“Yes, the Simpsons have come a long way since an old drunk made humans out of his rabbit characters to pay off his gambling debts. Who knows what adventures they’ll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?”
Late last year, Fantagraphics published The Complete Zap Comix, a five-volume, $500 hardcover boxed set of Robert Crumb and San Francisco publisher Apex Novelties’ seminal underground comics series. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Zap. Though Crumb and his peers had done (and would do) work that had just as great an impact on the artistic development of the medium, Zap Comix became the underground’s flagship title, and the popularity of the Zap brand had a lingering effect on what the counterculture would come to expect from its funnybooks—namely subversion and transgression, tinged with acid. The Complete Zap Comix contains the 16 issues published between 1968 and 2004 (plus a previously unpublished 17th), and reading through them all, it’s remarkable how long and how stubbornly this group of artists clung to the aesthetic ideals of their wanton 20s. The quality of the work in Zap fluctuates throughout, from tossed-off doodles to feverish genius, but the subject matter is fairly consistent: sex, violence, and psychedelia.
The major exception is Crumb, who kept honing his style, and expanding his scope, using his pages to explore autobiography and social commentary, alongside the bizarre sexual fantasies and general goofing around that first made his name. While the hippies turned to the undergrounds for unapologetically un-PC drug humor, the generation of cartoonists that followed was more inspired by Crumb’s broader command of both form and content.
Matt Groening was in that next generation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, new comics scenes sprung up on both coasts, steeped in punk rock, nurtured in art schools, and determined to draw a line between MAD magazine, Zap Comix, and the short-lived, avant-garde-inclined anthology Arcade. Some of these young artists sold their work to the leading alt-comics magazines of the era, Weirdo and RAW. Groening followed a different path, joining his college classmate Lynda Barry and his fellow L.A. punker Gary Panter in coming up with industrious ways to support himself through comics: via commercial illustration, self-publishing, and syndicating a strip in alternative weekly newspapers.
In 1977, shortly after Groening moved to Los Angeles, he started drawing little cartoons for his friends to illustrate how miserable he was in his new home, using nervous-looking rabbits as his characters. He titled the comics “Life In Hell,” and eventually started publishing a weekly strip under that name in the Los Angeles Reader (where he was also writing an offbeat, highly personal music-review column). Sometimes Groening used his space in the Reader to produce one huge single-panel cartoon. Sometimes he broke the space up into more conventional multi-panel strips, with dialogue and narratives. Often he just squeezed in art and text everywhere he could, dumping all of his ideas about culture and politics onto the page and treating Life In Hell like his weekly sketchbook.
In 1986, copies of Groening’s book Love Is Hell started popping up in the “Humor” section of chain bookstores, marking the first big step in his accidental march to cultural dominance. Groening and his future ex-wife Deborah Caplan had collected some of the Life In Hell strips under the title Love Is Hell in 1984, and sold enough copies of that first version of the book that Random House’s Pantheon put out a 1986 “special new mini-jumbo edition.” That same year Pantheon released Work Is Hell, and then School Is Hell in 1987 and Childhood Is Hell in 1988.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The mid-1980s were a boom time for new newspaper strips, which meant the Hell books sat on the shelves next to best-selling anthologies of Calvin And Hobbes, Bloom County, and The Far Side, and appealed to readers who already loved those comics’ mix of sarcasm, surrealism, and sweetness. Also, while the early Life In Hell strips indulged in the “ugly art” punk aesthetic of Panter, Barry, and Weirdo, by 1984 Groening had smoothed-out and simplified his lines, giving his characters the visual immediacy of popular graffiti artists like Keith Haring. Because the mass-market Hell paperbacks were inexpensive, and because their minimalist design stood out from other cartoon collections, those first four books became popular, especially on college campuses. The became an even bigger deal after Groening started contributing animated Simpsons shorts to Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987.
From the start, The Simpsons cartoons’ resemblances to Life In Hell were mostly superficial—and would diminish further once The Simpsons made the jump from Ullman to its own show. Reportedly, producer Jim Brooks originally wanted to option Life In Hell, but Groening balked at the studio’s copyright demands, and instead tweaked the strip’s characters to make new ones, inspired primarily by his own family. Where Life In Hell had put-upon everybunny Binky, his girlfriend Sheba, and his one-eared son Bongo, The Simpsons featured a more conventionally middle-class suburban home, with a husband and wife and three kids. Homer Simpson is much dopier than Binky, while Marge has more personality than Sheba, and Bart is far brattier than Bongo. (“Bart” is actually an anagram for “brat.”)
The strongest connection between Life In Hell and those early Simpsons shorts—besides the characters’ bug eyes and overbites—is in the father/son relationships. In the comic strip, Bongo is the conduit for Groening’s memories of what it’s like to be a kid: full of questions, fear, and casual mischief. Bongo’s a fusion of Bart and Lisa, at times too clever for his own good. In the Tracey Ullman Show version of The Simpsons, whenever one of the kids peppers a parent with unanswerable questions, that’s the closest the cartoon comes to being a straight Life In Hell adaptation.
Really, Life In Hell today is less interesting as a precursor to The Simpsons than as an unexpectedly mainstream spin on the underground comics sensibility. Groening wasn’t doing drug humor per se, but he liked to use the strip to prick away at people’s pretensions, and to express solidarity with everyone who felt alienated by their jobs, their relationships, and by the state of their nation. He took something that had a surface cuteness, and laced it with despair.
Even after The Simpsons became a mammoth success, Groening kept turning out weekly Life In Hell cartoons, sticking with it even as alt-weeklies either died off or slimmed down, effectively killing the market for these kinds of syndicated features. Groening finally ended Life In Hell in 2012, leaving behind a body of work as consistent and culturally valuable in its way as Zap Comix. Groening’s focus changed somewhat over the decades, as he drew more cartoons about his own life and his own kids (the latter strips eventually collected as the charming book Will And Abe’s Guide To The Universe), or spent weeks on end documenting the dadaist adventures of the lookalike brothers/lovers Akbar and Jeff. But he remained committed throughout Life In Hell’s run to conveying common life experiences, in a world that kept getting more fractured.
Groening hasn’t always enjoyed the full support of his peers—at least not like Barry and Panter have. When the Life In Hell books started selling, and The Simpsons followed, Groening’s popularity bred more than a little distrust among comics’ at-times insular community of outsiders. (Everyone’s happy when a local band hits it big, except for other local bands.) But just as The Simpsons ultimately became too funky and rich to dismiss as a sellout, so Life In Hell always retained the personality of an artist who loves the medium and shares a kinship with its cutting edge.
Like the early underground cartoonists, Groening experimented with the form, trying different layouts and storytelling techniques within Life In Hell’s rigidly defined dimensions. And like Crumb, his comics would run the gamut from sweeping statements about society to deep dissections of life’s minutiae. Groening may have sanded away a few too many edges as his audience grew and he figured out how to cater to their taste for attractively packaged dissent. But then it was never going to be a clean job, to fit the spirit of Zap into a little box.