In the first of our considerations of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, Four-Colour Words looked at the inclusion of Groening’s work in the latest volume of the well-respected comics anthology Kramers Ergot. His presence in those pages, we saw, encourages a novel understanding of his place in contemporary cartooning, while his contribution itself points toward his work’s strengths and its difficulties, which often amount to the same thing. For this installment of our week-long look at Hell, we’ll see how Groening’s strips, like his anthology contribution, are often easy to gloss, but trying to read: like, that Kramers page may look busy and crowded on your computer screen, but matters don’t change much even when printed in the tombstone-sized book itself.
Remarkably, Groening is one of the few cartoonists in that volume who doesn’t approach the enlarged 16×21 inch canvas any differently than he would his regular work—any one of his strips, any week, at any size, could look just as impenetrable. This kind of sheer density is compelling, in an OCD kind of way, but the repetition and tedium of it all rarely yields any real yuks. To be fair, that’s sort of the point—what should we expect from a book called Work Is Hell other than a mind-numbing belabouring of the point that, well, work is indeed tedious, repetitive hell—but what lets Groening get away with it is how stylish his densely-packed work can be.
His drawing, we know, is consistent, pared-down, and attractive, but he performs fine and varied work with prose as well—an important factor, considering how much of his strip’s cramped density is taken up by his effusive handwriting. Groening can be smart and pithy (son’s question: “Where do babies come from?” dad’s response: “Do you know what fucking is?”) but he’s better when he’s spinning off into dizzy logorrheic monologues full of absurd images. In one of them, he explains, “But in these complex modern final days, the whole concept of love has exploded like a cornucopia with a stick of dynamite stuck in it. The mess is everywhere. In fact, you probably got some flicked on you right now and you don’t even know it.”
More often, though, Groening’s characters and narrators speak in blunt and niggling voices that zero in on all the lies and contradictions and general unpleasantness of everyday life. Here’s the father rabbit, Binky, to his son Bongo once again: “You’re afraid there’s no heaven. But look on the bright side—there’s no hell, either. Except this one. … No matter who you are, you gotta die. And we all get to be dead the same amount of time: forever.” The strip is full of such unflinching viewpoints. That they belong to crudely drawn rabbits with overbites, or to identical roly-poly lovers in fezzes, is hardly much coating on the pill.
If such a voice sounds familiar, though, I think it’s because it owes so much to Jules Feiffer. With his Sick Sick Sick strip in the ’50s, Feiffer was one of the first who helped create the role of the weekly newspaper cartoonist, who was able to aim at more mature audiences than the funnies typically courted. Feiffer’s characters, like Groening’s, are plagued by neuroses, unable to puzzle through the intricacies of modern relationships and careers and politics. Their voices—similarly worried, verbose, attuned to the absurdities of the rules we live by—reveal them to be not actual characters so much as they are stand-ins, mouthpieces, or mere types, ready to spout off or suffer in place of their creator. While Groening may not be as apt as Feiffer to have his creatures interact with one another—more often they simply talk past each other—he has flattened out Feiffer’s tortuous back-and-forths and wavering monologues into brutal blasts of ego that make up in impotent rage what they lose in nuance.
Groening seems to have learned so much from Feiffer, I think, because he’s one of the few cartoonists savvy enough to understand the mechanics of the weekly strip. Like Feiffer, Groening knows the rhythms that the longer weekly format affords, how you can be prolix one week and curt the next; he knows the opportunities available for exploring the space, whether in grids or splash-panels or flowcharts or checklists; he knows the effect of running jokes, motifs, and repeated features (“The 9 Types of Teacher,” “The 16 Types of Sister,” “The 77 Moods of Akbar and Jeff”). He’s also hyper-sensitive to the demands and expectations of the weekly strip, calling out his readers for their dislike of Akbar and Jeff, repeating monotonous gags one week after another with minor tweaking, pointing up his own inadequacies as a cartoonist (Q: “draw anything besides rabbits?” A: “Oh my yes.” Pictures of cat, car, human, all with bunny ears).
The only other weekly cartoonist as painfully aware of the nature of his venue and audience is Mark Newgarden, whose strip once consisted of a black square surrounding white letters reading “NOTHING FUNNY THIS WEEK.” Groening has come close to such bracing disregard for convention—drawing endless panels of headless Akbars and Jeffs, or a series of black panels meant to convey the end of all humanity after the bomb drops. But what we should emphasise in this connection is not some kind of formal derring-do, or even a sensibility that values middle-finger salutes over palatable sentiment, refreshing as those qualities may be. Rather, we should appreciate that Groening’s most audacious moments, like Newgarden’s, reveal a radical comedic philosophy, one that nurtures a gut-wrenching despair despite superficial efforts to cutesy it up, passing off elaborate non-humour in humourous guise. Life in Hell jokes with us, over and over again and in minute detail, that there’s nothing funny, this week or any week, about anything, ever. Nothing.
* * *
Next: something’s funny! Lynda Barry turned me on to Will and Abe’s Guide to the Universe, Groening’s first book in ten years. The third and final post in this series will appear in a day or two.