Now this is sad and yet it is part of life. Matt Groening has announced that on June 15th he ended his long-running Life in Hell weekly comic strip, which has run in alternative newspapers for 32 years. Reprints will run until Friday, July 13th (during SDCC), and then it will fade away.
“I love the characters, I love doing it, but it was just time,” he told USA Today. “Life in Hell prevented me from doing other projects, because every week I had to go back to the same drawing table. Quitting will open me up to new things, more animation, more stuff. I may just sit and stare into space.”
In another interview at Poynter, Groening wrote:
“I’ve had great fun, in a Sisyphean kind of way, but the time has come to let Binky and Sheba and Bongo and Akbar and Jeff take some time off,” Groening, 58, said by email.
The importance of Life in Hell, both as a trailblazing alternative comics strip and as the gateway that gave the world the Simpsons and thus many cartoons and comics, can’t be overstated.
Initially running in the LA Reader, where Groening was a columnist, Life in Hell moved to the LA Weekly in 1986 (along with Ernie Pook’s Comeek) after a kerfuffle with the Reader’s management. The paper never recovered, and the Weekly went on to become LA’s alt paper of choice until that medium died away due to the advent of the internet. The Weekly canceled the strip in 2009.Despite its creator being behind perhaps the most popular cartoon in the history of the world, Life in Hell’s distribution had shrunk to only a handful of papers, netting Groening only $18 a strip…perhaps not worth the time for a multimillionaire.
But without Life in Hell, there would be no Simpsons. Groening’s signature humor was always on display in a series of savage yet cuddly strips on life, love and work. Stars rabbit Binky, über-girlfriend Sheba, and their illegitimate son Bongo are as much the signposts of the ’80s Los Angeles of my youth as hair metal bands and a teal and terra cotta color palette.
The strip was a cult favorite among Angelenos, quoted endlessly and hung on every cubicle wall of the time; thus Groening eventually came to the attention of producers at Fox who called him in for a meeting. The story is incredible but true: while in the waiting room for the meeting Groening learned that he would not own the rights to the characters.Thinking that Binky, Bongo, and Sheba were his meal ticket and he couldn’t give up the rights, he instead pitched characters based on his own family: Homer, Marge, and Bart. Starting as bumpers on the Tracey Ullman Show, the Simpsons soon had their own show and a cultural phenomenon was born. And fortunately Groening’s lawyer had gotten him one of the best deals in TV history, one which would keep him creatively involved and financially invested in every episode and licensing deal. It’s truly a case where corporate and creative interests intersected in the best possible way.
Groening kept doing Life in Hell for years because it was still the thing he did all by himself from start to finish, as opposed to the collaborative writer’s rooms and animation studios of The Simpsons and, later, Futurama. As his personal life changed, so did the strip. (Years of bickering strips between same-sex, identical couple Akbar and Jeff can easily be read as a transcript of the breakup of Groening’s first marriage.) But that Groening has new things to do is still exciting news.
And the best Life in Hell strips are a testament to one of the funniest, most insightful cartoonists of his generation. Don’t let the simple drawing fool you. There were two Life in Hell strips I kept up over my cubicle for years. One involved ’80s Reaganist politics with the punchline “The Poor Little Frog.” The other was a 9-panel paean to believing in yourself, as a life of accomplishment is set against a litany of the negative messages we always hear. Ugh. Writing about it like that sounds dumb. When I get home, I’ll scan it and put it up. Anyway, 9 panels and a lifetime. It’s been a good run.
UPDATE: Richard Gehr has a longer exit interview with Groening:
How many papers were you in when you called it quits?
Thirty-eight. Weekly papers are having a tough time because of the Internet and all the problems of print journalism. I was proud to be in those papers, and I wish I could continue, but I gave it a shot for 30-odd years. I want to see if I can use the time I spent working on the strip to do something else creative, maybe something more ambitious. The comic strip kept me tethered to the drawing table every week and it will be nice to see what happens without it.
How many newspapers printed Hell at its peak?
It was in 250 papers for a while. I remember walking down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles with Gary Panter one day, and both of us being thrilled when we saw our strips soaking in the gutter. We were part of the landscape!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.