Life in Hell
As you no doubt know by now, Matt Groening announced earlier this week that he’s bringing his long-running weekly comic strip, Life in Hell to a close.
If it hadn’t felt like it already, Groening’s announcement certainly signals the end of an era, in this case that of the alt-weekly comic strip, a product Groening, along with Lynda Barry and Gary Panter, pioneered back in the early 1980s (OK, Feiffer was the true pioneer but let’s for argument’s sake let’s play along with my faulty thesis). Together, they showed hungry cartoonists a way to earn, if not a living wage, at least a regular paycheck, and many people — Keith Knight, Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling — followed in their wake as more and more urban areas developed their own version of the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly. Whether it was for financial reasons or (as I suspect) an ever shrinking readership, Groening’s exit, confirms what many have long suspected: That market, thanks largely no doubt to the Internet, has disappeared.
After more than three decades, and 1,669 installments, Matt Groening has ended Life in Hell, his influential weekly comic strip starring bitter anthropomorphic rabbits and a pair of gay lovers. Although the final strip appeared Friday, reruns will be offered to newspapers through July 13.
“Thirty-two years is a long time to do it,” The Simpsons creator told USA Today. “I love the characters, I love doing it, but it was just time.” Groening added to The Poynter Institute, “I’ve had great fun, in a Sisyphean kind of way, but the time has come to let Binky and Sheba and Bongo and Akbar and Jeff take some time off.”
I’m not going to mince words, the comedy that fuels Cyanide & Happiness is not for everyone. The webcomic which launched in 2004, is effectively characterized in the opening paragraph of Brigid Alverson’s recent Unbound review: “The Cyanide & Happiness formula is pretty simple: Stick men (and women) do shocking things to one another. There are four different artists, but the style and humor are fairly uniform; a situation is set up in the first panel and resolved, by stabbing, boob-grabbing, or shouting ‘You have cancer! LOL!’ in the last. My kids love this comic, because it’s what teenagers are all about: Working your way through every possible taboo, in public. So in C&H we have Seizure-Man falling down and frothing at the mouth, bungee-jumping childbirth, and lots and lots of stabbing.”
If that description gives you pause, I would advise you skip this interview. But if it doesn’t give you pause, jump on ahead. Last month, It Books released a collection that “highlights 150 of the best comics, including 30 brand-new strips, each packed with inappropriate jokes, irreverent characters, and deviant behavior, guaranteed to leave you laughing despite the gnawing guilt.” The strips are created by four different writers/illustrators who “live all over the world — Kris Wilson in Fort Bridger, Wyoming; Matt Melvin in San Diego, California; Rob DenBleyker in Dallas, Texas; and Dave McElfatrick in Belfast, Northern Ireland”. I was able to interview Dave, Kris and Matt via email. Before jumping in, though, I have to apologize to our female readership and the creators for my ignorant assumption (in one question) that the audience for this work was predominantly male.
Tim O’Shea: How do you develop a sense for when the shock value of the joke outweighs or obscures the comedy of the strip?
Dave: You don’t, really. You just kinda go with what you think is funny, and if that involves either something shocking or something incredibly tame, you go for it. We don’t focus on shock value, we just go with what makes us laugh.
Kris: The humor has to come first. It’s not as if we’re trying to offend people. More often than not, people just get offended at what’s funny.
Is it possible to make devil horns with a four-fingered hand? I guess we’ll find out when The Simpsons/Futurama/Life in Hell creator Matt Groening curates this May’s All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in Minehead, England. The lineup, hand-selected by Groening himself in the usual ATP curated-festival fashion, includes such avant-rock notables as Iggy & the Stooges, Coco Rosie, Built to Spill, Panda Bear, Deerhunter, Daniel Johnston, the Residents, Boredoms, the Raincoats, Amadou and Mariam, and Shonen Knife.
This isn’t the first time ATP and Groening have hooked up: The animation and alt-weekly legend (and one-time music critic) also ran a 2003 festival in California that boasted performances from the Stooges, Sonic Youth, Spoon, the Shins, !!!, the Mars Volta, Mission of Burma, Modest Mouse and Cat Power. (You can buy a CD compilation from that show here.) He’s a hip dude, is what I’m saying.