Born February 15, 1954 (Portland, Oregon)
American cartoonist, writer
Few cartoonists have had such a far-reaching effect on the popular culture of their times as Matt Groening, creator of the cynical and silly worlds of Life in Hell, The Simpsons, and Futurama. Groening, who freely admits to a lack of ability to draw, has nonetheless managed to use a skillful pen to communicate his painfully humorous outlook on every institution of modern life. While none of his characters are drawn realistically, each of them has become a distinct and memorable personality, and each speaks a bit of truth that is both touching and humorous. Groening's work is widely respected and has influenced many creators of graphic novels.
"I always think it's a mistake for cartoonists to demand cartoons be treated as art. Cartoons are cartoons.… They're the most fun thing out there."
While most comic artists consider themselves lucky to earn a living at their art, Groening has become a multi-millionaire from his work on The Simpsons, one of the longest-running television shows in the history of the medium, along with the dozens of comic books and graphic novels generated by the show. Ever the comic book fan, Groening has used his wealth to create two comic publishing companies, called Bongo and Zongo. That wealth has also allowed him to keep his first love, the alternative strip Life in Hell, as funky and unconventional as it was in 1977 when it was a hand-stapled, self-published zine, or amateur comic book.
Love Is Hell (1986).
Work Is Hell (1986).
School Is Hell (1987).
Childhood Is Hell (1987).
Akbar & Jeff's Guide to Life (1989).
The Big Book of Hell (1990).
Binky's Guide to Love (1994).
Love Is Still Hell (1994).
Simpsons Comics Extravaganza (1994).
Simpsons Comics Strike Back! (1996).
Simpsons Comics Simps-O-Rama (1996).
The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family (1997).
Simpsons Comic Wingding (1997).
Simpsons Comics Big Bonanza (1998).
Simpsons Comics on Parade (1998).
Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror: A Heebie-Jeebie Hullabaloo (1999).
The Simpsons Forever! A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family, Continued (1999).
Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror: A Spine-Tingling Spooktaculer (2001).
Simpsons Comics Unchained (2001).
The Big Book of Bart Simpson (2002).
The Simpsons Beyond Forever! A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family—Still Continued (2002).
The Big, Beefy Book of Bart Simpson (2005).
The Simpsons (1990–).
Life in Hell (1978–).
Groening was born on February 15, 1954, in Portland, Oregon, where he grew up with his parents and four sisters and brothers. His father, Homer, mother, Margaret, and sisters, Lisa and Maggie, would later be immortalized as The Simpsons. Homer Groening was a creative man who encouraged creativity among his children. He was an advertising writer, a filmmaker, and a cartoonist, and young Matt began drawing cartoons on his first day of school.
Groening's upbringing was middle class and fairly conventional, but at an early age he rebelled against institutional rules he found petty and frustrating. Elected as student body president during his senior year at high school, he jokingly tried to amend the school bylaws to declare himself all-powerful president for life. However, he had a large group of creative friends and was active in the Lincoln High School Film Group. A childhood love of comic books turned into a teenage fascination with alternative comics like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Robert Crumb's Zap comics. Groening and his friends began to draw their own cartoons and formed the Komix Appreciation Club at school. Together, they published an underground newspaper called Bilge Rat.
In 1971, Groening left Portland to attend college at Evergreen State University, a liberal college in Olympia, Washington. He was an irreverent and unconventional student, who often took class notes in the form of comic strips, and Evergreen's free-form academic structure appealed to him. While at Evergreen he met another alternative cartoonist, Lynda Barry, who convinced him that it might be possible to get his work published. Groening was influenced by the simplicity and warmth of Barry's work, which seemed more personal and less harsh than the alternative comics he had read previously.
Cartoons as comments on life
Groening's main ambition was to become a writer, and after graduating from Evergreen in 1977, he headed south to Los Angeles, California, hoping to find writing work. Life in L.A. was not easy; Groening had little money and worked a variety of low-paying jobs while trying to become a writer. The first Life in Hell cartoons were letters that Groening sent back to his friends in Oregon and Washington, describing the difficulties of his new life in California.
The characters in these cartoons were the same ones he had created in high school—large, upright rabbits with buck teeth and big eyes. He had chosen rabbits because they were the only easily identifiable animals he could draw. However, though Groening's art seems on the surface to be simple, even childish, he is skilled at revealing personality and emotion with just a few lines. His first character, Binky, expressed all of his own grouchy exasperation with the unfairness of the world. Binky was soon joined by other rabbit-like characters, a girlfriend named Sheba and a one-eared son named Bongo, who was dropped off one day by Binky's partner in a forgotten one-night stand. Later, the family was joined by Akbar and Jeff, gay lovers whose love-hate relationship is made all the more hysterical by the fact that they look exactly alike. As they negotiate their always tempestuous relationship, Akbar and Jeff do work well together as enterprising merchants who sell everything at their "hut" shops, from "Tofu Hut" to "Liposuction Hut." Still later, Groening himself would join the cartoon cast, as a bearded rabbit, usually talking with his (rabbit) sons, Will and Abe.
The popularity of Groening's cartoon letters home spread, and soon he was sending them to hundreds of recipients. He put together a zine of collected Life in Hell strips and sold it in the punk music section of the record store where he was working. Indeed, there did seem to be a connection between the angry satire of the late 1970s punk rebellion and Groening's adorable yet hostile bunny people.
First books published
In 1978, a small alternative newspaper called the Los Angeles Reader, where Groening wrote a music column, agreed to publish Life in Hell as a weekly cartoon. By 1986, alternative papers all over the country had picked up Life in Hell, and Pantheon press had published Love Is Hell and Work Is Hell, bitingly funny graphic novels about the dangers in relationships and the workplace. These were soon followed by School Is Hell and Childhood Is Hell.
One of the major ways in which Groening's work in the Life in Hell series stands out from other cartoons and comics is his refusal to choose a format and stick with it. Life in Hell is a constant challenge to publishers and a delight to readers because it looks different almost every week. Sometimes the strip is a single potent panel, such as the frequently recurring image of the rebellious child named Bongo, tied and gagged in a chair in the middle of a cell, while invisible authorities speak to him through a slit in the door. Sometimes, it is a series of small panels crammed full of dialog, such as the many Akbar and Jeff panels in which they berate each other over and over for their many faults before finding their way back to love. Sometimes, the cartoon is in the form of a magazine cover, such as "Lonely Tyrant: The Magazine for Abusive Bosses Whose Employees Hate Them." And sometimes it is simply in list form, like "Childhood Trauma Checklist."
Groening's humor in the Life in Hell books is often bitter and depressed, but his skill as an artist allows him to soften what appears to be an angry and hopeless comment on life with an expression of goofy optimism or sad lovability on a character's face.
In 1987, film director James Brooks was working on the FOX network television comedy, The Tracy Ullman Show. Seeking an interesting animated segment to insert between the show's comedy skits, he approached Groening about creating an animated version of his popular weekly cartoon. Groening agreed, but when he learned that FOX would own the rights to the finished product, he was reluctant to give up control of Binky and his friends. To solve the problem, Groening created a new set of characters, a family called the Simpsons, and named them after members of his own family. The troublemaking young boy started out as Matt, after himself, but was soon changed to Bart, an anagram of "brat." The characters were crudely drawn, with the trademark overbite, hair as stylized as Binky's ears, and bright yellow skin, so that they would be unique among TV cartoons.
The Simpsons and Futurama: Alternative Comics on TV
Being the creator of two popular television cartoon shows has meant both reward and frustration for Matt Groening. He has received money and fame far beyond the dreams of the average comic artist, but in exchange he has had to struggle with network executives to keep the shows true to his original vision. In May 2005, The Simpsons became the longest-running situation comedy in the history of television. The show's popularity is largely due to its large cast of colorful characters, the sly humor of its satire, and the subtle cultural references. Each scene of The Simpsons is packed with sight gags and in-jokes that exercise the observation skills of audiences of all ages.
Though every character in The Simpsons bears the unmistakable imprint of Groening's artwork, he has not drawn or written an episode of the show since the early 1990s. Co-creators James Brooks and Sam Simon, executive producer Mike Scully, and an army of writers and artists including George Meyer and John Schwartzwelder have been the driving forces behind the show. As Groening told Brian Doherty of Mother Jones, "I have less to do with The Simpsons every season, but I stick my nose in here and there. Basically, it's just trying to keep the characters consistent and making sure the show has a soul."
Groening's experience with Futurama was much more difficult. In 1999, FOX bought the first few episodes of Futurama, a science fiction cartoon created by Groening and David Cohen, a writer and producer from The Simpsons. An avid science fiction fan since his youth, Groening had spent several years doing research to create Futurama, a story of a modern-day pizza delivery boy who finds himself transported to the year 3000. While The Simpsons is a family comedy, Futurama is set in the workplace, as Fry, the pizza delivery hero, gets a job on the crew of an intergalactic delivery service. Soon after buying Futurama, FOX executives became nervous that the show might not be as successful as The Simpsons. They badgered Groening about the show's style and content, and, once the show began airing, they moved it from Sunday to Tuesday night, making it hard for viewers to find it. After three difficult years, FOX cancelled Futurama, and production stopped on the series. FOX's cancellation hardly killed the series, however, as it continued to air in syndication (or reruns) in television stations all over the world through 2006 and DVD sales soared.
The animated segments were a success, and when the The Tracy Ullman Show was cancelled in 1989, FOX persuaded Groening to make the Simpsons into a full-length show. The Simpsons debuted in January 1990 and within two months had become one of the top fifteen shows on television. Groening, who had considered himself successful just to have several comic collections published, became a millionaire.
In 1993, Groening founded his own comic book publishing house, named Bongo (after Binky's son). Bongo publishing is mostly devoted to Simpsons-related titles, releasing monthly issues and collections of The Simpsons, Itchy and Scratchy, Bartman, Radioactive Man, Lisa Comics, and Krusty Comics. These monthly comics allowed some of The Simpsons's lesser-known characters to have their own stories. Like the weekly show, these comics and the many Simpsons collections are filled with satire and subtle cultural references. For example, one story is a satiric replica of a 1960s Marvel Comic with Krusty the Clown in the role of secret agent.
True to his alternative roots, Groening followed Bongo publishing in 1995 with the establishment of Zongo, a comic publishing house devoted to independent alternative comics. Zongo has published such titles as Gary Panter's Jimbo, Stephanie Gladden's Hopster's Tracks, and Mary Fleener's Fleener.
Groening's television success has made him a very wealthy man. He has joked that he may one day open a Simpsons' Theme Park, modeled on Disneyland, but in the meantime he devotes his time and attention to his wife, Deborah Caplan, whom he married in 1986, and to their two children. More than the wealth it has brought him, Groening's success at taking a comic strip and turning it into a cultural icon is encouragement for all those comic artists and graphic novelists struggling to make a living.
For More Information
Groening, Matt. The Simpsons Forever! A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family—Continued. Edited by Scott M. Gimple. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
Keslowitz, Steven. The Simpsons and Society: An Analysis of Our Favorite Family and Its Influence in Contemporary Society. Tucson, AZ: Hats Off Books, 2004.
Turner, Chris. Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.
Foote, Jennifer. "A Doodle God Makes Good: Welcome to 'Life in Hell."' Newsweek (September 28, 1987): 70.
Hamilton, Tish. "Rabbit Punch: Matt Groening's Cartoon Strip 'Life in Hell."' Rolling Stone (September 22, 1988): 81–84.
Harris, Jessica. "Check Him Out, Man! He's the Wacky Guy Behind the Simpsons." National Geographic World (July 1994): 8.
Paul, Alan. "Matt Groening: Life in Hell." Flux Magazine (September 30, 1995).
Shepherdson, Nancy. "My Life's Work: Bart's Creator." Boy's Life (August 1992): 33.
Zehme, Bill. "The Only Real People on TV." Rolling Stone (June 28, 1990): 40.
Chocano, Carina. "Matt Groening." Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2001/01/30/groening/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Doherty, Brian. "Matt Groening." Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/arts/qa/1999/03/groening.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Scott, A.O. "Matt Groening: When Reality Grows Cartoonlike, a Realist Cartoons." Slate. http://slate.msn.com/id/23430/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
von Busack, Richard. "Life Before Homer." Metroactive. http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/11.02.00/groening-0044.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).