From ‘Hell’ To Eternity: Celebrating Matt Groening
Born on this day in 1954, Matt Groening's instantly recognizable visual style, off-kilter humor, and knack for depicting the innate dysfunctionality of personal interactions have defined him as one of the most influential cartoonists of the late 20th/early 21st century. From self-publishing comics in the late '70s, to overseeing a multi-media empire in the new millennium, he's followed an unorthodox and unlikely path to fame and fortune, without compromising his idiosyncratic vision.
Matt Groening was born in Portland, Oregon on February 15th, 1954, and fell in love with comics at an early age, first absorbing the contents of his older brother's collection, then moving on to buying (and creating) his own. He attended Evergreen State College in Washington in the mid-'70s, where he edited, wrote for, and provided cartoons to the campus newspaper. After moving to Los Angeles in 1977, he began channeling his employment and romantic woes into a self-published comic filled with grotesquely bug-eyed anthropomorphic figures.
Groening first distributed copies of his Life In Hell zine at the record store where he worked, and soon thereafter began to sell his strips to various alternative publications. In 1980, Life In Hell became a regular feature in the Los Angeles Reader newspaper. It jumped ship to competing paper LA Weekly a few years later, and by the middle of the decade had started appearing in weeklies around the country.
In 1985, Groening's friend Deborah Caplan formed a company to publish the first paperback LIH collection, Love Is Hell, which sold well enough that Groening and Caplan soon reached an agreement with Random House's Pantheon imprint to release more collected editions.
Life In Hell was a perfectly of-its-moment creation, striking just the right subversive notes for an era of coke-fueled self-obsession and cold-war paranoia, and appearing at a time and place where the entirety of 20th century pop culture was ripe for revival and revisitation.
Groening's work fit into a distinct period of late-'70s/early-'80s L.A., a world where midcentury design, classic cartoons, pop art, and retro-'50s iconography were being referenced and remixed by a number of young talents, and this strip featuring neurotic buck-toothed lovelorn rabbits and a blank-faced same-sex couple in fezzes and Charlie Brown shirts lampooning American entrepreneurialism fit right into the madness.
The strip swung between grids of categorized items ("The 9 Types Of Relationships", "The 16 Types Of Sisters", "The 24 Warning Signs Of Stress"), mocked-up magazine cover parodies ("Struggling Artist Magazine"), tongue-in-cheek advertisements ("Akbar 'n' Jeff's Tofu Hut") and narrative strips commenting on the foibles of society and/or the futility of love.
Groening's humor was tailored to a world of self-analysis and late-night movies, Reaganomics and suburban punk, infomercials and modern art, but kept itself rooted in timeless themes of emotional anguish and existential confusion, resulting in work that was both timely and timeless.
In 1985, TV and film producer James L. Brooks approached Groening about creating an animated project, and two years later, short sequences began appearing on the Fox Network's The Tracey Ullman Show: brief cartoons featuring a dysfunctional nuclear family with googly eyes, spiky hair, and bright yellow skin. Groening's distinctive sensibility was perfectly suited to skewering sitcom conventions, and viewers took notice.
Before long, The Simpsons spun off into its own show, and became an immediate hit. Every imaginable form of merchandising ensued, with Simpsons T-shirts, trading cards, candy, toys, stickers, notebooks, and whatever-the-heck-else appearing on shelves in stores, supermarkets, and shopping malls. Bart Simpson appeared on the cover of Time and Rolling Stone. The Simpsons were, simply, a sensation.
But even as his work became ubiquitous in different media, Groening maintained his commitment to comics. He continued to produce weekly Life In Hell strips, and in 1993, became a co-founder of Bongo Comics, a company created to publish Simpsons-centric comic books (and later expanded into publishing original characters, as well as other media tie-in titles).
In 1999, Groening and the Fox network teamed to launch another animated show, the sci-fi comedy Futurama, which drew a loyal following, enjoyed a four-year initial run, and has since seen a pair of successful revivals. In 2007, The Simpsons Movie was released and became a #1 box office smash, adding one more achievement to Groening's already-considerable resume.
Over the course of its run, The Simpsons also garnered numerous awards, including dozens of Emmys, and set records as America's longest-running scripted primetime series, longest-running sitcom, and longest-running animated show.
In 2012, after three-and-a-half decades, Groening finally retired Life In Hell, giving him the freedom to pursue other projects. He's since continued to work on The Simpsons, while also developing new projects and expanding into new areas, such as establishing the Groening Chair in Animation at UCLA, and setting up continuing donations to help students in the creation of political and socially conscious films.
So today, we celebrate his work, his contributions to the world of comics and animation, and his infectiously offbeat approach to reaching an audience and crafting a joke. He's a master of the form, and a deceptively skilled humorist, pushing right up to the edge of cynical without crossing over into full-blown pessimism.
Groening's material works because, when it comes right down to it, he possesses an innate understanding of the relationship between humor and melancholy. He knows that jokes are funniest when they strike a nerve, and pain is felt most acutely when you're laughing.