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What’s this!? A comic strip! Pish, posh, we’ll have not of that vulgar fare here. This is a literary blog, not playtime at kindergarten… Well sorry to disappoint you folks, but I reads what I wants and seeing as my local library happened to have a copy of Matt Groening’s classic strip, I felt I had to have a go. Anyone looking for a debate as to the comparative merits of the ‘fourth art’ versus literature, you’re in the wrong gaff.
So a quick history lesson. The legend goes that Groening was to attend a meeting with James L. Brooks in 1985, who wanted to develop his underground comic Life in Hell into a cartoon and include it as a recurring feature in The Tracey Ullman Show for the Fox Network. Instead, when Groening arrived, he pitched The Simpsons, which he had furiously scribbled down in order to avoid losing creative control over his strip. Life in Hell had been running in one form or another since 1977 and had become something of a shibboleth for cool connoisseurs of underground culture. Brooks had been gunning for it since he received a copy of the comic in 1982. Groening’s desire to protect the strip has since been described as another example of his rebellious nature and need to buck authority.
Your mileage may vary on this point and if you’re curious to hear more about the origins of The Simpsons and Groening’s rise to cultural icon, I would recommend John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored , Unauthorised History.
Love is Hell is a collection of individual ‘Hell’, strips relating to relationships, marriage and childbirth. Its central character is a rabbit named Binky, who stands, lives and dies from one strip to the next. There is no ongoing storyline, this is more a series of comedic sketches, notable for their sarcastic humour and careful insistence on liberal values. Any sexism is self-aware, ironic sexism, which is ok! I took the book to be a more cuddly, American take on the ‘alternative comedy’ trend that was all the rage in the UK during the same period.
The art is simplistic and sketchy, but the Groening blueprint that would later be seen in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama is present and accounted for. Female characters are denoted by bows in their hair and pearl necklaces. Large male characters have a simian lower jaw, while everyone has bauble-like eyes. There’s even a one-eared rabbit character who may have inspired Bart Simpson (I swear to god I didn’t do it). However, the comic’s success is down to Groening’s sly wit. Scribbled into the margins are knowing comments and asides. Binky’s dour, grumpy nature is depicted with a winning degree of self-awareness. Popular notions of love and marital bliss are tackled to the ground before getting a firm kicking. The sarcasm does not overwhelm the material and Groening’s cute drawings sweeten the acidity of his barbs.
In short, it’s pretty damn funny. The Simpsons has moved on from these simple origins and largely abandoned the broad strokes and quixotic realism of Groening for more timely satire (which as the years pass, becomes more dated). Life in Hell may not be as memorable as Calvin and Hobbes, but deserves attention for being more than just a footnote in the development of The Simpsons media behemoth.
Just remember –
Love is a perky elf dancing a merry little jig and then suddenly he turns on you with a miniature machine – gun.