”If anybody’s listening, I wouldn’t mind being reincarnated as a sea otter.”
So says Binky the Rabbit, star of Matt Groening’s fabulous comic, Life in Hell. Debuting in 1978 in Wet Magazine, Life in Hell began long before Groening was famous as the creator of The Simpsons, back when he was simply a struggling writer in Los Angeles who began writing a comic strip in order to work out his angst and make sense of his life, not to mention afford food. The strip runs mainly in independent newspapers and similar publications, as the variety in layout (which basically requires a 6-8 inch square) as well as frequent obscenity and mature subject matter make the strip unfit for standard syndicated publication.
In 1980, the strip was added to the Los Angeles Reader, and from there the strip took off. Today, it appears in hundreds of papers and other sources, and has a sizeable fan base, of whom many learned about the strip from the compendiis that have been published.
”Love is a snowmobile racing over the tundra that suddenly flips and pins you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.”
The star of Life in Hell is Binky the Bunny Rabbit. He’s neurotic, well-read, smart at times, utterly stupid at others, completely smothered by the pressures of his at times painfully existential existence. Binky lives in Los Angeles, and although he is miserably unhappy, will never move. He’s been to group therapy about his name (where Pinky, Dinky, Blinky, and the others all laughed at him for his name), died a million deaths (most of them humiliating) and never quite come to terms with the fact that he thrives in the poor luck that life thrusts at him. He appears frequently in The Simpsons if you’re looking for him: on posters, as a stuffed toy in Maggie’s crib, and in other locales. When you get down to it, Binky’s a little bit like you.
Binky has a girlfriend by the name of Sheba, described by Groening as being “basically Binky in drag.” They met in a coffee shop, retired to Sheba’s place, and were promptly interrupted by Sheba’s former boyfriend, Big Bob, who returned from prison and (presumably) beat Binky into a pulp. Binky and Sheba remain together, despite Sheba’s being reasonable and down-to-earth and Binky being a luckless alcoholic who can’t really seem to do anything with himself. Sheba and Binky sometimes appear in the strip as a generic couple when Groening needs one. And no matter how much you try to deny it, your relationships are pretty much like theirs.
In a shocking twist, Binky accidentally fathered a son in the early days of the strip. It seemed (at the time) like a one-joke strip where Binky (in the heat of JUNGLE PASSION) got himself rip-roaringly drunk and woke up the next morning next to a pimply cat named Hulga. Five years later, immersed in Dante's Inferno, Binky answered the door to discover Hulga along with their son, Bongo. Being of an interspecies relationship, Bongo has only one bunny ear in the center of his head — leading to his motto, Stop Staring at my Ear. Because Hulga was planning on moving to New York City to seek her fortune, Binky (and Sheba) now take care of Bongo, who’s every bit as tormented by his life at school and at home as Binky is in his circumstances. Although Bongo is constantly faced with trials, he takes it better than his father, relying on his youthful senses of denial imagination to escape the unhappiness of it all. It doesn’t work. Say, doesn’t Bongo sound a bit like you were as a child?
The final recurring characters are Akbar and Jeff, who are “lovers, or brothers, or both.” They represent perhaps the best-balanced characters in the strip. Despite the fact that they live in a world that can’t tolerate them, their little fezzes, or their lifestyle, they remain upbeat and happy. They live in a nice, sunny suburb, eat a lot of ice cream, understand the nuances of modern culture, run a series of different businesses (starting from the Tofu Hut and proceeding through a variety including video stores, amusement parks, cryogenic clinics and others), and are witty and eloquent. Take it from me, they’re not very much like you at all.
”You’re going to stay in this orphanage until you take back those comments about the Republican Party being hateful.”
There are a number of different strips that you may see recurring over and over and over in this comic. These include, but are not limited to:
- Advertisements for Akbar and Jeff’s newest business venture.
- The different types of (boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, bosses, high school students), arranged in a neat grid.
- Series of strips (long since collected in books) that, for about 20 strips in a row, offer you a lesson-by-lesson guide to love, school, work, or childhood.
- Akbar and Jeff having a back-and-forth one-upmanship contest for about 25 panels that ends in a startling revelation about their weirdness, their normalcy, or both.
- ”I didn’t do it” - Binky appears as a silhouette covering half the strip, and Bongo attempts to explain what he’s just been caught doing.
- Learn to Cartoon - usually ends with the notion that if you haven’t already been cartooning since you were six, you probably aren’t going anywhere.
- And a whole bunch of others which I can’t remember right now.
”My name is talking Akbar, and I have extremely ambivalent feelings about you.”
Life in Hell isn’t really meant for you. It started as a medium for Matt Groening to express his frustration with his life, and has continued to be that. Admittedly, since his rise to fame, happy marriage, and the birth of his sons (all of this over the course of nearly 30 years now), the focus of the strip has shifted to more of social commentary and an acerbic, bitter Family Circus than a strip about how terrible life is for anthropomorphic bunnies. But it doesn’t matter. Pick up the strip and read it. Prepare to become utterly engrossed in a comic about life, death, hatred, love, stupidity, genius, and bunnies.