'Hell' Freezes Over
Matt Groening moves on after 34 years of ‘Life in Hell’
By Kevin Uhrich 07/12/2012
If not for the vicissitudes of its creator making a living as a contributor to weekly newspapers, Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” — the comic strip that spawned “The Simpsons,” which turned Groening into one of the most successful animators of all time — might have appeared in the Pasadena Weekly throughout the years, along with the LA Weekly, where the strip ran from 1986 until 2009.
Groening’s work, along with that of Lynda J. Barry, creator of “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” did run in this newspaper for a short time, from mid-1986, beginning with “Life in Hell: An Introduction,” through mid-1987. At that time, Groening had already published a book, and his strip was appearing in some 50 alternative newspapers across the country.
But it was 32 years ago that the then-twenty-something Portland, Ore., native’s newspaper career began with the now-defunct Los Angeles Reader, where as a young man Groening worked as a jack of all trades — music critic, illustrator, paste-up person, newspaper deliveryman, operations manager, proofreader. However, due to a change in leadership at the weekly alternative paper, a West Coast outgrowth of the Chicago Reader, Groening was prohibited from freelancing for other publications, including the Pasadena Weekly. It was then that he decided to quit the Reader.
“In 1986, I got a call from the Pasadena Weekly to run the strip,” Groening recalls. In those days, the Pasadena Weekly was being run by James Vowell, the paper’s president and publisher, who before that served as the Reader’s founding editor in 1978 and Groening’s former boss.
“I knew that my contract said that I couldn’t run my strip in Los Angeles, but that’s not Los Angeles. So I agreed for 20 bucks a week, maybe 25 dollars, something like that, which was a big deal. It raised my income quite a bit,” chuckles Groening, who today is worth an estimated half-billion dollars.
“Anyway, so the Reader came back and said, ‘No, no, your contract says Los Angeles County, you can’t be in Los Angeles County.’ And I said, ‘Well, look, the fact is that the papers don’t overlap. I’d understand if the Los Angeles Reader distributed in Pasadena. Then I would say, ‘Yeah, of course, but you’re not in Pasadena, so let me do this thing,’ and they tried to sue me. And I said, ‘Come on, I’ve been working for you guys from the beginning, and certainly we can work this out.’ But they came back and they were just real snotty about it, so I said, ‘You know, my contract is up in two months, and you can either put me through this or you can hold me to my contract and in two months I’ll leave.’ And they fired me. I went to the LA Weekly. I had a two-month vacation, the only vacation I’d had in two or three years,” Groening says.
“I was quite willing to stay at the Reader. [The dispute] was over the Pasadena Weekly. But I switched papers for 25 bucks a week. It seemed very ill-advised, but the [Reader], at that point, was being run by people who really had no clue as to how to run a newspaper.”
Vowell and his wife, Codette Wallace, would go on to purchase the Reader from its Chicago parent company in 1989 and sell it in 1996 to Phoenix-based New Times Media, now Village Voice Media, which shuttered the paper that year. Groening went on to create “The Simpsons,” after 22 years the most successful cartoon ever to appear on television, and is now busier than ever with “Futurama,” which ran for four years on FOX before being picked up by Comedy Central in 2008.
But last month, Groening decided to end “Life in Hell,” which featured three anthropomorphic rabbits and a gay couple named Akbar and Jeff, and at the height of its popularity appeared in 389 mostly weekly papers around the country. By the end, the strip was running in fewer than 40 newspapers, among them — fittingly — the Pasadena Weekly.
The now-58-year-old’s dysfunctional but loving TV family “The Simpsons” has won numerous industry and other awards since first airing in 1989 as animated shorts on FOX’s “The Tracey Ullman Show.” And “Futurama” has captured its share of professional laurels, as well.
But it was the “Life in Hell” strip, first appearing in Wet magazine in 1978, then in the Reader and for more than two decades in the LA Weekly, that made Groening one of the nation’s preeminent cartoonists.
For those and other reasons, Groening says “It’s been really, really fun.” But then, only a few weeks after ending the strip, he confesses, “I miss it, actually.”
Groening is certainly not alone in that regard.
Ted Rall, who draws “Left Coast” for the Pasadena Weekly and writes books and columns for a number of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, recently referred to Groening on his blog as “modern cartooning’s rock god, a Moses who came down from the mountain (or the East Village office of the Voice) and handed us the rules we followed.”
Just as Groening has seen venues for his strip dwindle, Rall, too, is experiencing a decline in business — from a high of 140 papers before Sept. 11 more than a decade ago to 40 today, a third of which are alternative papers.
Unfortunately, Rall said, since Village Voice Media, which now owns the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, Phoenix New Times and a number of alternative papers around the country, decided to discontinue “Life in Hell” and other top cartoons in 2009, it’s unlikely other papers will replace “Life in Hell” with another strip.
“The end of this strip is more of a symptom of two phenomena: (1) the financial troubles in print media in general and (2) the view by editors that cartoons aren’t essential,” Rall wrote in a separate message to the Pasadena Weekly. “On point two, that’s a new thing. Until recently, most media understood that cartoons were popular with readers and powerful in a unique way.”
Steve Greenberg — who started political cartooning in the 1970s for the Daily News of Los Angeles, worked for a number of daily papers over the years and currently appears in the Pasadena Weekly, the Ventura County Reporter, the Jewish Journal and on the Web site LAObserved.com — said he saw “The Simpsons” as much more political than “Life in Hell,” which “mostly I see as dealing with relationships, family dynamics and growing-up issues,” Greenberg writes. “‘Life in Hell’ found a way to rework sequential storytelling, often using far more panels than a conventional comic strip, to hammer away at a point until whacking the reader with the punch line, all in a fun visual style that made it hard to ignore the strip.”
But, Greenberg states, “It’s impossible to separate ‘Life in Hell’ from ‘The Simpsons,’ since the latter so defines Groening’s work and world, and deals far more in politics.
“Groening’s legacy is brilliant, but it’s ‘The Simpsons’ that defines and elevates him to a level that ‘Life in Hell’ doesn't achieve on its own.”
Rall said Groening has left an indelible mark on a whole generation of artists.
“Artistically and creatively, Groening was also a huge influence,” Rall wrote on his blog. “His primacy of writing over art, a simple, stripped-down drawing style paired with sardonic, dark observations about life through an existential lens, multiple panels, the freeform use of interchangeable characters without continuing traits, much less story lines, were the template most of us followed.”
In this industry, however, “now the Voice is a rotted husk, print has abandoned cartoonists along with its readers and digital hasn’t figured out that people really, really, really love to read funny pictures — not just any funny pictures, but pictures drawn by the exceptionally funny people who need to be paid to spend their time and energy thinking up funny ideas,” Rall wrote.
“But if people remember Groening and what he was, or someone like him comes along again, all will be well again,” he states.
The Weekly caught up with Groening earlier this week.
PW: First of all, thanks for 34 great years of “Life in Hell.” Of course, you have “The Simpsons,” and now “Futurama” is really taking off, but this was really your thing.
MG: I’ve gotten such satisfaction drawing by myself at my drawing table, and whatever comes out is what the reader sees. There is no editing … Animation has a huge amount of fun and excitement, but it is a collaborative effort. There is an aggravation to working with other human beings that you don’t have as a lonely cartoonist.
PW: Where did Binky, Bongo, Sheba and Akbar and Jeff come from?
MG: The name Binky to me was just a silly name that seemed to be a nickname, but what is it a nickname of? It’s a stand-alone nickname. It was also in part, a tip of the hat to the brilliant masterpiece comic book “Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary” (1972) by Justin Green. That was a great, great comic … That was a landmark comic. Bongo was just an attempt to come up with a name that sounded similar to Binky but ended with a different sound, with an O. So Binky, Bongo … same B. You know, so three names with two syllables. Akbar and Jeff … it was just the combination of two different names that made it very funny. It’s actually hard. Coming up with the right name is difficult … For instance, the name “Life in Hell” I’m not particularly fond of, but at the time it expressed my kind of punkish attitude about living in Los Angeles. But I got tired of it pretty quickly, so after a while I changed the name to “Life is Swell,” and I went back and forth. Now, to me, the name is generic. But it bothered some people. When I used to sign books, when I first signed “Life in Hell” books, I used to sign them, “See You in Hell,” and then my name. It bothered people enough that it got enough people saying I don’t want that book, so I stopped doing that.
PW: Why do you believe people have been so attracted to your work?
MG: It’s hard to analyze that. Like, what makes it work? I think a strong point of view is at the core of everything I like. You don’t have to necessarily agree with the point of view. It just has to be a strong one. To me, what doesn’t work is when it’s wishy-washy. Most daily cartoonists, for instance, it doesn’t matter how well they draw, and they’re done really well. But for me, they don’t resonate. They’re so bland there is no strong point of view. The ones that have kind of a specific outlook are the ones that are memorable.
PW: That leads to the next question, about influences on you …
MG: Jules Feiffer was a great role model. Here was a guy who had a weekly comic strip starting in the Village Voice in 1955, I think, I’m not sure exactly the year, but around that time. He did it for decades and was able to do everything else that he could. Although, I think that even he found it to be a burden after a few decades … The problem with any kind of regular deadline is that you’re thinking about it all the time. People think, ‘Oh, when I have a child, oh, when my baby’s asleep, that’s when I’ll write my novel.’ The fact is, when your baby’s asleep, you’re worried about your baby waking up. So doing the comic strip was something that was always in the back of my mind over these last three decades … In my mind, although I haven’t done anything since the month or two that I’ve not been doing it, I still think about it. I think about telling other stories, doing a little comic book. The characters are not gone, they’re just resting.
… Jules Feiffer he was a huge influence, along with Dr. Seuss, Charles Schultz, the Peanuts comic strips, these were very early influences. Walt Kelly, “Pogo” … In fact, “Life in Hell” grew out of a little comic strip that I drew in high school called “Tales of the Enchanted Forest,” which had a little owl, bear, a snake and was very much an imitation of “Pogo,” except I couldn’t draw. I showed it my friends and they’d go, “What’s that?” “That’s an owl.” “Oh, really? OK. What’s that?” And the only animal they recognized was the rabbit, because of the long ears. So I went, “OK, that’s it. I’m drawing rabbits.”
PW: I know there are a lot of talented artists in Pasadena, and we are constantly looking for people, but the [cartooning] industry is changing. Is there more to this?
MG: I think there’s a general belief among editors and publishers that cartoonists are getting away with something, because you’re not editing them. There’s no control over cartoonists. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to edit them, but it seems like people think of cartoons as nonessential, as an afterthought, as trivial, a diversion. And I think of them as first relief from the columns of newspaper stories, but also, and I’m speaking as a writer, what’s great about cartoons for me in newspapers is that you’re hitting a little window of something hand drawn by an individual that’s personal. It’s very engaging. Culturally, there has been a decreasing respect for the medium. Most of the 20th century newspapers were full of comic strips, and on Sundays they’d give you full pages to absolutely astonishing graphic things. Over the years, they’ve been shrunk further and further.
PW: So should I take that to mean this is probably the right time to get out of it?
MG: Well, I only have a finite amount of time. And I wanted to see what would happen if I quit. Will I be able to apply that kind of energy to something else, perhaps with the “Life in Hell” characters, or do something new, or just relax? I don’t know. I wanted to see what it was like. But I do miss it … I’ve been doing a calendar every year, and that will continue. I want to see what will happen. I do miss it, and I love to read the newspapers. I think they’re vital.
PW: They’re just struggling in so many ways … it’s really a tragedy.
MG: Yeah, it is, and it may be the beginning of the end. I speak as a publisher of comic books. You know, I have a comic book company, Bongo Comics, and we publish “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” comic books, and that’s an industry that gets more and more difficult every year, too. It would be very sad if comic books went away. I just think that these disposable artifacts are part of being alive. I subscribe to as many papers as I can, and read anything. If it’s free, I’ll pick it up. When I’m in Pasadena, I’ll get the Pasadena Weekly … The paper looks really good.
PW: We’ve been blessed in that sense. We’ve had a lot of good art directors.
MG: How is the advertising? How is that going?
PW: Well, it’s holding pretty steady. We’ve locked down this niche here over the years. We’re 40, 44, 48 pages a week, so that seems to be enough to keep the lights on. I mean, we can always do better.
MG: To me, the ad sales people are the unsung heroes of the alternative newsweeklies. That’s a tough job. I would listen to them on the phone and I’d just go, “Oh, my God.” I could not do that; so much rejection.
PW: I remember one thing that you said to The Onion’s AV Club a ways back. You said weeklies may be going the way of dime novels. Has your opinion changed on that?
MG: That may be me just whistling past the graveyard. I wish I could say that about comic books and, you know, I still do them, I still love them and it’s a blast to work on what you love. I also think that what I tried to do and what I like, again, since it’s out there, is not try for the biggest audience possible, but try to make the people who like it really like it so that it’s their favorite thing. And if you can make a few people make it their favorite thing, maybe that will translate into bigger numbers of people liking it. Here I think the people who like it really like it. With the Los Angeles Reader, I kept on saying this should be a celebration of living in this community. Every week there should be a reason why we’re excited, because we had a lot of negative coverage, and if you just turn that around, just give it a positive headline, everything doesn’t have to be horrible, and you can still be incisive and critical and stuff; just act like you like it. I mean, “The Simpsons” is very savage in its social criticism, but I don’t think that’s what you take away from it. It’s the celebration of family, even though we’re tweaking people every week.
PW: Actually, we just got a great letter from somebody last week hailing “The Simpsons” for keeping the family together. Even though it’s dysfunctional it’s a unit, a functional unit.
MG: First of all, when I read these interviews I see it’s me saying “I,” “I,” “I.” Basically, you should take all those out and say, “We,” “We,” We,” because it’s huge a collaborative effort. We have a template that is extremely traditional and conservative. Growing up with regular sitcoms, traditional family sitcoms, “The Simpsons” are very much modeled after “Donna Reed,” “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it Beaver,” and all that stuff, where the mom didn’t work. Right away, I think that’s a little bit out of step with the times.
PW: I only have one more question. In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, you gave away the location of Springfield. (It was revealed to be in Oregon.)
MG: Well, I’ve said it over and over again. I didn’t give it away. I just said what I thought of when I was a kid. I thought Springfield was the town next door, because that’s where “Father Knows Best” took place. That’s my new answer. The other answer had been whenever somebody asks me I always switch the answer. That was a nonevent. … So you have my number?
MG: So if you need anything else, let me know, and I want to thank you and everyone at the Pasadena Weekly for running the strip.
PW: It’s been a pleasure and an honor. n
Intern Christina Anaya contributed to this report.