Welcome to the Pit: Matt Groening’s Life in Hell

« All my life I’ve been torn between frivolity and despair, between the desire to amuse and the desire to annoy, between dread-filled insomnia and a sense of my own goofiness. Just like you, I worry about love and sex and work and suffering and injustice and death, but I also dig drawing bulgy-eyed rabbits with tragic overbites. »Matt Groening

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t grow up absorbing The Simpsons, probably because I only watched cartoons on videocassettes instead of actual TV. I also somehow managed to skip Futurama (catching up with it years and years later, with great enjoyment). So the work of Matt Groening* (who probably needs no introduction, but you can get one here) was not really familiar to me at all when co-admin RG introduced me to The Big Book of Hell, though of course I was aware of the Simpsons aesthetic, as one would truly have to live under a rock not to be acquainted with it to at least some degree.

*Here’s how to pronounce ‘Grœning’ correctly and impress all your friends.

Life in Hell crept into the world in 1977 as a self-published book that Groening, freshly moved to Los Angeles from Portland to pursue his ambition of becoming a writer, would give out to friends. He also sold it for two bucks a pop in Licorice Pizza, one of a chain of record stores operated by James Greenwood. As is often the case, Groening’s cartoonist/writer/producer/animator career kicked off by way of serendipity: in 1978, an editor from the charming WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing liked Life in Hell enough to print a few of its strips. From then on, the strip’s popularity snowballed slowly but steadily (from its first regular weekly appearance in the Los Angeles Reader in 1980, to the huge success of a compilation of LIH’s love-centric cartoons, titled Love Is Hell, in 1984, to the strip’s presence in over 250 newspapers by 1986), which eventually led to The Simpsons. Speaking of the latter, I am now shamelessly going to plug a previous post, namely Tentacle Tuesday: Treehouse of Tentacular Horror.

Here’s a selection from several out-of-print anthologies co-admin RG had handy, namely from Love Is Hell (1984), Work Is Hell (1986), School Is Hell (1987), Childhood Is Hell (1988), and How to Get to Hell (1991).

Personal favourites Akbar and Jeff were apparently introduced so that Groening could incorporate real-life conflicts he had with his girlfriend into the strip without it being too obvious about who was who. When we noticed a couple living across the street (two men always dressed in matching, brightly coloured sportswear) we instantly nicknamed them Akbar and Jeff.

~ ds