Before there was The Simpsons, there was Life in Hell, a dark comic strip drawn by Matt Groening.
As Groening has become famous for the great television series he created, he has continued drawing this weird but hilarious strip. There are several Life in Hell books with names like School is Hell and Childhood is Hell. I recommend reading Work In Hell when you are frustrated with your job and checking out Love Is Hell when love just ain’t coming your way and you want to wallow in that.
The books are much darker and more philosophical than The Simpsons. The drawings are raw and crude.
The humor can be quite self-deprecating. For example, Groening draws most of his characters as bunnies, only to have some characters ask if they are drawn that way because of the cartoonist’s artistic limitations.
But the writing more than makes up for the weak drawing. His new book, The Huge Book of Hell, for example, has suggested magazine covers: Annoying Performance Artist magazine, not to be confused with Annoying Street Lunatic magazine.
The imaginary publication features such articles as “The Gentle Art of Scab-Pulling” and “Is It OK to Yell ‘I’m On Fire’ In a Crowded Theater?” Gross? Sure. Silly? Well, sometimes. High-brow? Maybe.
And there is even a special book guide within the book. Yes, just like Oprah’s book discussion group, Groening provides “A reading group guide to The Huge Book of Hell.”
The guide includes such discussion questions as: “How would you characterize the cartoonist’s own attitude towards society? Does it change as the book progresses? Will it ever? Why does the cartoonist refuse to change? Have you read any of his other books? Is it any better there? What the hell is wrong with this guy?”
My favorite cartoon panel in the book — perhaps because it hits close to home — shows a young character lying awake at night asking questions:
Do animal crackers feel pain when you bite their heads off? Why do flies land on dog manure? Don’t they know it’s dog manure?
How can anyone eat something called rump roast?
Is it possible to have so many questions flying around inside your brain that you can never go to sleep and eventually go insane?
The final, inevitable panel shows the character finally sleeping. Groening is great, no matter what the medium. Read and enjoy.