By Ken Tucker
Updated December 09, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST
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Love Is Hell

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Back in the early ’80s, Los Angeles discovered punk rock. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to Matt Groening in a second.) Because L.A. punk was mostly awful — the children of Hollywood trying to co-opt British youth rage — it was not a good time to be a rock critic. But a rock critic was what Matt Groening (see?) was — sort of. Groening worked for a dinky giveaway newspaper, the Los Angeles Reader, where he started drawing the barely stick-figure panels that became his comic strip Life in Hell, and reviewed records in a column called ”Sound Mix.” But because the local music was so lousy, Groening soon began writing about his quirkier musical passions (Frank Zappa, world music, and, er, Frank Zappa) and then started spouting opinions on stuff that had nothing to do with music — or rather, everything to do with good music: sex, politics, sports, etc. Eventually, Groening found a way to combine his art and his prose in a still simple yet increasingly sophisticated version of Life in Hell and did so subsequently in his extremely great, miracle-of-popular-culture cartoon show, The Simpsons.

This is all necessary background for what Groening terms the ”special ultra-jumbo 10th anniversary edition” of Love Is Hellas well as for Binky’s Guide To Love , a new collection of Life in Hell strips, because it suggests Groening’s origins as a pop artist who struggled to find the right medium for himself. When he did, the results became one of the finest examples of talent-will-outing that I can recall. Groening benefited mightily from the rock & roll notion that you don’t have to have great technical skill to make great popular art. His elementary draftsmanship (Groening describes his protagonist, Binky, as a ”poorly drawn rabbit”) became, over the years, gratifyingly subtle.

There is no emotion that Groening cannot express through his wiggly ink lines, and the initial crudity of his drawing led him to come up with novel ways of structuring a comic strip. The Life in Hell comics collected in both Love Is Hell and Binky’s Guide to Love are filled with conventional one-panel and multiple-panel gags, but there are also loonily drawn charts (”Your Flu Checklist,” whose symptoms include ”Naive Optimism” and ”Throwing Used Kleenex at Wastebasket and Missing”) and occasional pages of autobiography like ”The Joy of Cartoon Fame” (geeky kid to Matt: ”You do The Simpsons? Wow — I hate The Simpsons!”).

Within the parameters of a conventional comic strip, Groening has been able to get away with murder-sporadic political commentary stronger than Doonesbury’s, as well as the frequent appearances of Jeff and Akbar, a cuddly, fez-wearing gay couple (or as they say, ”We’re just a couple of sporty little lust-weasels”).

Creating The Simpsons and enjoying its tremendous financial success has enabled Groening to keep Life in Hell a feisty, funky little affair — he’s under no pressure to make the strip appeal to a wider audience. The result is something unheard-of in the ’90s: an essentially underground comic that’s totally aboveground.

But after reading a decade-plus of Life in Hell in these collections, it is even more impressive to realize that Groening’s success hasn’t altered his outlook — which has happened frequently with other great cartoonists: Al Capp (Li’l Abner) became a right-wing sourpuss; Walt Kelly (Pogo) became an aimless liberal looking for an appropriate target. It’s not that Groening has steered toward the middle of the road; it’s that he’s managed to remain tapped in to the wellsprings of good, old-fashioned, no-political-agenda orneriness that fueled his earliest work.

What Groening has always hated is mediocrity, whether it’s lousy rock & roll or so-so romantic relationships; to him, being subjected to mediocrity is what a life in hell means. He’s lucky enough to have been recognized and rewarded for resisting the conventions of journalism in both his writing and his drawing, and his prickly opinions are just universal enough to attract a bigger audience than most cantankerous self-taught artists ever achieve. Bully for him. Love Is Hell: A Binky’s Guide to Love: A

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Love Is Hell

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