Home Culture Matt Groening's Life in Hell winds down after 32 years: a personal...

Matt Groening's Life in Hell winds down after 32 years: a personal history


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!

  1. “Life in Hell” meant a lot to me when I first discovered it. It gave a voice to thoughts I had which I thought were unique to myself (of course! High school! Lonely nerd! That hadn’t happened to anyone before..) I’ve read it ever since & have a couple of the collections. Its end marks a sad day for me (like you, Ms. Beat, v. fond of it) but I know sometimes you have to walk away from a constant to keep being creative.

    When I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Groening @ CCI 2010, he was getting ready to end his day. Buncha folks were getting him to try to sign stuff, which he wasn’t doing. He then bent down & was amazingly cool to a little girl, had a conversation with her. & then I got to tell him how much I loved Life in Hell, & Futurama. He’d turned down a couple of other people looking to have a picture taken, but was gracious & let me have one. I literally was walking on air (which might explain the slightly out of body expression I have in this photo).


  2. Minor correction: Sheba, not Sheila.

    Great piece and retrospective. (I just got through putting the Pledge of Allegiance to Frank Zappa up on my blog a few days ago.)

  3. I discovered it in the 1980s, in the conservative black hole of Omaha, when the local B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks stocked the titles in the humor section (right next to the other subversive strip, Bloom County). I was in junior high, and it helped warp my world view. While I have not read the strip since it moved from Pantheon, I can still quote quite a few strips:

    “If you go to school for years and years, you’ll avoid, for awhile, your worst working fears.”

    “Schools out, schools out, teacher let the monkeys out. One prevailed. One was jailed. Both asked God, ‘How have I failed?'”

    “Junior High: The Deepest Pit of Hell”
    “High School: The Second Deepest Pit of Hell”

    “I blame society.” (One of the classic silhouette strips.)

    Cheap presents: Origami boulders, jar o’ gravel

    The one question you don’t ask a high school guidance counselor: “If you’re so good at giving career guidance, why are you a guidance counselor?”

    Free Show!

    Over the shoulder boulder holders

    Akbar & Jeff’s Tofu Hut

    Gooey, Screwy, and Ratatouille

    I bought a copy of the first, oversized edition a few years ago. On the back page was an order form… he was selling limited edition prints for cheap!

    Well, not bad for a self-published comic book cartoonist… HEY! 1977+35 = 2012! He qualifies for the Eisner Hall of Fame!

  4. I have fond memories of being a kid and hunting down the comics section in the alt weeklies. They were so much more fun than the newspaper comics.

    Minor quibble: the $18 is the per-paper payment. I believe LiH is running on 30-something papers still (down from 300-something at its peak). So its more like $500 a week or so.

    Still, he probably make more off 20 minutes of a Simpsons re-run than a year of LiH. It’s been decades since he was doing comics for the money.

  5. So, Heidi, care to join me at Comic-Con in annoying Bongo Comics about putting out a circa 1650 page complete Life In Hell collection?

  6. I had a copy of the “Workday Checklist” I used to stick in whatever cubicle (veal fattening pen) I was working in at the time. Still as relavant today as it was then.

  7. The LA connection for LiH was strong for me as well. I got to meet Groening in ’87 at UCLA when I was freshman and a huge LiH fan. He showed some early videos of the Tracey Ullman bumpers and I will always associate The Simpsons to that time.

    They were great, great cartoons.

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