Life in Hell by Matt Groening

Matt Groening is an U.S. cartoonist and TV producer whose comics career consists of one single series: 'Life In Hell' (1977-2012), which features the daily grueling existence of the rabbit family Bongo, Sheba and Binky and the identical homosexual partners Akbar and Jeff. However, the world knows him much better as the creator of the cult animated TV series 'The Simpsons' (since 1989),  'Futurama' (1999-2003, 2008-2013) and 'Disenchantment' (2018). His entire body of work is notable for its clever satire, edgy subversiveness, double layers, extra hidden jokes and still very relatable humanity. He managed to appeal to audiences of all ages, both the general public as well as intellectuals. Groening is one of the few cartoonists whose work is subject to critical analysis. His influence on popular culture has been immeasurable. 'Life in Hell' had a strong impact on later alternative comics. Since the 1990s countless TV cartoons have been inspired by 'The Simpsons', particularly for adults. Various live-action sitcoms have also taken cues from it. 'Futurama' popularized science fiction and astronomy among new audiences, while 'Disenchantment' led to more interest for fantasy literature. In many ways Groening can be called the Walt Disney of our age, even though his style is vastly different. 

Early life and influences
Matthew Abram Groening was born in 1954 in Portland, Oregon, as the son of Homer Groening, an amateur film maker, writer and cartoonist. Despite having a creative father, Matt was strongly discouraged to follow in his father's footsteps, in the belief he would never be able to make a living out of it. At school Groening enjoyed scribbling spaceships, monsters and teachers' caricatures in his notebooks, which got him into frequent trouble.  He discovered that the angrier people got about his drawings, the better they were. As a teenager Groening got fascinated by counterculture and odd artists, ranging from underground comix, modern classical music, freejazz, psychedelic rock, outsider music, exotica, world music, cult novels to independent cinema. Influenced by his idol, rock musician Frank Zappa, he decided to let no art forms be "too high" or "too low" for him. In the field of "high art" he was influenced by artists like M.C. Escher, Mike Kelley, Wayne White, Cameron Jamie, Kenny Scharf, Jim Shaw and Henry A. Shute. His favorite illustrators and one-panel cartoonists were Rowland Emmett, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, Dr. SeussJ. Otto SeiboldJames Thurber, Ron Cobb, Cal Schenkel and John Callahan. Among his graphic influences in the field of comics were Charles M. Schulz, Ernie Bushmiller, Carl BarksAl CappGeorge Herriman, Walt Kelly, Mad Magazine (particularly the work of Jack Davis), Jack KirbyRobert CrumbAline KominskyLynda Barry, Charles Burns, Gary PanterKim Deitch, Robert Williams, Justin Green, Bill GriffithNicole Hollander, Heather McAdams, David Boswell, Dennis P. EichhornPeter Bagge, Doug Allen, Daniel Clowes, Lat, Jim Woodring, Harvey PekarArt SpiegelmanMimi Pond, Lloyd DangleLat, Tom Tomorrow, Ted Rall, Chris WareJoe Matt, Carol Lay, Jeff Smith, Michael Dougan, Scott McCloudMax Cannon and René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's 'Astérix'. In the field of animation he underwent influence from Walt DisneyMax and Dave Fleischer, Otto MessmerTex Avery, Chuck Jones, Terry Gilliam, Jay Ward, John Kricfalusi, Sylvain Chomet, Bill Plympton and Nick Park. He also respects Mike Judge, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Stephen Hillenburg  and Seth MacFarlane.

Work is Hell by Matt Groening
'Work is Hell'

Higher education, lower expectations
In the mid 1970s Groening studied philosophy at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where Lynda Barry and Charles Burns were his co-students. Both would become lifelong friends and strong influences on his work. After graduation in 1977 Groening moved to Los Angeles, where he met another struggling young cartoonist, Gary Panter, who shared the same interests and goals. The title character of his comic strip 'Jimbo' would later inspire Bart Simpson's hairdo. Groening soon found out living in L.A. wasn't as great as he expected. To make ends meet he wrote a music review column in a small press magazine, but wasn't interested in the mainstream artists he had to interview and discuss. After a while he just made up bands which didn't exist and gave them raving reviews. His column gradually wasn't even about music anymore, just any topic that he wanted to discuss. While he and a few readers got some enjoyment out of it this job didn't satisfy him in the long end.  His feelings about L.A. where expressed in a comic strip named 'Life in Hell'. 

Life in Hell
'Life In Hell' (1977-2012) started out as a series of doodles for his friends. In 1978 they first appeared in print in the local art magazine Wet, until they reached a wider audience from April 1980 on in the Los Angeles Reader. 'Life in Hell' is a gag comic. It centers around a family, drawn as rabbits since they were the only animals he could doodle recognizably enough. Binky is the disgruntled father, Sheba his long-suffering wife and Bongo his illegitimate son. Bongo was given only one ear to distinguish him from Binky. Two other side characters, Akbar and Jeff, were also examples of Groening's low  graphical skills. The two fez-wearing ambiguously gay friends (or identical twins) started off as bad copies of Charles M. Schulz, hence their similar shirts and short stature. Groening furthermore took a lot of cartooning tips from reading Jack Hamm's instruction books and by mimicking the simple artwork and instant readability of Ernie Bushmiller's 'Nancy'. 'Life in Hell' relies heavily on verbal comedy, which sometimes results in huge chunks of text with only a few doodles here and there. 

Yet what 'Life in Hell' lacked in graphical skill it made up for in its content. The underground comic offered sharp and hilarious satirical digs at school, work, relationships, politics and childhood. Right from the start 'Life in Hell' had a very autobiographical tone. Bongo suffers through school, gets frequently bullied and punished and has deep questions about his grueling existence. Binky and Sheba originally reflected Groening's own experiences with relationships, until his girlfriends complained that he always portrayed it from his own perspective, rather than the women. Therefore Groening created Akbar and Jeff, whose identical look and same sex made his satire of relationships more neutral. In the 1980s the cartoon received critical praise and a cult following. Groening also collected his strip in books like 'Love is Hell' (1986), 'Work is Hell' (1986), 'School is Hell' (1987) and 'Childhood is Hell' (1988). These were followed by a merchandise line (shirts, greeting cards, calendars, mugs) and the launch of the Acme Features Syndicate that distributed the strip to several papers until 2012. Acme Features was launched by Groening and his then girlfriend Deborah Caplan, and also published comics by Lynda Barry and John Callahan. In the late 1980s he made exclusive 'Life in Hell' advertisements for Apple Computer. 

As 'Life in Hell' continued its run the comic strip became less about his fictional protagonists and more about Groening himself.  He would portray himself as a bearded rabbit, illustrating anecdotes about his own past and/or recent life. Once he adapted pages from his own childhood diaries into a comic strip. In other episodes he directly referenced U.S. politics, actual events or popular trends. The tone also started to shift. When he debuted as a cartoonist Groening drew more cartoons about relationships and his inner frustrations. Once he got married 'Life in Hell' dealt more with raising children. During the 1990s he made several comics about his infant sons Will and Abe. Their unintentionally funny conversations, questions and remarks provided him with enough material to fill an entire book: 'Will and Abe's Guide to the Universe' (2007). The surest reflection of how Groening's outlook on life had changed was the new title he gave his comic in 2006: 'Life Is Swell.' 

Life in Hell

The Simpsons
While 'Life in Hell' gained a cult following one particular strip, 'The Los Angeles Way of Death', motivated Hollywood producer James L. Brooks to offer Groening a TV contract.  Originally 'Life in Hell' would be adapted into an animated TV series, but when Groening found out that he would lose his rights to his comic he changed his mind. He was somewhat anxious about the whole idea anyway, given the existence of so many bad TV versions of popular comics. Therefore he came up with a totally different concept about a dysfunctional family. On 19 April 1987 'The Simpsons' first went in the air, but in those days still as 15-second bumpers in 'The Tracey Ullman Show', right before and after commercial breaks. The shorts quickly caught on and by 1989 a 20-minute Christmas special was made. The pilot episode was written by Mimi Pond. High ratings paved the way for a full-blown prime time sitcom. 

Much like 'Life in Hell' the earliest seasons of the show had very crude and simple artwork, yet made up for it by being a brilliant satirical mirror of present-day society. Groening knew that bad animation could be easily forgiven if the humor and writing were excellent, with Jay Ward's 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' (1959-1964) as the best example. 'The Simpsons' caught attention for its subversive style, poking fun at family ethics, politics, business, religion, education, nuclear power and the United States in general. Many moral guardians felt offended and considered the cartoon unsuitable for young viewers. Particularly breakout character Bart Simpson was perceived as a bad role model. This didn't stop the yellow-skinned family from becoming a mainstream success, though. Gradually the comedy and satire became more sophisticated and the characters more streamlined. By 1992 the series was such a cultural phenomenon that during a meeting of the Republican Party on 27 January 1992 U.S president George Bush Sr. declared that "the American Family (...) needs to be a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." That same week, Bart Simpson responded in the next episode of their show: "Hey, we're just like The Waltons: we pray for an end to the recession too". Perhaps (not) coincidentally Bush lost the presidential elections later that year. In a 1 October 1990 interview with People Magazine First Lady Barbara Bush had earlier declared "The Simpsons" "the dumbest thing she ever saw."

Love is Hell by Matt Groening
'Love Is Hell'

'The Simpsons' eventually earned more respectability from its detractors. With a cast of numerous colourful and unforgettable characters it allowed for many different and unpredictable storylines. Their list of recurring cast members is so huge that there is even a comic book store owner, Comic Book Guy. He is a spot-on parody of every obsessive and self-important pop-culture geek, so much in fact that viewers have frequently asked Groening whether he happened to be based on their local comics salesman? Groening just replied that he is just "EVERY comic book store owner in the US" The show also has actual cartoon and comics characters in their own universe, namely the superhero spoof 'Radio-Active Man' and 'Itchy and Scratchy', a pastiche of cartoon violence. In 'The Simpsons', jokes and references to both high and low culture appeal to both average viewers as well as intellectuals. Some can only be caught after multiple viewings.

Various celebrities have guest starred as voice actors, including Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, Kirk Douglas, Stephen Hawking, Paul McCartney, Mel Gibson and Michael Jackson. Some of them fellow comics artists and/or animators, including Hugh Hefner (the episode 'Krusty Gets Kancelled', 1993), Mike Judge ('Bart Star', 1997), Stan Lee ('I Am Furious (Yellow)', 2002, 'Married to the Blob', 2014', Caper Chase', 2017), Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Daniel Clowes ('Husbands and Knives' (2007), Gary Larson ('Once Upon a Time in Springfield', 2010), Nick Park ('Angry Dad: The Movie' (2011), Neil Gaiman ('The Book Job', 2011), Seth MacFarlane ('Dangers on a Train' (2013), Pendleton Ward ('Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus', 2016), Seth Green ('The Cad and the Hat', 2017), Alison Bechdel, Roz Chast, Dan Harmon and Marjane Satrapi ('Springfield Splendor', 2017) and Matt Groening himself ('My Big Fat Geek Wedding' in 2004 and 'Homer the Whopper' in 2009). Several artists have also guest animated the shows' opening credits, including Banksy ('MoneyBart', 2010), John Kricfalusi ('Bart Stops To Smell the Roosevelts', 2012, 'Treehouse of Horror XXVI', 2015), Bill Plympton ('Beware My Cheating Bart', 2012, 'Black Eyed, Please', 2013 'Married to the Blob', 2014, 'Lisa the Veterinarian', 2016, '22 for 30', 2017 and '3 Scenes Plus A Tag From Marriage', 2018), Seth Green ('The Fabulous Baker Boy', 2013, 'The Cad and the Hat', 2017), Sylvain Chomet ('Diggs', 2014), Michael Socha ('What to Expect When Bart's Expecting', 2014), Don Hertzfeldt ('Clown in the Dumps', 2014), Paul Robertson, Ivan Dixon and Jeremy Dower ('My Fare Lady', 2015), Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland ('Mathlete's Feat', 2015), Steve Cutts ('Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles', 2016), Disney animator Eric Goldberg ('Fland Canyon', 2016) and Pendleton Ward ('Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus', 2016). It landed the show a place in the Guinness Book of Records for being the TV show with the most guest stars in history.

Comic Book Guy and a cameo of Stan Lee, from the episode 'I Am Furious (Yellow)".

Universally popular, 'The Simpsons' are some of the most recognizable TV characters on the planet. They inspired countless merchandising products, including a 2007 film ('The Simpsons Movie'), and have become the most succesful animated TV sitcom since Hanna-Barbera's 'The Flintstones' (1960-1967). In 1997 they broke the modern stone-age family's record as longest-running prime time animated TV series. Since 2009 'The Simpsons' is also the longest-running American TV show since 'Gunsmoke' (1955-1975). The program has won numerous awards, including 31 Emmy's. It had a huge influence on other animated adult TV series, including Mike Judge's 'Beavis and Butt-head' and 'King of the Hill', Everett Peck's 'Duckman', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park' and Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy'. The impact of the show on modern culture has been such that in 1999 Time Magazine named Bart Simpson one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He was the only fictional character on that list.

In 1999 Groening created a new animated sitcom, 'Futurama'. Its style of satire and comedy are similar to 'The Simpsons', but stories are set in the 31st century. The series is a spoof of the science fiction genre, both the naïve versions dealing with flying cars, aliens and robots, as well as more grim and frightening dystopias. Satire about human society is mixed with references to history, astronomy, math, quantum physics and space exploration. The show has featured celebrity guest voices such as The Beastie Boys, Lucy Liu, "Buzz" Aldrin, Gary Gygax, Mark Hamill, Al Gore, Stephen Hawking and almost the complete cast of the original 'Star Trek' TV series. Fellow cartoonists also turned up in front of the microphone, such as Sergio Aragonés and Groening himself in the 2010 episode 'Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences'. Despite receiving similar excellent reviews, the show never reached the same mainstream popularity and was cancelled in 2003. Thanks to a strong cult following it was revived in 2008, but met its end again in 2013. In 2014 the Simpsons episode 'Simpsorama' made a crossover with 'Futurama'.

Cover by Matt GroeningBizarro Comics

Bongo & Zongo Comics 
In 1993, Groening formed Bongo Comics (named after the character Bongo from 'Life in Hell') with Steve Vance, Cindy Vance and Bill Morrison. The company publishes comic books based on 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', among other things. Zongo Comics followed a year later, and deals with comic books for more mature readers, including work by Gary Panter and Mary Fleener. Matt Groening is also the co-producer of Paper Moon Graphics, a successful line of humorous greeting cards. Artists who have worked for Bongo Comics are Igor Baranko, Hilary Barta, John Delaney, Jason Ho, Mike Kazaleh, Carolyn KellyBatton Lash, Carol Lay, Oscar González Loyo, Carlos MotaPhil Ortiz, Andrew Pepoy, Horacio Sandoval, Scott Shaw!, Mike Worley, John Costanza, Tim Harkin and Sergio Aragonés. In October 2018 Bongo Comics ceased all its publications.

Other graphic associates
Another associate of Groening who has made comics, but not for Bongo Comics, is Liz Climo, a storyboard revisionist and clean-up artist for 'The Simpsons'. Cliff Voorhees was once background lay-out artist for three 'Simpsons' episodes.

Two 'Comic Book Guy' covers. The one of the left references the classic cover of the first 'Fantastic Four' story by Jack Kirby. The one on the right parodies the cover 'Death of Supergirl' (Crisis on Infinite Earths issue #7 ,October 1985) by George Pérez.

Groening won a Reuben Award for 'Life in Hell' in 2002 and in 2016 he was inducted in the Eisner Hall of Fame. 'The Simpsons' received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2000, while Groening got his own star in 2012.

Media appearances
He has voiced characters in animated films such as J. Otto Seibold's 'Olive, the Other Reindeer' (1999) and Bill Plympton's 'Hair High' (2004). He also appeared in several documentaries, including about Frank Zappa ('Peefeeyatko', 1992, and 'Late Night Special', 1993), Captain Beefheart ('The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart', 1997), Chuck Jones ('The Magical World of Chuck Jones', 1992, and 'Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens', 2000), John Cage ('Revenge of the Dead Indians', 1993), Charles M. Schulz ('Good Grief, Charlie Brown', (2000), The Beatles ('The Beatles Revolution', 2000), Daniel Johnston ('The Devil and Daniel Johnston', 2005), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth ('Tales of the Rat Fink', 2006), Wayne White ('Beauty is Embarrassing', 2012), David Boswell ('I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!', 2015), Nick Park ('A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman', 2015), The Residents ('A Theory of Obscurity', 2015) and Steel Pulse ('Dreadtown'). He occasionally played in the amateur rock band The Rockbottom Remainders and designed the album cover of Frank Zappa's posthumous live record, 'Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute' (1996).

Written and graphic contributions
Groening also wrote the foreword to Monte Beauchamp's book about Robert Crumb, 'The Life and Times of R. Crumb' (1996), the 1956-1958 edition of the posthumous compilation books of Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts' series and Sergio Aragonés' compilation book 'Mad's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés: Five Decades of his Finest Works' (2010). He did the same for reprints of Chuck Jones' autobiography 'Chuck Amuck' (1994) and Lat's 'Kampung Boy'. When the Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. held the exhibition 'Masters of American Comics' (2005) and published a catalogue with work by the respective artists Groening wrote an essay about Gary Panter. Groening was also one of many cartoonists who contributed a graphical homage to The Ramones' compilation CD/comic book 'Weird Tales From The Ramones' (2005).

School is hell by Matt Groening

End of 'Life in Hell'
On June 16, 2012 'Life in Hell' came to an end. Twenty-two cartoonists paid tribute, including Jim Borgman, Ruben Bolling, Carol Lay, Ivan Brunetti, Jerry Scott, Sammy Harkham, Jen Sorensen, Tom Gammill, Peter Kuper, Jeffrey Brown, Bobby London, Patrick McDonnell, Tom Tomorrow, James Sturm, Tom Gammill, Sergio Aragonés, Alison Bechdel, Jordan Crane, Tony Millionaire, Art Spiegelman and Rob Sikoryak. Another homage came from Ted Rall, who wrote words of praise on his personal blog, claiming that the success of 'Life in Hell' motivated many mainstream magazines and newspapers to publish more alternative cartoonists. 

In 2016 he created a new animated TV series, 'Disenchantment' (2018), broadcast on Netflix. The show revolves around princess Bean, her personal demon Luci and her elf sidekick Elfo. Much like 'Futurama' tackled science fiction, 'Disenchantment' satirizes the world of fantasy.

Matt Groening

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