Monkey See
4:15 pm
Wed June 20, 2012

Binky, We Hardly Knew Ye: Groening Ends His LIFE IN HELL Comic Strip

Originally published on Wed June 20, 2012 5:21 pm

"Love," wrote Matt Groening, "is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, trapping you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come."

Say that last bit out loud: At night, the ice weasels come.

I put it to you that if Groening's weekly alt-comic Life in Hell, which ended last Saturday after 1,669 installments, had given the world nothing else but "At night, the ice weasels come," it would have been enough.

Dayenu, Life in Hell. Dayenu.

But of course, over the course of its 34-year syndicated lifetime, it gave the world much, much more. The Simpsons, for one thing. Indirectly.

In 1985, producer James L. Brooks asked Groening if he wanted to turn his scribbly, scathingly satiric strip starring anthropomorphic rabbits with overbites and existential dread into a series of animated shorts to be featured on The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening, wisely, knew that doing so would relinquish his ownership of the characters, and pitched a series of cartoons based on his own family instead: Keep the overbites, the dread, the satiric impulse, but lose the rabbit ears and add a bit more heart (Brooks' influence).

Meanwhile, the Life in Hell strip took off. Beginning in 1986, themed collections appeared in bookstores with titles that perfectly encapsulated the strip's gleefully defiant defeatism — Love is Hell, Work is Hell, School is Hell, Childhood is Hell, etc.

These were the sacred texts of my college years. We traded them, quoted them, pushed them on strangers. We argued over our favorite Groening tropes — I, for example was a sucker for his fake periodicals (Sullen Teen Magazine) and any strip that focused on the odd, friable bond between adult rabbit Binky, whom life has thoroughly overmatched, and his illegitimate son, Bongo, whose youth provides little protection from the sinking knowledge that the fix is in.

This is what makes Bongo's plight the more immediate, and the more sad.

And funny.

We took special delight in scanning the tiny handwritten text on each book's copyright page, where we'd find, down by the Library of Congress number, a different warm, wonderful shout-out to Groening's dear friend and fellow cartoonist, e.g., "Lynda Barry is Funk Queen of the Universe." In collections of her own strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek, Barry would return the favor. It felt like we were privy to a semisecret conversation between two of the grooviest people we could imagine.

Those of us who loved the comics medium would gush over Groening's deceptively simple style late into the night. All of his characters — from Binky and Bongo to the strange tiny identical lumps of fez-wearing flesh Akbar and Jeff — remain perfectly expressionless; if one didn't know better, one could project on them a Zen-like calm.

But one does know better. Their impassivity is a function of just how benumbed, bewildered (and occasionally drunk) life's unrepentant hellishness has made them. Which is why whenever Groening lets his characters dance (when their normally staid body language goes so winningly, unself-consciously goofy, all bent elbows and waggled feet) it feels like he's granting them a moment of grace.

Looking back, Groening's depiction of Akbar and Jeff — who were, weirdly enough and almost by default, pretty much the most high-profile gay couple of the '80s — has been remarkably matter-of-fact from the very beginning. They snipe at one another. They endlessly (ENDLESSLY) parse their relationship. They watch a lot of TV.

Which is to say: They are a couple.

As Groening's involvement with The Simpsons and Futurama grew, Life in Hell lost some of its singularly biting wit. The multipanel strips dissecting some aspect of modern life in the crisp language of the high school textbook — Groening was and remains a master mimic — grew increasingly rare, in favor of a giant, single-panel-gag strip. In the past few years, as more and more alt-weeklies have cut their budgets or shuttered completely, the strip's circulation has shrunk. It's hard to argue that it is ending too soon.

Even so, the loss I feel today is real, and it goes deep. What I am mourning, of course, is not the strip as it has existed these past few years, but as it existed at the time I needed it most — when it neatly localized my looming dread of leaving college, entering the workforce, and finding love, then gave it a goofy-looking rabbit face and made it funny.

On a recent episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, we talked about finales — what makes them work or not work, why they live in the memory or get swiftly forgotten. My colleague Stephen Thompson spoke fondly of the final strip of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, a wistful but ultimately uplifting paean to the power of the imagination.

I liked Calvin and Hobbes a lot, but that last strip never really spoke to me.

Today, however, I know how Stephen felt. Because Life in Hell was, to us pessimistic cranks, exactly what Calvin and Hobbes was to pretty much everyone else: a way of looking at the world and finding comfort in the knowledge that others see it more or less like you do.

And now it's gone, and we are alone; the light is dying and the wind bites us, carrying on it the chittering of the ice weasels.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.