By: Rob Tornoe
It’s hard to talk about “The Simpsons” without commenting on the show’s remarkable success. Not many TV series make it to a second season, much less the 22 that Bart, Lisa, and Homer have enjoyed. But most fans don’t even realize that for all that time plus more, creator Matt Groening anchored himself to his drafting table each week and produced a new “Life in Hell” comic strip that he self-syndicated to newspapers across the country.
Well, after 32 years and 1,669 strips, Groening decided to call it quits back in June and stopped producing new strips featuring anthropomorphic rabbits Binky, Sheba, and Bongo, as well as Akbar and Jeff — a fez-wearing gay couple.
I spoke to Groening about his decision to end the strip, and his thoughts about the newspaper industry and comics in general.
So why did you abruptly pull the plug on “Life in Hell” after 32 years?
Every weekly cartoonist I talked to — Chris Ware, Jules Feiffer, Lynda Barry — told me how much happier they were after they were able to get away from weekly deadlines. So, I thought I might be happier too.
It’s a little bit like being tethered to your drawing table. Even when I wasn’t drawing it, I was thinking about it. So I wanted to see what it would be like to clear my mind.
A lot of syndicated cartoonists work four to six weeks ahead of their print schedule, so they’re not rushing at the last minute. That was never an option for you?
I got ahead a couple of times in order to take weeklong trips, but they often weren’t the best strips. The best strips came from the pressure of having a gun at my head to finish a strip so I could make my deadline.
You were never worried about coming up with a good strip, even with everything else going on?
I think for the first four years I worried I’d run out of ideas. Eventually, I reached the point where I knew I’d come up with something, and maybe it’d be striking and original.
Honestly, I wasn’t worried about coming up with ideas. I was worried about the mechanical aspect of drawing the strip week in and week out. The repetitive nature got to me.
So a good deal of the desire to end “Life in Hell” was just the tedious nature of creating it each week?
Well, one other reason for quitting was because the number of papers that printed “Life in Hell” kept shrinking. It was particularly aggravating that I wasn’t being printed locally in Los Angeles. “Life in Hell” was cut out of LA Weekly, along with other cartoons.
I’d draw the strip, send it out, and wouldn’t see it reprinted anywhere. If “Life in Hell” were still in LA Weekly, it would probably have kept me going.
It seems like you deliberately avoided the Internet with “Life in Hell,” which seems like a natural audience. Was that intentional?
I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I’ll probably put up some kind of archive at some point, collecting all the “Life in Hell” strips. I’m always interested in new things, so the idea of memorializing old strips, while it has a certain appeal, is tough for me because I’ve already done them.
I always thought cartoons worked well in print because of the transitory nature of print publications. You need to pick it up, or you won’t see it.
What has kept you drawing “Life in Hell” for so long, especially considering your schedule and the success you’ve had with both “The Simpsons” and “Futurama”?
Everything you read in newspapers and magazines generally has the unseen hand of an editor. You don’t know exactly what the writer’s original intent was. What’s great about a comic strip is they’re generally hand drawn, hand lettered, and don’t have the feeling of being edited. They really feel like an undiluted thought by a specific individual.
For me, looking at a comic strip in a newspaper is like having a little window into the individual’s self-expression that you just don’t get in a column of gray type.
Have you always been a fan of print?
I love newspapers. I loved all the alt-weeklies when they were big and fat and thriving. The Chicago Reader was a great pioneer in filling up their classified section with more and more cartoons. It was fantastic.
My father, Homer, worked for an advertising agency on Jantzen swimwear out of Portland. So, we’d get every general interest magazine in the country mailed to us. I grew up reading everything from Playboy, National Geographic, Ebony, and the local newspapers — I read them all and just loved them.
I look back at what newspapers used to be. Not just from when I was growing up, but even before my time. There used to be a visual exuberance that would be staggering if someone did that today.
Why does TV understand the popularity of cartoons so well, while newspapers and print media seem to have forgotten their roots?
There’s been a tradition in both print and television animation that it’s a medium for children. Historically, there were so many taboos in daily comics; the approach really was to avoid offending the most easily offended people.
With animation, “The Simpsons” was considered extremely outrageous and offensive when it premiered. What’s funny is the very things that ruffled the feathers of so many people back then seem very mild now. We didn’t cause the collapse of civilization.
Any plans to do anything with “Life in Hell” in the future?
I’m going to continue to do a yearly calendar, and I’m probably going to do another “Life in Hell” collection. A big one. I’m trying to work that out right now.
I love those big books where the cartoonist talks about the comic strips, so I’d like to do one of those. I don’t think I’ll do the complete collection the way “Far Side” and “Dilbert” have done. Let’s call it a best plus more.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at [email protected].