Monday, November 30, 2015

RR Life in Hell

You've heard about the comedian From Hell,

here's the comic strip From Hell!
For more Matt Groening-related reviews, check these other pages below!

Name: Life in Hell - The Big Book of Hell: A Cartoon Book by Matt Groening
Created and illustrated by Matt Groening
Country USA
Publisher Pantheon/Reed Business Information/Bongo Comics
Publication date 1991
Genre Humor/Indie Comic Strips

While he's mostly best known as the creator behind the satirical animated sitcom The Simpsons and the scifi loving tribute/parody Futurama, cartoonist Matt Groening first made a name for himself with a brilliant cynical comic strip series featuring rabbits and a gay couple!

What? You have never heard of Life in Hell??

Life in Hell was a fantastic weekly comic strip Matt Groening has been doing it for ages. Believe it or not, he has been drawing these from 1977 to 2012 non-stop. Through all the success, praise, awards and other projects, never a week off in almost three decades!

Through its fairly long continuous publication Matt touched upon all sorts of topics such as life and death, love, sex, work, etc. Often with a cynic view on our world, a lot of angst and self-loathing.

It all began with a couple of self-published indie comics he made for a few friends when he moved to the big city (of Los Angeles). At first it began as a way to take some steam off his lousy life and tiresome jobs. But these strange weird rabbits quickly found a bigger and bigger audience until they finally helped Matt in return break into the industry.

Let's see what these hilarious black & white comic stripes are about, shall we?

Life in Hell doesn't feature a proper story. Instead they're more of a collection of random little stories, jokes and notes. Often text-heavy. Sometimes they barely feature any actual drawings. But they're always hilarious in one way or another.

Over the years Matt Groening created an entire library of characters he began using more and more often as recurring protagonists in these strips, despite not having any real connection between one another generally speaking.

His main character, his principal stand in "actor" in these scenarios, is Binky. A self-loathing depressed white rabbit. His most "normal" protagonist, his average Joe and possibly main character in these comic strips. Quite often used as a way to insert Matt Groening himself in these strips. Always stuck in dreadful dead end jobs. Binky quickly met Sheba in one of the earliest strips, his once-girlfriend and later partner he first met at a coffee shop (Sheba would become the inspiration behind Marge Simpson actually!). The couple take care of Bongo, Binky's illegitimate son from one drunken night in one of Life in Hell's first few strips, his mother left him to Binky. Bongo is easily Matt's most famous character in these strips and has given his name to Groening's comic book publishing company Bongo Comics, his odd design is no doubt what actually helped this comic a lot establishing its popularity and uniqueness. In fact Bongo would go on having several cameo appearances on the Simpsons and Futurama over the years.

Finally there's Akbar & Jeff, two... weird.. brothers? Or lovers? Or possibly both? Nobody can tell. Well, Matt Groening actually confirmed they're both gay. These two really funny gay characters own a lot to Charlie Brown. They're mostly used to parody our society and are a source of hilarious jokes with the numerous businesses they would open over the years. Such as Akbar & Jeff's Tofu Hut. Or also Akbar & Jeff's T-shirt Hut. Etc.! They started as a generic stand-in couple for quick couple jokes, Matt used these characters to avoid using Binky and Sheba and make any jokes against men and women, but they would develop into unique characters of their own. Over the years several more characters would pop up in more or less recurring roles, such as Akbar & Jeff's nephews or Matt Groening himself!

There's no real sense of continuity or ongoing story in Life in Hell. The strips jump from one topic to another, including several recurring features. In that way they're more like those classic timeless classic comic strips with very basic status quo and non-existant storylines. They're a handy guideline for Matt to talk about whatever he wanted to discuss!

Life in Hell began its life as silly comics Matt used to overtly mock and denounce "adult life", but they would go on to cover work, love or even childhood. Originally they just depicted what adulthood in the 80s turned out to be to a whole generation.

The first Life in Hell comics used to be photocopied by Matt Groening himself and distributed to his friends. He sold those $2 per copy and set them at several local comic book stores were he lived. Then he started making them professionally for sale, under the title "Forbidden Words" in the 1978. But would you know it, before long they got picked up by the Los Angeles Reader (an alternative newspaper where he also worked as an editor and critic). People loved his sarcastic rabbits (the one with one ear particularly!), and the strip just got bigger and bigger before long.

Throughout the series Life in Hell started making several on-going recurring features told as serialized 10+ long comic strip "mini-chapters", usually sticking to a specific topic to discuss and overanalyze such as love, relationship, high school, etc.

The strips were collected in books and got a huge success underground. He was able to sell a ton of copies, which would finally reach the proverbial ears of a Hollywood producer - James L. BrooksJames L. Brooks proposed Matt to turn these into animated skits for The Tracey Ullman Show. That's when Matt Groening refused, fearing to lose the rights behind his own characters, and improvised The Simpsons while in the waiting room to pitch the cartoon. That also explains why the Simpsons family still shares the same DNA as these rabbits, and it shows.

Despite the huge growing success of The Simpsons after their first few shorts in 1987 and the subsequent animated series started in 1990, Matt Groening would keep making these over the next decades despite becoming a more important guy all around. He still kept track and focus aside to keep on making these silly comic strips.

Although due to the demand, he would make a lot more single-panel strips or simple 16-panel exchanges between characters.

On the good side, as he grew in importance, he made these more and more autobiographical.

He never toned down the strips despite his growing popularity and public figure, keeping the same profanity tone, despite more and more newspapers reprinting his Life in Hell strips.

Life in Hell is such an innovative hilarious comic strip series!

Touching so many different "everyday" subjects and taboos.

The strips started using a lot of recurring jokes, such as fake magazine covers, fake advertisements for Akbar & Jeff's various businesses, How-To guides ("How to Be a Clever Film Critic", ..), repetitive characters exchanges discussing their relationship or situation, and the hilarious misadventures in Bongo's.

Bongo at school thinking a good reply, Bongo in detention at school or at home, Bongo getting grounded by Binky's shadow looming over him after a mistake, etc. He was a source of a lot of great jokes!

I truly believe this is some of Matt Groening's best work.

His mind usually goes into all sort of directions. But when he does the same with the Simpsons people seem to think the show lost its heart or direction. But on the paper, in these comic strips there were no barriers or distributors putting censores to stop him from doing whatever he wants.

These strips might seem to scatter all over the place and the stories are a real clutter. But it allowed him to touch all kinds of subjects.

Although it's not without its flaws, without any clear guidelines and Life in Hell being his first work, they can be quite heavy on text. Some will no doubt call a few of these a hard read, but they're a great look into the head of one of our best modern cartoonists.

Not only is Life in Hell his best work to date but without a doubt his most personal. It doesn't want itself preachy, it's just a random collection of little stupid observations made through our everyday life. School. Work. It all rings so true and familiar to anyone, wherever you might come from. He didn't had any anti-anything agenda, it's just our daily life as seen through the eyes of Matt's characters. It can even be touching at times.

These comic strips saw the inception of a lot of Matt Groening's signature creations. From the name Simpson popping up in these pages predating the show to Futurama's classic future conserved "heads-in-a-jar". There's even a few cameos of Bart Simpson in the background of a few panels.

Sadly on June 2012 Matt Groening would announce the ending of Life in Hell. His long-running weekly comic strip would come to an end. The strips are still being reprinted in several newspaper all over the world, but after 30 or so years, it was time to move on. He still loved doing these the last few years but he just needed to catch a breath to focus on other comics, cartoons and projects (which on itself is a good news if you ask me). He has been wanting to explore some other animation projects and whatnot over the years. After being published in the LA Reader, and moving to the LA Weekly in 1986, being canceled a first time in 2009 and keeping making those exclusively for newspapers and book collections, Life in Hell finally stopped.

The strips have never been collected in a complete collection so far. But there's been all kinda collections over the years, about 15 different books. Usually collecting various strips according to different themes; there's been a Work Is Hell book, a Childhood Is Hell, Love is Hell, School is Hell, Akbar and Jeff's Guide to Life, etc. But there's also been a couple of compilation. Mine pictured above is the 1990 book The Big Book of Hell - probably the best to date. About 176-page worth of content collecting an entire decade worth of material, much of Life in Hell's history through its evolution and changes. There's also a 1997 book - The Huge Book of Hell – a 168 pages collection feature popular strips from hundred of newspapers over the years, a collection of his best work.
Life in Hell has known a huge second popularity thanks to The Simpsons in return. there's been all sorts of merchandising around the series, T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, calendars, even a series of vinyl figurines, you name it! Not bad for such a low-key indie alternative comic strip if you ask me.

Overall, Life in Hell is a Must Read to any cartoon and comic strips fan, particularly if you want to know where The Simpsons and Futurama originally come from.

If you like Matt Groening's cartoons, do yourself a favor and check out these book. It's well worth your time to know where the man he is today got his antics and humor. It's a great book, so just sit back and enjoy these dark and hilarious comic strips. A really funny view on our everyday life.

If I have one thing to complain about... is how I would prefer to have the series titled "Life is Hell" instead, it would make a lot more sense and it's already how most recurring features are in fact actually called in the strips.

Most of the basis behind his animated series come from several aspects of Life in Hell. The Simpsons for one get their cynical view of our society and dysfunctional life from LiH. As for Futurama they both share the same kind of love/hate relationship with work, societies and business, the same love for parodies and satires.

They're such great silly anthropomorphic rabbits! You can totally see how it all started. They're really funny sarcastic strips gently mocking our world.

Matt Groening would keep Life in Hell running alongside The Simpsons and Futurama for the most part of the decade.

I give it:
3 / 3 Ampersands!

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