I have before me the current issue of The Comics Journal, which features a list of the 100 greatest comics of the century, from Prince Valiant at the bottom to Pogo, Peanuts, and Krazy Kat at the top, with room for everyone from R. Crumb to Captain Marvel in between. There is no place in it, however, for Matt Groening’s Life in Hell. Groening’s friend Lynda Barry (whose work often shows up next to his in the pages of alternative weeklies across the land) gets the nod for her brilliant Ernie Pook’s Comeek (No. 74). Up-and-coming comics superstar Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer checks in at No. 56. But those anxious bunnies Binky and Bongo and their sidekicks, the deadpan fez wearers Akbar and Jeff, are conspicuous (to me, anyway) in their absence.
This is a shame, since Groening, better known as the creator of The Simpsons, and now of the much-hyped Futurama, is also an important figure in the world of pen-and-ink serial cartooning. He is the link between Jules Feiffer (who earns two spots on The Comics Journal’s list) and Dilbert (who earns none). He is also part of the explosion of brilliant graphic work that began in the early 1980s and has so far produced an array of permanent contributions to American culture—the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, to name only a few. Unlike these artists, Groening is not interested in rigorous draftsmanship or extended narration, but he is, like them (and like Barry and Katchor), committed to using cartoons as a way of addressing reality. Life in Hell hits us where we live: under the thumb of well-meaning, rational, but ultimately psychotic and abusive authority. Hell is other bunnies–bosses, parents, teachers, co-workers, boyfriends, girlfriends. We (I mean all us bunnies, fez wearers, and miscellaneous snaggletoothed, pop-eyed, four-fingered creatures) seem hard-wired for sadomasochism. Even the exuberant, indistinguishable lovers Akbar and Jeff spend panel after panel devising new ways to baffle, dominate, and mind-fuck each other.
To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau: When reality becomes cartoonlike, the only place for a realist is in cartooning. It’s no accident that the rise of serious comics (or “graphic novels” as some publishers chose to call them) came at a moment when American fiction was relatively moribund. For its part, The Simpsons arrived at what was a relatively bad period for Hollywood movies and was part of what will be remembered as an explosion of inventive network television programming: thirtysomething, Roseanne, My So-Called Life, Twin Peaks and, of course, Seinfeld.
The Simpsons, now midway through its 10th season, has outlasted them all. It began as a series of fill-in segments for The Tracey Ullman Show. (Oh, for the Fox network of yesteryear! Of 21 Jump Street and Shannen Doherty-era 90210, of Alien Nation and Roc! Where have you gone, Keenen Ivory Wayans?) These crudely drawn mini-episodes were like Raymond Carver stories optioned by Hanna-Barbera. They featured the grind and humiliation of lower-middle-class family life, and they centered not on the children Bart, Lisa, and Maggie but on the beleaguered patriarch Homer. The early Homer was hardly the sweet-natured oaf who quickly replaced Bill Cosby and Ronald Reagan as America’s favorite dad. His voice was growlier, his temper quicker, and his shaky masculine pride always on the line. The first bit I recall seeing involved Homer falling for the aggressive sales pitch of an RV salesman, and his willingness to bury his family under crushing debt in order to look like a big shot in the salesman’s eyes, and theirs. (The current Homer, in contrast, is a creature so utterly without pride as to qualify for a kind of sainthood.)
In early 1990, Fox, a fledgling outfit with nothing to lose, put the half-hour Simpsons in its Thursday, 8 p.m. slot, up against The Cosby Show, then the No. 1 program in America. The upstart did not just so much challenge Cosby as envelop it: In perhaps the most sustained of the winking pop-culture references for which it has become famous (and on which it came to depend rather too heavily as time went on), The Simpsons soon featured an avuncular African-American physician with a penchant for multicolored sweaters.
The Simpsons is justly celebrated for the density of its cultural allusions and the rich detail of its visuals. The best episodes project two dimensions into three better than any animation since Disney’s features of the 1940s or the great Chuck Jones Merrie Melodie shorts for Warner Bros. But the show’s real achievement is in its characters, a range of comic types as vivid as any in Dickens or Shakespeare. While Bart is the franchise and Lisa the feminist-intellectual icon, the heart of The Simpsons is the extraordinary marriage of Homer and Marge, a marriage that has had its tests (Remember that slinky French bowling instructor? That country-and-western diva? The six-foot hero sandwich? The nervous breakdown on the freeway?), but has endured since the end of the disco era. When George Bush sneered during the 1992 campaign that America needed more families like the Waltons and fewer like the Simpsons, you knew it was over for him–and not only because he seemed to be wishing for an end to electricity and indoor plumbing. The Simpsons are our truest, best selves: stupid–maybe; lazy–you bet; suspicious of authority–always; willing to do anything about it–not really; but above all, loyal to our spouses, our children, our little sisters, our friends, our hometowns, our bad haircuts, and our favorite brand of beer. The Simpsons may be hip and ironic, but unlike, say, South Park or Ren & Stimpy, it has never been cynical.
Its success resulted from the unlikely collusion between Groening, a left-wing populist (and self-described hippie) from the Pacific Northwest, and Rupert Murdoch, a right-wing populist from Australia. While Groening has always insisted on (and been granted) freedom from network interference, his show is still a creature of contradictions. It pokes endless fun at the corporatization of all aspects of life (think of Duff Gardens, a mind-numbing, totalitarian theme park; or the robotic Schwarzenegger clone known as McBain; or Malibu Stacy, the Barbie-like doll Lisa Simpson lives for) even as its characters have become among the most recognizable icons of corporate culture. This January, the spiky hair and bulging eyes of Bart Simpson mysteriously found their way into a photograph of soldiers patrolling a street in Hebron that accompanied a New York Times Magazine essay by Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. An “Editor’s Note” the following week explained that the photographer in question signs all his pictures by holding a Bart Simpson mask up to his lens–and that the editors erroneously assumed that the mask had been held by a passing Palestinian child.
“As much as I love the Simpsons show,” Groening recently told Wired magazine, “I also love the Simpsons figurines. To me the figurines are part of the creative product.” Groening’s willing, if somewhat ironic, embrace of the marketing bonanza his creation has unleashed may have cost him his rightful spot in the The Comics Journal’s highbrow/subculture pantheon. I’m sure he’s not as upset about it as I am.
In the decade since its debut, The Simpsons has spawned a raft of imitators and has launched a boom in prime-time animation. Some of the products of this boom have been unsurprisingly dreadful (Remember The Critic? Duckman?). But others have been pretty good–the tragically misunderstood Beavis and Butt-head, for instance, and its creator’s subsequent King of the Hill. And now Fox, ever eager to flog its winning formulas to the point of exhaustion, has come up with The Family Guy, The PJs, and Groening’s own Futurama. The critics have been generous to Futurama, confident that it will pick up steam as it goes along. I’m not so sure. Visually, it’s stunning. The screen is packed with puns for the eye and teasers for the brain. But the writing is slow and stilted, and the situations already seem tired and didactic. This week’s episode was as cuddly as an episode of Full House, and the previous one, in which it’s discovered that the moon has become a vulgar tourist trap, seemed recycled from Simpsons outtakes right down to the “Whalers on the Moon” singing panorama. Perhaps Futurama will pick up. I make no predictions.
Except one. A thousand years from now, if robot historians want to know what life was really like in late-20th-century America, they will look to Life in Hell and The Simpsons. No, there were no talking rabbits, and human hair was not sculpted into yellow spikes or blue pylons (well, not that often anyway). But everything else is pretty much accurate.