Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

American wit has the furrowed brow and cautious stance of a boxer. Its affect may be dry, ironic or absurd, but its goal is to lay us among the posies—to cause that ker-plop moment as we absorb its blunt impact.

This hasn’t changed much in the last century. The assault has become harder, fiercer. TV sitcoms, stand-up and mainstream movies pelt us with brute force as they bruise the boundaries of what’s shocking, startling and amusing. Alas, the American comic strip, which has been on life-support for decades, barely manages a feeble swat anymore.

As shown by this, the latest in Sunday Press Books’ vintage American comics reprints, we’re not far removed from the earthy thump of Rube Goldberg. Goldberg is forever linked to his invention cartoons, which still inspire young creators to design what Wikipedia dryly calls “…deliberately complex contraption[s] in which a series of devices that perform simple tasks are linked together to produce a domino effect.” They’re one facet of a long and ambitious comics career that spanned slapstick and melodrama, social commentary and a big Bronx cheer.

The set-up of Foolish Questions, Goldberg’s first successful comic strip series, is familiar to anyone who’s read Al Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” a longtime feature of Mad magazine. Formula: well-meaning person asks painfully obvious question; gets smart-ass reply by deadpan recipient.

Jaffee offered his readers a choice of answers (plus a bonus balloon for them to fill in). Goldberg’s original delivers one haymaker to imbecility—sometimes absurd, sometimes poetic. In one episode, a dope in a top-hat asks a father, “WHY DO YOU CALL YOUR SON “PHILLIP?” The dad’s dry reply: “Because his name is Clarence!” In another, an onlooker inquires of a wild-haired Svengali type: “HYPNOTIZING SOMEONE, PROFESSOR?” No, the man replies; “I’m paving the sidewalk with potato salad.”

This is the one-note samba of Foolish Questions. In daily or weekly installments, the set-up and rejoinder gave newspaper readers a quick, hearty laugh—and might have inspired smart-ass comments when its audience was faced with an inane request.  Like many early comic strips (right up to Schulz’s Peanuts), it suffers from being read in bulk. No offense meant to Goldberg’s work. His answers are varied, inventive and often out-there, but a little goes a long way. This book might best be approached as a banana-peel variant of the I Ching. Read one page a day, absorb four zingers, and be on your merry way.

Goldberg was an ace observational cartoonist, and his drawings reflect the world he lived in. Men’s and women’s fashions, domestic settings, street scenes, tenements and small towns he depicted were common ground for the cartoonist and his audience.  Goldberg’s comics speak of a time and place. Its elements are frozen in time for us to admire and assess in the 21st century.

Rube also drew some of the funniest people in comics history. Pot-bellied, pencil-necked, wall-eyed, bulb-nosed and flat-footed, his lumpen figures command our attention. Their awkward stances, hunched shoulders, light-socket hairdos and frumpy clothes have a riveting effect. Goldberg’s loose scrawl of a style often borders on the crude, but his lines have great life and jump across the decades to remind us of the sweet folly that is mankind.

Augmenting the 1909-1910 series in this book is the philosophical (and more rewarding) What Are You Kicking About? Here, Goldberg swings the mantle of American wit to allay the reader’s self-pity. Chin up, bud.  There's always some poor sap who’s worse off. Though the series’ humor is often misogynistic, these panels have a frequent kick—a street-smart variant on Will Rogers’ philosophical quips.

Goldberg is on the underdog’s side. He shows people trapped in ruts—domestic, social and vocational—and invites us to feel a moment of small compassion. He comments of a care-worn tailor: “Think of this poor vest-maker who hasn’t had a vacation since Lee surrendered!” A brutal scene of two yeggs assaulting and robbing a victim adds a sock in its caption: “Think of this poor deaf and dumb gazink who can’t even yell for help!”

After the star-spangled smart-assery of Foolish Questions, What Are You Kicking About? offers a sobering reversal, and shows the breadth of Goldberg’s comedic vision. Questions’ rejoinders slap the innocent boob in the puss; Kicking looks at people already KOd by life’s follies and asks our empathy for their sheer, sloppy humanity.

Paul Tumey’s introductory essay offers his typically sharp research, informing the reader of Goldberg’s beginnings as a cartoonist, and how the success of Foolish Questions gave him a platform for popularity. Carl Linich contributes a piece on Goldberg’s numerous satellite strips. Via such recurring features as I’m the Guy, Silly Sonnets, Slackers and Phoney Films, the cartoonist gave himself several outlets for variations on themes. Goldberg’s daily strip of this period is typically a sideshow of sub-features. Some of these strips-within-strips became breakout hits, and his readership seemed to savor the unpredictable variety of the format.

These essays make the book a richer experience, and expand the reader’s knowledge of Rube Goldberg. Few comics creators have a more diverse portfolio. Perhaps we’ll live to see a collection of his Boob McNutt Sunday strips, or an anthology of his multi-themed dailies. His humor and worldview may smack us square on the mush, in best American style, but it also embodies the caritas and earthiness that once made the comics page the reason many folks bought the daily newspaper.