Crudely drawn rabbits Binky, Sheba, and Bongo, and their little pals Akbar and Jeff, never achieved the notoriety of The Simpsons. But unlike the no-less-crudely drawn Springfield crew that debuted on Fox in 1987, they belonged to Matt Groening free and clear in the panels of Life in Hell, the syndicated weekly comic strip that the part-time cartoonist discontinued last week after 32 years. With a new season of Futurama starting on June 20th and more than 500 episodes of The Simpsons in the can, the question isn't so much why Groening is quitting Life in Hell, but rather how he kept it so incisive and funny for so long.
Why pull the plug on Life in Hell now? Did you simply run out of jokes?
It's pretty obvious that I ran out of jokes a couple of decades ago – but that doesn't stop any cartoonist!
Seriously, though, what drove you to keep drawing it week after week for all those years?
When I started doing the comic strip, it was a great forum for all of my creativity. I'd think about the comic strip all week, spend a day drawing it, and then start thinking about the next one. It was my complete and total focus. Then The Simpsons came along to preoccupy me, and I decided to see how long I could keep the comic strip going. Actually, a TV producer sneered at the strip and said, "Why do you bother? Give it up." Because of that, I dug in my heels and kept it going two decades longer than I might have. I also liked the idea of having one slice of my creative output being completely solo, unlike TV animation. It's very satisfying to sit down at a drawing table by yourself and solve a puzzle with a deadline.
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!
How many Life in Hell strips have you drawn altogether?
I don't know. Around 1,700 or so.
How has it changed over the decades?
It's gotten simpler. I stopped drawing backgrounds around the time I got into TV animation and began to focus on characters and dialogue, with some exceptions. I didn't feel like I had to make a grand statement the way I did in some of my earlier strips.
Any plans to do anything with the Hell characters elsewhere?
I'm probably going to continue to do calendars, and there are many, many strips I haven't collected in books. I've toyed with the idea of putting out a complete edition. I may even do the strip again, I don't know. But probably not.
What are Life in Hell's biggest artistic inspirations?
First would be Charles Schultz's Peanuts, a strip about neurotic turmoil that was drawn very simply. As astute followers of Life in Hell will notice, Akbar and Jeff wear the same striped T-shirt as Charlie Brown. Peanuts was very important to me. I remember one comic in which Lucy makes a row of sand sculptures with her bucket and then stomps each one in succession. She looks at Charlie Brown and says, "I am torn between the desire to create and the desire to destroy." As a kid I thought, "That's me! I can relate!" There's also Jules Feiffer, because he was able to do a weekly comic strip in the Village Voice as well as books and screenplays and everything else. He was a great role model. And then of course my former Evergreen State College classmate Lynda Barry, whose Ernie Pook's Comeek didn't treat the comic strip like old-time vaudeville. It wasn't setup, setup, punch line. She's an under-acknowledged pioneer of a lot of things people are doing in graphic novels and graphic memoirs.
Which Hell strips are you proudest of?
I like all of the early relationship strips that were collected in Love Is Hell, where I pretended to be an expert in relationships and did comics like "The Nine Types of Boyfriends," "Sixteen Ways to End a Relationship," "Twenty-Four Things Not to Say in Bed," and other arbitrarily numbered lists. My very favorite strips over the years, however, were the self-indulgently parental ones in which I tape recorded and then illustrated my kids' arguments and stories. Now they say, "We're not funny anymore, Dad. And neither are you."
How did you wrap it all up? What happens in the final "Life in Hell"?
Binky says to his girlfriend, "Just once I want to hear the three sweetest little words in life come from your lips." She says, "I forgive you." And he says, "Close enough!"