Life in Hell with Matt Groening

After a successful run as a syndicated comic strip, Life in Hell has launched numerous calendars, book collections, and other memorabilia. So has The Simpsons, the long-running Emmy Award winning series on Fox. Not only has creator Matt Groening done an excellent job in making sure that this show retains its cutting edge but, not content to rest on his laurels, has launched another Fox series, Futurama, a high-quality science fiction satire that promises to be every bit as successful.

Matt Groening (rhymes with "complaining") was born near Beaverton, Oregon, in 1954. His father, Homer Groening, a cartoonist himself, encouraged his son to draw.

After attending the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, he graduated in 1977. Groening held down some interesting jobs before he hit the big time: he worked in a sewage treatment plant and as a chauffeur to an aging movie director; he then served as ghostwriter on the aging movie director's memoirs. The fledgling writer was able to quit those jobs when his first comic strip, Life in Hell, debuted in Wet Magazine in 1978, and began its first regular weekly appearance in the alternative paper Los Angeles Reader two years later. The amusingly cynical comic strip features two rabbits, Binky and Sheba (selected because Groening says rabbits are easy to draw) and two bizarre fez wearing look-alikes, Akbar and Jeff, who are "brothers or lovers or both."

An employee of the Reader,Groening at first self-syndicated his strip, but by 1984 the syndication chores were taken over by the woman who would become his wife, Deborah Caplan, who independently published a collection entitled Love is Hell, which almost immediately sold out its first edition of 20,000. Five other Hell books followed, as well as Akbar & Jeff's Guide To Life. Matt and Deborah were married in 1986 and license the use of the strip's images on products like posters, beach towels, and greeting cards. As for the strip itself, it now appears in about 250 newspapers around the world.

Groening's next step up in his cartooning career was a major one. His first animated work, The Simpsons, began as a two-minute sketch on The Tracey Ullman Show on September 8, 1986. According to Groening, he had received a phone call from James Brookes who wanted him to do some animation for the popular show.

Prior to their launch in a regular series, The Simpson family first debuted in a holiday special, The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, in 1989. In 1990 it began its astounding fifteen year run and, in addition to winning Emmys and a Peabody Award, has also sparked a much-needed revival of animation on television.

If anyone reading this has been living in a cave for most of the nineties, The Simpsons are a brilliantly dysfunctional family, something like a cross between the Bundys and the Yokums, and as a vehicle for satire are a later equivalent of Harvey Kurtzman's Mad of the 1950s. The cartoon family members are named after, but mercifully not based on, Groening's own relatives: Groening's father and son are named Homer, his other son is named Abraham, his mother is Marge and he has two sisters, Lisa and Maggie. Bart, however, is an anagram of "brat," which is all too fitting!

With the success of his show, Groening went on to form the Bongo Comics Group in 1993. As the publisher of Bongo Comics, Groening has created four different comic book titles including Simpsons Comics, Radioactive Man, Bartman, and Itchy and Scratchy Comics. Groening has also produced two special comic series: Lisa Comics and Krusty Comics. Aside from comics, there are numerous other Simpsons collectibles, ranging from a set of Burger King Simpsons plush figures, valued at over $20, to pencil boxes and premium card sets.

In 1990 Groening and former Simpsons writer David X. Cohen left 20th century suburban Springfield for 30th century New York with a new series, Futurama. When pizza-delivery boy Fry (Billy West) accidentally freezes himself for ten centuries (hey, it happens!), he's given a new start in life --as an interplanetary delivery boy. His companions include a beautiful one-eyed alien, Leela (voiced by former Bundy Katey Sagal), and Bender (John DiMaggio), a drinking, smoking, porno loving (X-rated circuit diagrams) robot.

At present there isn't much Futurama merchandise around to collect, aside from a 2000 calendar, tee shirts, and a few promotional items. One reason for the slow roll out of material is that Fox has decided to take a different approach than it did ten years ago with The Simpsons. Word is, Futurama merchandise, which will be released in May 2000, will be a bit more than just key rings and hat logos, but will be targeted at fans and collectors and will include tin toys, figurines, and "alternative apparel fabrications." If such collectibles are equal to the quality of the show, it should be a spring worth waiting for!*

--Steve Stiles

((*It was, but it's 2005 now and the show exists only as a rerun. D-oh! Oh well, I've got a real cool Bender figurine.))