LOS ANGELES – It seems as if “The Simpsons” is going to last forever, after 23 seasons and counting. But Matt Groening's other era-spanning creation ended quietly on Friday – without even a goodbye from Jeff and Akbar.
Groening has called it quits on Life in Hell, his 35-year-old alternative comic strip. The last new strip ran on June 15, although publications may still run older strips up to July 13, according to USA Today.
“I’ve had great fun, in a Sisyphean kind of way,” Groening told Poynter this morning, “but the time has come to let Binky and Sheba and Bongo and Akbar and Jeff take some time off.”
USA Today quoted the 58-year-old cartoonist in saying that the strip “prevented me from doing other projects, because every week I had to go back to the same drawing table... I love the characters, I love doing it, but it was just time.” Groening is deeply involved in producing the sci-fi animated series Futurama as well as The Simpsons.
Begun in 1977 as a self-published comic book, Life in Hell followed the continuing misadventures of anthropomorphic rabbits Binky, Bongo and Sheba, as well as identical, fez-wearing, gay lovers Jeff and Akbar, all of whom lived in a darkly satirical cartoon vision of L.A. The Los Angeles Reader, an alternative weekly, picked up the strip in 1980, and book collections such as Love Is Hell and Work Is Hell later became underground sensations.
Among the strip's fans was producer-director James L. Brooks, who contacted Groening in 1985 and suggested developing an animated version of the strip as bumpers for a new sketch-comedy series, The Tracey Ullman Show. But as Groening didn't want to lose his ownership rights for Life in Hell, he instead threw together a dysfunctional cartoon family, which became The Simpsons.
With its minimalist visual style, insecure characters and sharp social satire, the strip was highly influential on the work of Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Ward Sutton, Keith Knight and others. Gary Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (which later became the hit movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) includes cameos by Hell characters. Currently, the strip's influence can be felt strongly in the underground favourite Tales of Mere Existence, by San Francisco cartoonist/filmmaker Lev Yilmaz.
“My generation of altie cartoonists... walked through the door that Matt Groening’s Life in Hell kicked down in the early 1980s,” political cartoonist Ted Rall wrote on his blog today. “It’s hard to imagine how the business model that sustained alternative social-commentary and political cartooning for two decades (and is now all but dead) would have evolved, had papers not discovered the power of Groening’s strip and its ability to attract readers.”
At its peak, Life in Hell appeared in 379 publications. Its characters were even used in Apple Computers print ads in the late 1980s. Today, it's in only 38 papers. The strip has been losing money for a decade; papers have been paying only $18 per week for it. The steep decline in alternative papers' revenue from classified ads has damaged the strip's circulation deeply.
Friday's strip – the 1,669th – included no obvious hints of finality. It featured Jeff and Akbar, one of them dancing in the nude, and the other joining in the dance in the last panel.
“It’s been a delight working for Matt Groening for the past 24 years,” Sondra Gatewood of ACME Features, the strip's longtime syndicator, told Poynter, “and the ending of Life in Hell leaves me with mixed and melancholic feelings.”