Hope in hell

As Matt Groening publishes a collection of his pre-The Simpsons canon, Nick Smurthwaite enjoys seeing how the supremo cartoonist cut his teeth

To those of us who regard The Simpsons as a work of genius, this is like seeing Michelangelo’s back-of-an-envelope sketches for the Sistine Chapel.

Matt Groening (pronounced Grey-ning) was a minor cult cartoonist for years before he became a global icon. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s he syndicated the strip Life in Hell to alternative papers and magazines across the US. These strips have now been collected into nine comic book volumes to be published here by HarperCollins over the next two years.

The cartoon’s beginnings could hardly have been more modest. When it started out, Groening would photocopy and staple a few hundred issues himself and hand them out to people in the street. If the Internet had been up and running, he would almost certainly have posted them on-line.

What’s most interesting about the strips, to The Simpsons fans at least, are the intimations of the greatness to come. You can see early prototypes of most of the key characters from the show, even though Groening’s preferred choice of character at the time was the rabbit. But there is an earnestness about some of the writing that he has shaken off with maturity.

Never a confident graphic artist himself, Groening once said he chose rabbits because they were the only creatures he could make recognisable. The simple black and white line drawings are, indeed, ultra-simple, almost crude, and not especially interesting in their own right. He described the graphics as ‘about as primitive as you can get’. They simply act as a conduit for Groening’s reflections on the human condition.

Clearly influenced by the likes of Charles Schulz and Jules Feiffer, both giants of American comic strip satire, Groening concentrated on the everyday preoccupations that keep people awake at night – love, work, sex, death and parenthood – and the myriad neuroses they generate.

In a 25-box strip entitled The Road to Manhood (1986), Binky the Rabbit experiences such rite-of-passage milestones as ‘the first lecture that your penis is not a toy’, ‘the first lie told to escape punishment’, and ‘the first realisation that girls might not be the enemy’.

Another strip details the 22 Stages of Heartbreak, from ‘the first flinch’ through to ‘slow sinking sensation’ and ‘drunken stupor’ to ‘seething hatred’ and, finally, ‘ready for further punishment’.

In Work is Hell Groening proposes some interesting new magazines for working people, including Lonely Tyrant – ‘the magazine for abusive bosses whose employees hate their guts’ (surely a must for Springfield’s Mr Burns), and Struggling Artist, among whose contents are ‘Drugs or More Art Supplies: The Big Choice’ and ‘How To Cope With Reading About Wildly Successful Artists Who Are Younger Than You’.

Unlike The Simpsons, which appeals to different ages on different levels, the Life in Hell books are definitely intended for an adult readership, not just because they are narrative-led and graphically challenged, but also because Groening’s sophisticated and quirky take on life would be pretty incomprehensible to most of the kids I know.

But the sharpness and wit of his observation of human behaviour is a useful eye-opener to how the man behind The Simpsons took his first steps towards cultural posterity. Who can imagine life without The Simpsons? No way, José.

The first two books, Love is Hell and School is Hell, are published on 15 March by HarperCollins. Other books in the series will come out later this year and in 2005

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