FOR AT LEAST two generations of cartoonists, “Life in Hell” was heaven sent.
Before Matt Groening became celebrated as the creator of “The Simpsons,” it was his L.A.-spawned “Life in Hell” that (like the work of Jules Feiffer and Lynda Barry) helped expand and explode the sense of what a “newspaper comic” could be. For many of us who picked up media at an ol’ Licorice Pizza store, or nabbed a Reader back in the day, or bought a great Binky book, the introduction to “Life in Hell” felt like a grand discovery.
Among those won over by the alt-comic, of course, was Oscar-winning filmmaker James L. Brooks, who would hire Groening in the ‘80s to create the “Simpsons” bumpers for his “Tracey Ullman Show.”
Even as “The Simpsons” would soon make Groening a rich and busy man, the cartoonist faithfully kept creating his “Life in Hell” comics, which generated comparatively low financial return but which reportedly kept giving Groening a high creative yield.
This past summer, though, after more than three decades of “Life in Hell” (which was down to fewer than 40 papers, amid the decimated print market for alt-comics), Groening decided to retire the strip.
Its inspiration and influence, however, remain huge.
James Sturm, head of the excellent Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, decided to spearhead a gift to celebrate just how huge. He drafted nearly two-dozen cartoonists to create a tribute poster. This week, “Simpsons” writer and “Doozies” cartoonist Tom Gammill presented the gift to Groening himself. (To see the entire poster, you can CLICK HERE.)
Upon this occasion, Comic Riffs asked several of the contributing cartoonists for their thoughts on “Life in Hell”:
JAMES STURM, The Center for Cartoon Studies :
“Like a lot of people, when I heard Matt was going to stop ‘Life in Hell,’ it made me reflect on the strip. I re-read several collections and was reminded how truly fantastic and influential ‘Life in Hell’ was. I thought the tribute poster would be a fun way to honor Matt's accomplishment. Sort of like a cartooning roast.
“With the help of Bob Sikoryak and Tom Gammill, we came up with a list of cartoonists [whom] we knew Matt admired, [who] admired Matt or were influenced by ‘Life in Hell.’ Once we started contacting people ,new names were suggested and we continued reaching out. It certainly wasn't a scientific process!
“ I enjoy finding common threads between different types of cartoonists (like the Cartoon Crier) and as evidenced from the talent involved in the ‘Life in Hell’ poster, Matt's strip was beloved by cartoonists of all stripes.”
ART SPIEGELMAN (RAW Comics, “Maus,” “MetaMaus”):
TOM TOMORROW (“This Modern World”):
“ ‘Life in Hell’ was brilliant and hilarious and inspiring.
“Like Sturm, I went several years without owning a television, or paying much attention to what was on TV even when I finally picked up an old black-and-white set at a garage sale. As much as I love ‘The Simpsons’ — and it's currently in heavy rotation at my house, as my 9-year-old has recently discovered it — to me Groening will always be first and foremost the genius behind ‘Life in Hell.’
“Along with Lynda Barry, he carved out a path in the wilderness, without which I would have had no career.”
“Matt Groening has always been a favorite of mine, since I first saw his strip in the mid '80s.”
JEN SORENSEN (Slowpoke Comics):
“I was honored to be included among all those great cartoonists who were asked to draw a tribute strip. I've been a big fan of ‘Life in Hell’ ever since I read my college roommate's copy of ‘Binky's Guide to Love’ back in the ‘90s. I later wound up marrying a guy with his own copy of ‘Binky's Guide to Love’ and all the other ‘Life in Hell’ collections.
“I'd say that strip was a major factor in my decision to start an alt-weekly comic of my own. I think you can find more than a little Matt Groening influence in my cartoons.”
2. AND IN OTHER POSTER NEWS INVOLVING JEN SORENSEN...
Some of Sorensen’s most engaging work lately is entirely extracurricular.
Earlier this year, Sorensen did a brilliant and inspired comic about freelancers and health insurance for Kaiser Health News.
One group that especially liked that comic was the National Women’s Law Center.
“The NWLC approached me about doing some artwork for their voter education efforts,” Sorensen tells Comic Riffs. “The goal is to emphasize why it's important that women vote,” says the “Slowpoke Comics” creator and former Charlottesville resident, noting that the organization is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates.
Sorensen embraced the new creative challenge.
“I haven't done anything quite like this before, so I've been doing a lot of research on WWII-era posters, and now have an ever-growing collection of them on my computer,” Sorensen tells us. “And I've been geeking out about retro fonts possibly more than a healthy person should.
“The project gives me a chance to play around and experiment in ways that are not always possible within the confines of a political cartoon. So it's been fun, and a way to stretch myself artistically.”
From Kaiser to the NWLC, Sorensen adds: “To some extent, it's a case of one cool freelance project leading to another.”