Matt Groening has decided to pull the plug on acclaimed comic strip Life in Hell, 34 years after he started it and many years after its anthropomorphic rabbits and gay lovers were eclipsed by his other creations. Groening, 58, started the strip when he was a struggling artist in 1978 and kept producing it weekly even after becoming a multimillionaire, although cuts to comic pages nationwide saw its circulation fall to fewer than 40 publications from a peak of 380. In the mid-80s, Groening was asked to animate the strip’s characters for the Tracey Ullman Show, but, unwilling to hand over the rights to his creations, came up with new characters—the Simpsons.
In a Rolling Stone interview, Groening says he kept doing the strip because he enjoyed “one slice of my creative output being completely solo,” and because he “dug in his heels” when a sneering TV executive asked him why he bothered to continue with it. “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 tells Poynter. — Newser
Truth be told, it’s anti-climactic: the heyday for Life In Hell was the 80s and 90s, when it appeared in just about every metropolitan weekly arts and entertainment paper. I was doing a lot of air travel then, and I remember my first stop in every city was a newsstand to grab the paper to make sure the strip was there. It never failed to make me laugh at loud, and read it again.
But nothing pleasanter than herpes lasts forever, and as Groening’s energies were diverted to The Simpsons, the Life In Hell strips grew less acute and more formulaic. The rabbits all but vanished. Akbar and Jeff dominated. The strip’s edgy noir smoothed and lightened to the point where readers might smile and shrug where they used to laugh and pump fists.
My Life In Hell library is complete, and includes a few calendars as well as all the books. I also have a letter from Groening responding to my request for a specific strip that hadn’t been collected (“Shark Mountain”). He not only sent me the strip, he created a drawing of Bongo (Binky’s little one-eared mutant bastard offspring) greeting me personally, which he personally signed and dated. (Groening, not Bongo.)
I watched and enjoyed The Simpsons for a few years, but somewhere along the line I lost the capacity to sit in front a of a teevee set at regular intervals, no matter how much Duff Beer I poured in.
I’m glad he made it. He’s a talented, hard working artist with a unique creative perspective whose material has delighted millions of people over the years. Not everybody creates an icon, let alone several. And other than Van Gogh, how many have just one ear? (Bongo, not Groening.)