Life in Hell (later Life is Swell in 2007) was a weekly comic strip by Matt Groening that ran from 1977 to 2012.
Life in Hell started in 1977 as an Underground Comic book Groening used to describe life in Los Angeles to his friends. Groening photocopied and distributed the comic book to friends and sold it for two dollars a copy at the "punk" corner of the record store in which he worked. Life in Hell debuted as a comic strip in the avant-garde Wet magazine in 1978, to which Groening made his first professional cartoon sale.
The series focuses on the life of Binky, a bitter, depressed and thus "normal" rabbit stuck in a dead end job and a bad apartment, Sheba, his easily irked girlfriend, and Bongo, his illegitimate son. The stories follow Binky's interactions with other humanoid-animals and his misadventures as he deals with his own issues and those of the others around him.
In 1985, James L. Brooks invited Groening to pitch a set of animated shorts to be used as filler for The Tracey Ullman Show. While Groening was originally planning on pitching an Animated Adaptation of Life in Hell, he realised that would entail giving up full rights to the strip to FOX. As a result, while waiting in Brooks's lobby, he hurriedly sketched out a premise for a show about a crudely drawn Dysfunctional Family. You probably know the rest.
Matt Groening stated that he would continue the strip as long as possible, though his production was strained by work on The Simpsons and Futurama. There were also accusations that success, fame, marriage and fatherhood had all conspired to dull his edge. Meanwhile, the steady decline of alternative newsweeklies post millennium meant that the market for "underground" strips was steadily diminishing. Finally, on June 20th, 2012 with distribution down to fewer than a dozen papers Groening announced that Life in Hell would end altogether.
Tropes associated with this work:
- 360-Degree Swing Set Swing: One strip features Bongo trying out various "children's science experiments", many of which are dangerous, one of them being "is it possible to go all the way around on a playground swing?".
- Aerith and Bob: Akbar and Jeff.
- All Are Equal in Death: Binky reassures his young son Bongo that "Death is the only thing that's fair. Everybody dies, and everybody stays dead the same amount of time: forever."
- Bad Boss: One comic depicts the many different kinds of bosses, in varying degrees of badness, ranging from Jerkass to violent psychopath, that one might have over the course of their life.
- Beat Panel: Overused in a few Akbar and Jeff strips. Often with 20 or so per page.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Akbar and Jeff hate each other - and love each other, too.
- Black Comedy: Way too much for comfort. This comic gets risque in ways Simpsons would never dream of.
- Butt-Monkey: More often than not, Binky. And Bongo.
- Crapsack World: If the title didn't clue you in already.
- Even in this world, Los Angeles seems to be the worst part. One strip described it as being "like hell, but with worse television."
- Darker and Edgier: The series is way more vulgar, sexual and depressing than any of Matt Groening's generally PG-13 rated output.
- Destructive Romance: To some degree with Akbar and Jeff. They admit they despise each other, but love each other too.
- Distaff Counterpart: Sheba is described as "basically, Binky in drag".
- Fish Eyes: Whenever a character is in existential despair. So, quite often.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Deconstructed when a homophobe angrily tells Akbar and Jeff that "gay" used to mean happy. They tell him they're called that because they are happy.
- Honor Thy Parent: In one 1991 installment, Bongo invokes the trope when faced with his father Binky, whose silhouette is looming over him, having caught him painting an identical mirror-image silhouette of him on the wall, with paint footprints on the floor. In a feeble attempt to get out of trouble, Bongo says: "It's called "Respect Your Elders.""
- Hypocritical Humor: Used a lot in School Is Hell and Childhood Is Hell
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: There was a period where Groening changed the name of the strip every week to include a different joke: What The Hell, Wife in Hell, Hell^2, Hellabaloo, Laffs in Hell, U.S. Out of Hell, Like Hell I Will, Hell Yes, Hell-Bent, Life in Whatever, Lxfx xn Hxll, Your Own Little Life in Hell, Life Under Reagan...
- Jerkass God: One strip is narrated by some unseen, apparently immortal and omniscient being who consistently mocks the protagonist throughout his entire life, calling him a loser and saying that everything he does is meaningless ("You'll never make it..."). Eventually, the protagonist dies of extreme old age in a nursing home, and the being smugly notes that it was right all along.
- Late to the Punchline: One comic strip has Bongo hearing his friend tell a dirty joke that gets everyone laughing.note It isn't until he's gone home, sat on his stoop, eaten dinner, and laid down to go to sleep that he bursts out laughing, presumably "getting it."
- The Many Deaths of You: The Los Angeles Way Of Death◊
- Meaningful Name: Binky is a good name for a rabbit - the little jump they do when they’re happy is called a “binky”.
- My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: The strip pokes a lot of satirical jabs at American society and politics.
- Noodle Implements: One strip's "Sex Toys for the Truly Adventurous" include a nervous parrot, water balloons, an air horn, a funhouse mirror, and a TV set tuned to The Flintstones, among other seemingly random objects.
- Overly-Long Gag. Most of the Akbar and Jeff strips. Some have a setup, 10-15 Beat Panels, then a punchline; others have an excessive number of panels on the same theme and a twist at the end, such as "I'll dance on your grave," "I'll mambo on your grave," "I'll do the Charleston on your grave," and so on for another eleven panels until they decide to go to a dance party together.
- Sadist Show: the title should be your first clue.
- Sadist Teacher: Mr. Shute in School Is Hell.
- Shout-Out: Groening has admitted that the striped shirts of Akbar and Jeff were based on those of Charlie Brown.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Quite cynical, right down to the title. However, much like Groening's other work, there is a genuine level of heartwarming and sweet moments.
- Smooch of Victory: Though, in Akbar and Jeff's case, they touch index fingers.
- Sphere Eyes: Binky et al.
- Strawman Political: Groening doesn't think highly of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the right-wing. One strip identifies "voting Republican" as a psychological disorder.
- Thinking the Same Thought: There is a comic where Binky and Sheba are on a date and constantly thinking the same thing including "This would be much easier if I just knew what you were thinking."
- Twincest: According to Word of God, "Here’s my standard reply: 'Akbar and Jeff are either brothers or lovers — or both. Whatever offends you most, that’s what they are.'... Yeah, of course they’re gay!". It's never made clear if they're related, though they have an identical appearance.
- Underground Comics: Early on. It's since become more mainstream, but still isn't as well known as Groening's other creations. Also, unlike Zippy the Pinhead, Life In Hell was only syndicated to alternative weeklies and a small number of mainstream papers, and didn't appear as often. Parodied in one comic where Groening meets his self-proclaimed biggest fan, who knows all his works except Life in Hell.