When the comic strip burst onto the American scene in the beginning of the last century it was wildly inventive—cartoonists were intrepid explorers mapping out a new continent. By the ’30s the comics page was delivering thrilling narratives that helped distract the country during the Great Depression. In the ’50s, Charles Schulz arrived and helped the comic strip find its soul. But by the mid-’70s the daily newspaper’s comic page was a depressing place: formulaic four-panel gags that were scrubbed clean for family consumption.
By the early ’80s the most interesting comics were found in the weekly alternative press. Jules Feiffer had set a precedent in the early years of the Village Voice with his self-titled strip. Taking up much more space than the rapidly shrinking daily comics, Feiffer’s work, and those who followed in his wake (Mark Alan Stamaty, Lynda Barry), had more room (both in column inches and editorial freedom) to address relationships, politics, and even existential despair. These comics weren’t as character-driven as they were creator-driven.
Life in Hell started in 1977 as a self-published comic book in which Matt Groening described life in Los Angeles to his friends. He sold copies of the comic for $2 at a record store, Licorice Pizza, and it debuted as a comic strip in Wet Magazine in 1978. Soon it was appearing in alternative weeklies throughout the country. At its peak, Life in Hell ran in over 250 publications. The strip had many fans, including producer James L. Brooks, who asked Groening to animate bumpers for The Tracey Ullman Show. The rest of course, is television history.
I hadn’t owned a television for years by the start of the 1990s. I was living in New York City and going to art school. The Simpsons were on my radar more from the ubiquitous bootlegged T-shirts being sold on every corner than from the few episodes I caught in passing—to me Groening was the guy who did the funniest comic in The Village Voice. I especially loved the way Life in Hell varied its format: The strip could go from dozens of tiny cramped panels cataloging doomed romances one week to being just a large single airy panel depicting an intense moment of shame the next. And of course some cartoonists just draw loose and funny. Groening’s one of those cartoonists. He could draw a stick figure and it would be funny.
This past June, after 1,669 installments (and down to only 38 papers, amid the smoking wreckage that was once the alternative press), Matt Groening put an end to one the funniest and most caustic comic strips ever. To commemorate the dearly departed strip, 22 of Groening’s cartoonist friends, admirers, and sycophants decided to pay tribute. The comic strips below are a few that were assembled for a poster by the Center for Cartoon Studies and presented to Groening this week by the cartoonist and Simpsons producer, Tom Gammill.
When you create a superb, enduring television series you receive multiple Emmy awards and become rich. When you create a superb, enduring alternative weekly comic strip you get the admiration of your fellow cartoonists. And a poster!
Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott.
You can download the entire poster here.