Leigh Rubin thought his joke about using cow udders as squirt guns was pretty original.
But when the California-based cartoonist shared “Squirt gun fights at the dairy farm” at the World Dairy Expo a few years ago, he was surprised to find that farmers had come up with this concept long before he did.
“I’m thinking I invented this idea,” Rubin said. “But at the show ... this really old farmer just started to smile. You could tell he was reminiscing about his youth. He said they used to do this — squirt cats, or each other, or guests on the farm. I thought I made it up, but it’s really a popular pastime on dairy farms.”
Rubin, whose syndicated one-panel comic “Rubes” appears in approximately 400 newspapers around the world, will visit Madison next week for the World Dairy Expo, Tuesday through Saturday at the Alliant Energy Center. His cow-themed comics have made him a hit in the dairy industry, notably a “Got Milk?” cartoon that was reproduced nationwide in 1996.
Rubin will also give a talk on Friday, Oct. 1, at the Alicia Ashman Branch of the Madison Public Library about what it takes to be a comic artist: namely, dogged pursuit of inspiration.
“It’s a weird way to make a living, drawing a daily cartoon,” Rubin said. “The persistent factor is so important. You have to be persistently creative.”
Rubin began drawing cartoons in 1978, when he started his own greeting card company while working for the family printing shop. For awhile he designed Notable Quotes, with musical puns and notes as characters.
In 1985, a newspaper editor friend asked Rubin to write a daily comic for the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif. After Rubin had written about 100 cartoons, he began approaching every major syndicate, and many minor ones, in the country.
When he gives talks about his work, “I focus on the ‘not giving up’ part of this … and share some of my favorite rejection letters,” Rubin said.
One early rejection letter came from the McNaught syndicate. The staffer loved his gags, calling them “absolutely fantastic,” but not the art.
“He tells me, if I could transform my art, then they’d be interested,” Rubin said. “And I took that to heart and completely changed my art style.
“Of course, I never could get ahold of them again and then they went out of business. But that was OK, because I found that very constructive criticism. They were right.”
Rubin’s cartoons often include animals, from “sitting ducks” perched in front of a television, chickens who fight back and, of course, cows whose udders double as milk bath dispensers and places to pierce.
In jokes he can’t draw with a human, he can cast a cow in the gag and “get away with a lot more,” Rubin said. “You can’t really show people udders.”
The animals in Rubin’s sight gags give the cartoons broad appeal. A comic with two rabbits posing for a picture in which one is giving the other “bunny ears” resonated even with Japanese tourists, he said.
“That is so universal,” Rubin said. “People from all over the world do bunny ears, which I never knew before. It was like, ‘Wow, people are goofy everywhere.’”
Rubin has spent much of 2010 touring with his new book, “The Wild and Twisted World of Rubes: A Rubes Cartoon Collection.” It’s a best-of collection that celebrates the 25th anniversary of “Rubes.”
Traveling, Rubin said, has helped him find new ideas. He finds inspiration “within and without, all over the place.”
“I just got back from Texas. It’s a whole interesting different culture there,” Rubin said. “I’m going to Wisconsin and I’m going to New York two or three weeks after. It’s a real kick. I get to see lots of parts of the country I never would see, see lots of fun, unusual — in a good way — people … as long as they don’t throw things at me.”