ads). This meant that he had work even harder to make the ads funny and entertaining -- while at the same time promoting "timebuying" opportunities. This was no easy feat, and sometimes his ads were a little soft, although the cartooning was -- as always -- authentic and pleasingly nutty:

Ving Fuller comic from BROADCASTING (October 23, 1944)

Apparently, someone at WOV liked Fuller's work. They hired him for about two years and made him the star of their trade campaign, as this squib from the December 10th, 1945 issue of Broadcasting shows:

BROADCASTING (December 10, 1945)

Ving Fuller was as iconoclastic in his own profession as his more famous brother, Sam, was in his profession as a film director. What is really interesting to me about Fuller is that his sense of humor is as offbeat as his schemes for selling his cartoon art. Here's a wonderfully weird example:

Ving Fuller comic from BROADCASTING (October 22, 1945)

Here's another delightfully wacky example. Note the golf course gopher humor -- decades before Caddyshack.

Ving Fuller comic from BROADCASTING (November 25, 1946)
And here's a smokin' idea for a four-pipe, er, four-PANEL strip. Check out the array of crazy pipes in the background, and the "P.S." gag in panel one.
Ving Fuller comic from BRAODCASTING (October 28, 1946)

The last example in the series that I can find is, in some ways, the wackiest of them all, with the artist putting himself into the trade ad. Perhaps Fuller knew his contract wouldn't be renewed, and so he decided to wring a little self-promotion out of the piece.

Ving Fuller comic from BROADCASTING (December 23, 1946)

It could be that mentioning his name in his comics turned into an in-joke. I haven't seen enough of Fuller's daily and Sunday comics to know for sure. However, I have run across a sequence in Al Capp's Li'l Abner from 1959 that features Ving Fuller's name. Abner is excited that to become "a highly paid cartoonist like "Ving Fuller or Walt Kelly!"
Al Capp's LI'L ABNER plugs Ving Fuller (September 12, 1959)

Al Capp's LI'L ABNER plugs Ving Fuller (December 14, 1958)

This is your friendly neighborhood media archeaologist, Paul "A Real Screwball" Tumey, signing off!

All text copyright 2013 Paul Tumey. My work may not be reproduced or used without written permission. Sorry, but that's the way it is. Feel free to link to this article and promote me, however. If enough of you readers promote me, I may someday become a highly paid writer, like Ving Fuller!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Rube Abides: Thanksgiving 1915

In 1915, Rube Goldberg was on fire as a creator. The satirical subjects and the grotesque imagery that he poured into his ever-shifting kaleidoscopic array of daily comics from about 1915-1917 are among his best work.

Astonishingly, nay... shockingly, most of these great comics have not appeared in print or screen since their original appearances, nearly 100 years ago. How can this be?

A dream project would be to reprint the complete 1915-1917 daily comics of Rube Goldberg, in sequence. It is only then that this seminal screwball master will assume his rightful place in culture as something more than the guy who made goofy, over-complicated inventions to accomplish something trivial. Aside from that, it would be pure fun to read such a collection. I have managed to gather most of the daily comics from 1915 to 1917 in their original published form, and I can assure you that almost every day offers something delightful.

As I write this, it is the weekend of the Thanksgiving of 2013. In between cooking and attending to guests, I have found a few minutes to dig into the archives and sift out Rube's comic for Thanksgiving, 1915. It's a delicious main course, presenting a turkey-carving training school that Rube calls "The Ambidextrous Society."

November 25, 1915 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Note that the students are training to carve the turkey left-handed. Rube himself was ambidextrous. He drew with his right hand, but golfed as a lefty. In fact, he published a humorous essay in 1924 called. "Left Handed Golf Courses: Our Greatest Need."

What makes the cartoon above succeed, as far as I am concerned, is the strong composition. The carvers almost look a like machine assembly line. Look at the face and body language of each of the seven men in the strip -- each is different, unique, and funny. When you read the text in the speech balloon and the signs on the wall, it presents a dryly understated comedy that contrasts with the extreme visual-physical comedy of the drawing. This contrast provides a richer reading experience, with two styles of humor offered.

Rube had a 16 x 13 inch space to fill Monday through Saturday. This is a lot of room, practically the space allotted in newspaper fifty years later for ALL of their daily comics. While he had some series, such as "Foolish Questions," and "Father Was Right," that he would repeat sporadically, Rube also drew numerous one-shot comics. Sometimes they were a large single panel, and other times times they were broken up into a complex matrix of panels, or smaller comic strips. To add to our main course, here are two tasty Goldberg side dishes from the month of November, 1915 -- picked almost at random:

November 6, 1915 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

November 26, 1915 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Pretty swell stuff, if you ask me. And -- certainly worth a second life, especially in this golden age of comics publishing.

Speaking of comic publishing, the new book THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG, selected by Jennifer George that has just been published is doing well. I feel so honored to have been a part of that project. It's charting as a #1 bestseller on Amazon in the Comics and Manga category. Legendary mail order guru and tastemaker Bud Plant (visit his site, here) featured it in his latest email catalog and gave it a "highly recommended" note (thanks, Bud!). I've been buying books and comics from Bud Plant since the 1970s, so it's truly a thrill to be in his catalog!

Here's some other cool links related to the book:

'Art of Rube Goldberg' More Than Crazy Contraptions -- LA Times (I'm gratified to see they got the book's goal to show ALL of Rube's work, including the celebrated invention cartoons)

Design Books by Chipp Kidd -- The Wall Street Journal (I'm excited to see that two of the six books Mr. Kidd recommends have my work in them -- The Art of Rube Goldberg and Society Is Nix.)

Photos from the book party for The Art of Rube Goldberg (with Jennifer George, Al Jaffee, Brian Walker, and Andrew Baron in attendance)

Pinterest Board for The Art of Rube Goldberg (with lots of gems plucked from my archives)

A TV interview with Jennifer George (Rube Goldberg's granddaughter and the author of The Art of Rube Goldberg)

The book also received favorable short reviews in Wired and Boing Boing.

That is All (for now),
Paul Tumey

Friday, November 15, 2013

Rube Goldberg's Drawing Board, My Feet, and The New Book

It's official! The deluxe, super-sized book, THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG is available for purchase wherever fine books are sold!

After two days on the market, the book has skyrocketed to the #1 bestseller in Amazon's "Comics and Manga" section!

I personally am very proud of this volume, having put a lot of work into it. I am greatly honored to be a part of this project. The book contains three essays by me, and about 25% of the contents come from material I supplied.  I helped select much of the contents and wrote at least half the captions, some of which are little mini essays in themselves. I also created all of the back matter: a Rube comicography, bibliography, and timeline -- all of which are by far the most complete and accurate versions available.

But that's just a part of this huge project. There's also original essays about Rube and work by the legendary Al Jaffee, comics historian (and writer of the Hi and Lois comic strip ) Brian Walker, Sunday Press curator Peter Maresca, comics scholar and collector Carl Linich and  more. The best stuff are the essays by Rube's granddaughter (and the books author) Jennifer George -- you get a sense of Rube as a person more than anything else that has ever been written on him. And the whole package is thoughtfully assembled and beautifully produced by the great folks at Abrams, led by Charles Kochman.

There's a ton of comics, art, and photos in this book. In fact, there's some spectacular photography by Geoff Spear, who you may know from other fabulous books like Chipp Kidd's Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Shulz. In one page, we see Spear's photo of Rube's drawing table. The lighting and angle of view reveal the many indentations and scars created from over 65 years of use.

My own photo of Rube's drawing table, taken in New York. You can see the arm of the futon frame in the photo.

I actually got to see this drawing table when I spent a week in New York City in August of 2012 working on this book. Jennifer George graciously put me up at her place for a few nights and this drawing board is in her living room. I asked Jennifer how long Rube used this table for, thinking that perhaps it just one of many he had. She said, "As I understand, this was the one." And indeed, you can see the very same drawing table in early photos of Rube. This historical cultural treasure was located at the foot of the futon on which I slept. On occasion, during the nights I slept there, I would stretch my legs in my sleep and my bare toes came into contact with the surface of Rube's drawing board. I remember waking up a few times with an electric jolt when I realized I was barefooting Rube Goldberg's drawing table. Sorry, Rube!

I personally am very proud of this volume, having put a lot of work into it. When I was 14 years old, I read Peter Marzio's book, Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work (Harper and Row, 1973).  Unlike most folks who associate Rube Goldberg with nutty inventions, I imprinted upon his inexhaustible fountain of creativity and lyrical smart-assness. To me, the spirit in which Rube created his comics is in direct lineage with the same spirit that inspired the Underground Comix of the 1960s and 1970s, and the self-published Newave comics of the 1980s and 1990s. Many people can trace the cultural lineage of these modern comics movements back to Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman and the Mad gang, but rarely further back. Rube Goldberg, who started his cartooning career in 1904, is just too far back in the mists of time for most folks to see his connection to comics today - but it's there, make no mistake. After all, Harvey Kurtzman drew Rube's characters Mike and Ike on city sidewalks when he was growing up -- his first cartoons.

Smile, boys! Paul Tumey (r) with Carl Linich (l) to sift through the Jennifer George archives and extract gems for THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG. Oh, if I could only share with you all of the great stuff I saw!

It doesn't help that there has never been a decent book on Rube Goldberg that presented his work in all its varied richness and brilliance. When Rube was alive there were only a scant handful of books that reprinted just a tiny fraction of his comics, such as the 1909 Foolish Questions book. After his death, the emphasis has been on his invention cartoons. These cartoons are indeed brilliant and sell books -- but to just present this part of Rube's work to the public is like only showing the world Picasso's Cubist works. There's so much more to explore, appreciate, and embrace. There's never been a book that attempted to cover all aspects of Rube's career -- until now. The Art of Rube Goldberg has a healthy sampling of the inventions, but there's tons of other cartoons, photos, articles, and items that reveal the fullness of this astonishing body of highly influential work.

A few months ago, to help promote the book, I created a three-minute video using some of the great art to be found in the pages of this extraordinary compendium. For the music, I used an old Public Domain 78 recording of a song that Rube Goldberg actually wrote, "I'm The Guy." The publisher, Abrams, liked the video, but didn't want to give away so much yet about the contents, so the project was shelved. Now that the volume is officially released, and on the market, I'd like to share this video with the loyal readers of this blog. Enjoy!

That is all,
Screwball Paul

All text and proprietary photos copyright 2013 Paul Tumey.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Week of Rube Goldberg's 1918 Comics Featuring Mike and Ike

In just a few days from the time this post is being written, the brand new, deluxe art book entitled The Art of Rube Goldberg (selected by Jennifer George, Abrams ComicArts, 2013 will be available for purchase. As my friend and colleague in the book's creation, Carl Linich recently put it, "There has never been such a rich and thoroughly representative collection of Rube's work."

The book contains hundreds of rare cartoons and art by Rube Goldberg -- the majority of which have not seen the light of day since their original appearances as much as 100 years ago. There's also lots of cool photos, original art, and items selected from the Goldberg family archives.

This large, thick compendium is stuffed with work from many gifted folks, including some wonderful essays from Jennifer George, Rube's grand-daughter (and the CEO of Rube Goldberg, Inc.). There's an in-depth intro (not just a puff piece) by world-famous arty guy Adam Gopnick, and original essays created just for this book by comics legend Al Jaffee, Brian Walker, Pete Maresca (of Sunday Press), Carl Linich, and Andrew Baron (who created the book's paper engineered movable art cover).

I am quite proud of my own contributions to the book. In addition to doing some editing work on it (with Charles Kochman), and wrangling about a quarter of the book's content, I was able to buckle down and do some serious writing and comics scholarship on this bad boy. The book contains my essay exploring his Foolish Questions cartoon panel and my essay on his 1916 animated cartoon series. It also contains my 12-page survey of Rube Goldberg's comic strips of the 1920s and 1930s, "Restless Storyteller."

The book also contains my Rube Goldberg Timeline, list of his comic strips (this took 3 months of intense daily work to research, and I probably still missed some comics), and a list of his published writings. I've been studying and writing about comics for years, and this marks my first "big time" publication. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to be a part of it!

Paul Tumey beams, holding a copy of The Art of Rube Goldberg

I plan to write a column about the making of the book and some things I've learned about Rube Goldberg and comics in the next installment of Framed!, my monthly column at The Comics Journal. You can see a nice preview of several interior pages from the book, here

As jam-packed with screwball comic goodness as The Art of Rube Goldberg is, there's a lot of great material and ideas for sections that we weren't able to get in, due to space restrictions. One idea we wanted to do was to reprint a entire week of Rube Goldberg dailies. The idea was to recreate for our readers the Monday-through-Saturday context of Rube's work -- which has been largely lost. From 1909 to 1927, Rube's daily comic strip featured something new and different every day. He had a number of series, such as Mike and Ike, Foolish Questions, and The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies' Club, that he rotated,  more or less randomly (although the The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies' Club did actually run on Tuesdays). Today, when we think of a comic strip, we automatically think of a continuing series with continuing characters, like Nancy, Pogo, L'il Abner, Popeye, Blondie, Dilbert, Garfield, and so on. Rube Goldberg was different. From Monday through Saturday for years, he filled his rectangular space on the newspaper page with a dazzling variety and comic richness that remains unmatched. For the most part, Rube didn't create his comics around characters, but instead around ideas -- such as our confounding propensity to ask questions when the answer is right in front of us.

Because most books on Rube, The Art of Rube Goldberg included, present a selection of his comics and not the whole she-bang, the impact of Rube's kaleidoscopic komedy is lost. It's only a matter of time before a savvy publisher reprints a full year of Rube's work, and people will realize just how inventive this cartoon genius was. In the meantime, here is an "outtake" from The Art of Rube Goldberg, a full week's run from the first week in April, 1918, created from paper scans of items in my own collection. 

For much of 1918, Rube featured in his daily strips, his dubious doppelgangers, Mike and Ike. These are perhaps Rube's longest-lived characters, having been created for Rube's very first Sunday comic in 1907, The Look-a-Like Boys. Later in 1918 -- after our sample week -- Rube dabbled with the idea of continuity in 1918 (something I wasn't aware of when I wrote my essay about his continuity comics for the book -- it was only when I purchased a set of strips from 1918, after the essay was already completed and sent to the printers,  that I realized this), sending the boys to Europe to fight in the last days of World War One. Here, we have perhaps the quintessential example of the strip, with the boys running to meet their elusive maker so they can finally learn their true identities-- an early comic strip version of Waiting For Godot. Note the date: April 1, 1918.

Monday: April 1, 1918 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

On the next day, Rube offered an installment of The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies' Club. This large, single panel cartoon ran on Tuesdays from May 1, 1917 to September 27, 1921 (I'm proud to be able to offer this date range -- it took me days of research to figger dis out!). There's a large section of this lost gem from Rube's oeuvre in The Art of Rube Goldberg, introduced by his grand-daughter, Jennifer George. The strip is one of Jennifer's favorites, and mine too. 

Rube developed his new strip from his observations of his new bride's social gatherings. By today's standards, some of the gags might be considered insulting to women, but in actuality, they are simply insulting to silly, stupid people. Nearly everything Rube created falls into that category. 

The example below is typical: a meeting in which the Ladies have invited a guest to enlighten them upon a subject. In this case, it's constitutional law. To fully appreciate this strip, it's important to realize that the United State's Women's Suffrage Movement was going full-strength  in 1918. President Wilson had proposed that American women should be allowed to vote (the measure didn't pass until 1920). So, part of the joke here is that the Ladies are preparing themselves to soon cast their first votes. 

On another note, pay attention to the various silly names of people and things: Professor Stall, Bink vs. Bink, and so on. This is one of the pleasure of reading Rube Goldberg, who had an ear for nonsense sounds like few other cartoonists.

Lastly, note that this Tuesday strip offers an entirely different layout than the Monday strip. In fact, the Tuesday offering is actually comprised of two different comics. Slackers was a panel series that Rube created regularly during this period. Often, there's a thematic connection between the comics in Rube's sub-divided properties. In this case, both strips offer perspectives on the battle for power between the sexes. 

Tuesday: April 2, 1918 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

On the following day, Rube created an episode of Father Was Right,  yet another of his randomly presented series. This series ran sporadically from 1915 to 1921. Rube had a close and admiring relationship with his father, Max Goldberg. Thus, once again, we see that Rube drew from his own life to develop his comic properties. Note also that, once again, we have an entirely different layout concept from the previous two days. Monday offers a straight-no-chaser 5-panel strip. Tuesday gives us two panel strips, with one being quite large and detailed. Today, we receive two multi-panel comic strips -- one large, one small. The small strip, I Never Thought of That, was also a stock player in Rube's inventory of semi-regular features. Even though neither of these examples in the Wednesday slot are exceptional, they do offer Rube's genuinely funny takes, in panel 5 of Father Was Right, and panel 4 of I Never Thought of That.

Wednesday: April 3, 1918 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

The following day, Thursday, Rube treats us to another Mike and Ike. This time, one tried to get the better of the other, and fails -- as usual. The gag about Mike wearing out his brain trying to figure out the situation in Russia is both a topical reference, and a nicely absurd excuse.
Thursday: April 4, 1918 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Rarely did a week go by in the first half of the twentieth century without a Rube Goldberg invention of some kind appearing in America's newspapers. In addition to the A-B-C chain reaction diagrams, Rube also worked inventions into his work in numerous ways. In his Friday offering, he provides a three panel sequence, demonstrating the use of his "Newsdealer's Cure."

Friday: April 5, 1918 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Rube rounds the week's output off with another Mike and Ike and a classic Goldbergian drawing of an absurd car crash that reminds me of the slow-motion automobile pile-up from Jacques Tati's Traffic.

Saturday: April 6, 1918 (from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Whew! In just one random week, Rube gives us nine different comics in a dizzying variety of layouts that comment on human nature, technology, war, women's rights, and identity itself. You can take similar petri dish samples of Rube Goldberg weeks from other years and get entirely different mixes of different strips and themes, but the creative brilliance is always present!

BONUS! You can read a great interview with Abrams ComicArts' Editorial Director, Charles Kochman (and the co-editor of The Art of Rube Goldberg) here.  The existence of this book is due in large part to Charles Kochman's vision and drive to make it happen.

Rube clip from Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" from March 1959. He is seated with his wife Irma.

Screwballingly and Enthrallingly Yours,
Paul Tumey

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What Is Art? - A Milt Gross Count Screwloose From 1931 Frames The Question

When you ask yourself questions like "what is art," you are probably setting out on the path that leads to the fruitcake factory. Enuff books and articles have been published on this subject to fill several buildings -- and it would appear that we humans are no closer to an answer we can all agree on than we are to finding a use for screen doors on submarines.

Are comics art? I think so -- some comics, at least. The funny thing is that many comics creators (and I'm talking sequential narratives, here) appear to have been aware that their fellow humans regarded their hard work as innately inferior to the stuff that wound up on the walls in galleries. For many -- even today -- reading comics isn't actually reading -- and comics are associated with illiteracy and simple-mindedness. When someone wants to say something is shallow, they say it's "a comic book treatment." These commentators are only betraying their own ignorance -- for comics are an art form that combines words and image into a highly effective language that may be easy to grasp, but is anything but simple to create.

Many comics creators over the decades have used society's disapproval as grist for their mill. Here's a Rube Goldberg cartoon, circa 1915, in which he suggests the best way to view the new abstract and surreal art appearing in galleries and museums.

Rube Goldberg on modern art - circa 1915
(Photograph of original art)

Milt Gross -- who in many ways is the direct artistic and screwball descendant of Goldberg -- also made sport of the idea of art many times. In a 1931 Count Screwloose Sunday page, Milt Gross dissects for us the mechanics behind the social value of art. In this case, a bum who attempts to get a drink in a bar by reciting a poem receives the comic blow of a pool table on the head. When the same bearded bohemian beggar appears at a society ball clad in his hospital sheet, the wealthy party-goers celebrate his "art." The entire absurd -- but all too true -- situation is witnessed by Count Screwloose:

Count Screwloose by Milt Gross - February 22, 1931
The poem the beggar-poet recites is a very popular poem written in the 1830s entitled Abou Ben Adhem. The author, (James Henry) Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was an English poet, essayist, and critic -- and a contemporary of Shelly's. His poem -- a depiction of a Muslim written by a Christian that expresses, in the opinions of some, basic Jewish values was a popular hit. Here's the entire text:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

Gross' inclusion of Hunt's poem, a chestnut by the 1930s, carries an ironic comment on the actions of his characters in the strip -- neither the pool hall ruffians not the society folks actually show any love at all for the beggar himself. Of course, as Sigmund Freud observed, nothing is less funny than analyses of jokes -- so I'll stop here and encourage my readers to simply dig those great, loose drawings in the strip above.

As to the issue of cartoons, art, and such -- I offer this from the great cartoonist Art Young (1866-1943):

"Some day painting will be glorified cartooning... The painter-cartoonist of the future will be an apostle of big ideas... That he will be an artist of pigment and form is, of course, important; but to be a thinking man of vision, helpfulness and courage, will be more important." (from On My Way by Art Young, 1928)

Artfully Yours,
Screwball Paul

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"I Seen Yo' Ad In Dep Paper" - SAM and His Laugh (1905-06): Joyously Subversive

One of my favorite screwball artists is James "Jimmy" Swinnerton (1875-1974). 

Born in Eureka, California. In 1892, Swinnerton began his career as a staff cartoonist for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, where he produced a popular weekly cartoon, The Little Bears (1893-1897). He moved to New York in 1896 to work for Hearst’s Journal-American, where he created Mount Ararat (1901-1904), Mister Jack (1903-1906), and his longest-running strip, Little Jimmy (1904-1958). In 1906,
James Swinnerton contemplates
his self-portrait in 1930
Swinnerton was diagnosed with a fatal case of tuberculosis. His friend and publisher, William Randolph Hearst, sent him to Colton, California, where he recovered and fell in love with the American desert. He became a noted landscape painter and died in Palm Springs, at the age of 98.

The nuttiest of Swinnerton’s early comics is Sam and His Laugh (1905-1906) an infectious series featuring a job-seeking black man who gleefully laughs at the hypocrisy and pomp of society.  While Sam is drawn in the typical black man stereotype common in early 20th century pop culture, it’s clear that Swinnerton sides with him as an instinctive hero of disruption who tears down the walls of social order with a bellylaugh – exactly what humor comics are all about.  

What follows are a few examples of this remarkable strip which art spiegelman has observed works like a laughing record-- 78s  popular in the early 20th century that contained nothing but the sound of someone laughing. It was impossible not to listen to these records without succumbing to laughter. Similarly, it is well nigh impossible to read Swinnerton's SAM comics without smiling.

In this strip, Sam starts out with his customary statement: "I seen yo' ad in dep paper." He finds much joy and amusement in the unintentional truism embedded in a stuffy church hymn.

SAM by Jimmy Swinnerton - 1905
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Sam tries his hand as a waiter. Maybe if he was in a diner, he could keep a straight face, but the pretension of the fancy French menu does him in...

The above comic came from the one and only book collection of Sam strips, a hardcover, 48-page color book published in 1906 by the Hearst outfit (one of several collections they published of their popular comics):

Here is the waiter SAM strip from above, as it was published in the newspaper on March 12, 1905:
Sam  by James Swinnerton - March 12, 1905
In this next strip, Sam loses it over a mis-matched couple's adoration, overheard on a subway train. The man in this strip looks a lot like a Milt Gross character:

SAM by Swinnerton - May 21, 1905

In another train strip, Swinnerton pulls out all the stops and shows us Sam's wife and children -- all of whom share his keen sense of absurdity:

SAM by Swinnerton - November 19, 1905
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)
Though forgotten today, Sam was popular in his time. He gloriously adorned the cover of a 1905 sheet music folio:

You can listen to a 1905 recording of this remarkable song, "There's A Dark man Coming With A Bundle" here:

I'll leave you with one last SAM, which features a portrait of Swinnerton's colleague, cartoonist Rudolph Dirks, who created the hit comic "The Katzenjammer Kids." Note in the last panel that Dirks signed the strip with Swinnerton -- indicating this strip was a "jam."

I am pleased to note that the astounding new book, Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 includes a SAM strip (the very first one!), as well as several other incredible color comics pages by Swinnerton (including more jam pages!). These are all printed in their HUGE original size. You can learn more about this book, which includes over 150 stunning comics, great essays (I wrote one), and lots more here.

Paul Tumey