In a self-published zine, Los Angeles alternative-newspaper columnist and cartoonist Matt Groening once reflected on the impetus for his art: “You can only go so far analyzing your gnawing sense of inner emptiness, your boundless repressed rage, your desperate need for the warmth provided by others with its corollary paralyzing fear of dependence.”
So what do you do?
“Begin drawing primitive cartoons about your predicament … call it something like Existence in the Inferno.”
With a punchier name, the weekly comic strip Life in Hell, which started running in the Los Angeles Reader in 1980, was indeed Groening’s way out. The cartoonist eventually landed attention and meetings with TV executives and developed The Simpsons and Futurama.
Even as his fame grew, Groening remained a weekly contributor to Metro, which was one of the very first papers to pick up Life in Hell, and hundreds of other alternative papers.
Now, after 32 years, Groening says he is finished. “I’m abandoning ship,” Groening says.
“I loved doing Life in Hell. I want to see what it’s like now not to do it. I’m going to let the characters go free for a while. This was an amazing time in my life. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in animation. But I loved the medium of cartoons and loved the idea of a regular comic strip.”
When I reached him by phone, Groening was in Malibu, watching the dolphins from the beach. He’s on the verge of leaving not one, but two, favorite activities. In late June, he played a last show with the band the Rock-Bottom Remainders, at the American Library Association Convention in Anaheim.
I’d interviewed Groening before, in San Francisco in February 1986. This was approximately the time and the place where he met Kathi Goldmark, who died this May. Goldmark was the nexus of the Remainders, whose lineup included at various times Stephen King, Amy Tan and Dave Barry.
“I think Kathi’s death is the final kick in the ass to move my life along,” Groening says.
Groening’s father, Homer, was a newspaper cartoonist and independent filmmaker in Portland. “He told me I’d never make a living drawing pictures,” Groening recalls. “I determined to prove him wrong.”
The Oregon-born Groening moved to L.A. in 1977. After a number of woeful jobs, Groening got his self-published comic book into the hands of Los Angeles Reader editor James Vowell, who gave Groening a weekly slot; two years later, Vowell also assigned Groening to do “Sound Mix,” a column of local music gossip.
“I couldn’t fulfill the requirement, just couldn’t bring myself to do it,” Groening says of his early days in L.A. “I was in a borderline depression. I couldn’t pay the rent. And suddenly, I got this regular paid gig for being funny.”
Life in Hell was often funny, but not in the manner of traditional strips. Beginning with the everyrabbit known as Binky, his sometimes girlfriend Sheba, and Binky’s child from a one-night stand, Bongo, Life in Hell delved into despair and phobias. In Binky’s world, relationships are fraught, sex is messy and jobs are worse than the trials of Job.
In one strip, Groening expands the seven ages of man to 16 panels, from small clueless child (“The odds are against you. Give up now.”) to graduation (“You’ll never make it”) to death (“Aha. Told you so.”).
Life in Hell wore its politics lightly (although Reagan shows up in at least one strip), but an antiauthoritarian streak shows through as Bongo attempts to rebel against authority figures at school and home. Bongo is often seen locked in a room as punishment for some minor offense and then admonished to cheer up. At school, Bongo’s urge to speak truth to power—”Lies, lies, lies”—usually ends up badly, as he is trussed and gagged by his teacher, who adds insult to injury with a platitude: “You’ll thank me for this someday.”
Groening created about 1,700 Life in Hell strips. Some were collected in Love Is Hell, which included that memorable diagnosis of a healed broken-heart case: “Ready for further punishment.” The strips veered from spare vignettes blown up large to the intricate encyclopedic guides to human tropes: “The 9 Types of High School Teachers,” “The 81 Types of Employees.”
Groening wrote of McJobs in Work Is Hell, and of the agony of childhood in Childhood Is Hell. In more recent years, he turned his focus on the clonelike fez wearers Akbar and Jeff, who announced themselves as gay in 1986.
In older strips, A & J were primarily shills for unsavory businesses. Groening told me back in 1986: “I once did a comic strip about Akbar and Jeff’s Tofu Hut, and it was printed in 40 papers. Two of those papers, in Santa Barbara and Hermosa Beach, received a call, ‘I saw your ad for Tofu Hut. Where is it?’ I guess someone wanted to try a Tatershake or to chew some Tofooey—nature’s taffy.”
If Life in Hell sometimes seemed to be following a graphic template, this was all by design. Groening was a fan of David Lynch’s Los Angeles Reader experiment “The Angriest Dog in the World.”
Lynch’s five-panel comic repeated the same drawing for years. The noted cult director would telephone in weekly captions. Whoever fielded the calls from Lynch at the Reader would do the lettering. Groening did it himself sometimes.
He recalled “Oh, the editor of that time got tired of it: ‘Lynch is getting away with murder, like the rest of you cartoonists!’ Hey, it’s David Lynch. As long as he can follow this grand conceptual scheme, he should keep doing it.”
Life After Art
It’s been some years since the last Life in Hell collection. Groening notes, “The standard thing I get now is ‘I read Life in Hell in college. What!? You’re still doing it?’ I’ve actually let a decade going by without a book. I felt the world had enough of me elsewhere.”
I don’t have children, so I don’t quite understand why my favorite Life in Hell strips are Groening’s kids-say-the-darndest-things pieces about his children Will and Abe.
Groening recalls, “My children were OK with it at the time, and they loved seeing themselves in the paper. And then one day, they told me, ‘We’re not funny anymore.’ And they clammed up. So I stopped it. But of everything I’ve done, The Simpsons or Futurama, all the stuff collected in Will and Abe’s Guide to the Universe is my favorite work. It just kills me. And I didn’t even write it, I just took dictation.”
Groening is still not sure how to assemble all of his 1,700 strips: perhaps an Internet archive, perhaps as a jumbo reprint. He says, “The secret in television, as it is in cartooning, is selling the same material over and over again.”
The end of Life in Hell is not much fun for the fans, but it may be a relief to Groening.
“I saw Jules Feiffer, Chris Ware and Lynda Barry recently, and they all said they were very happy that they stopped working weekly, and their lives got better. Lynda told me to quit years ago. Now I’m going to see what it’s like.
“I still think of myself as a print cartoonist and that the TV work is a side project. There’s a satisfaction that artists have which few will admit. If you’ve got an enemy in life or a girlfriend who dumped you—they will always be reminded of your work. My career has always been this kind of this butt-wiggling dance. It’s been one more lesson that you should never break up with a cartoonist.”