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Monday, February 2, 2015

Life in Hell, Before The Simpsons


By Susan Yung

Many isotopian half-lives before Matt Groening concocted The Simpsons and Futurama, he was well-known for his weird, affable characters in Life in Hell, which ran in print over the course of 35 years. Life in Hell features a pair of jaded rabbits (Binky and Sheba), a one-eared bunny (Bongo), and a fez-wearing gay couple of an indeterminate bipedal species, Akbar & Jeff. Groening usually played with the structure of a square, often breaking it into 16 or 9 panels, or treated it as one large frame in which an individual figure would be lost either in a crowd or in space.

Groening broached topics from banal to existential. The futility of jobs, pop culture, politics, family, love, life—no matter how small or vast, it all came across in philosophical, spare prose and crisply drawn frames. And just when you thought a strip would end in terrible sadness or uplift, he often found a way to pull back from the cliff, or add a wry note to a saccharine picture.

The strip’s success in newspapers brought Groening the opportunity to air his work on the very popular The Tracy Ullman Show. He planned to show his Life in Hell characters at a meeting, but when he found out he might lose control over them, he quickly drafted a family modeled loosely on his own, which became the Simpsons. (In life, his father is named Homer, his mom Margaret, and his son Abe, among other crossovers.) So in 1989, they began animated life as jittery, roughly-drawn characters in very short segments—bumpers—to lead into and out of commercials.

Despite the incredible success of The Simpsons, and eventually Futurama, Groening continued to draw Life in Hell, reasoning that it was something he had complete control over from start to finish. With the demise of print publications, and decreasing syndicates, he finally ended Life in Hell in 2012.

An Evening with Matt Groening and Lynda Barry will feature the pair in dialogue on Feb 12 at the Howard Gilman Opera House. They met at Evergreen State College in Oregon where they both worked on the student newspaper, and have remained friends and peers over the years.

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