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An Alternative Cartoonist Who Draws the Line

August 23, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

His syndicated comic strip called "Life in Hell" stars three pathological rabbits and two fez-wearing gay businessmen.

His three lines of greeting cards include a collection of covers for fake magazines, such as Today's Misery (with an articles on "What to Do With All That Extra Room in Bed") and a group of phony movie posters, including "Young Republicans Go Shopping."

Most recently, he began working in animation: 15-second segments featuring "a mutant-'50s-Father-Knows-Best Family in Hell" sprinkled throughout the Fox Network's "The Tracey Ullman Show."

Thirty-three-year-old Matt Groening is the rambunctious, unpredictable, taboo-defying alternative cartoonist who makes Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" seem, by comparison, reminiscent of "Mary Worth."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 26, 1987 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 2 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
In an Aug. 23 article on alternative cartoonist Matt Groening, an incorrect location was given for The Evergreen State College. It is in Olympia, Wash.

His weekly strip is now run in more than 60 newspapers, mostly college papers and alternative weeklies.

While Groening continually tests the limits of modern taste, much of his humor is inoffensive, like this counsel to the lovelorn from "Life in Hell": "If you're going to argue with your partner at a restaurant, make it a cheap one, because you won't be tasting your food anyhow."

The cartoon's language, which once included every contemporary expletive, has been cleaned up enough that two daily papers, the San Francisco Examiner and the (Portland) Oregonian now run the strip. But even so, the cartoonist notes with amusement, the Oregonian initially asked to change "Life in Hell" to "Life in Heck."

In person, Groening is even more surprising than the whacked-out hellions for which he's increasingly well known.

Here in his self-described "bat cave/teen-age clubhouse"--actually the garage-turned-studio of his new home located on a Venice canal--the man is relentlessly pleasant. Meeting him is like encountering the Pillsbury Doughboy after expecting an overbaked Cookie Monster.

This afternoon, Mr. Hell himself, a happily married newlywed wearing baggy shorts, a plaid shirt, big glasses and sandals, is lunching on Pollo Loco leftovers. And waiting for his MacIntosh to print out a script for an animated episode.

An unquestionably gentle soul, Groening is telling great stories, among them a revealing tale of how he became so fond of the canal ducks that when nearly all of a mother duck's newborn babies died, he drove to the Red Wing Hatchery in Huntington Beach to buy her seven new ducklings.

Ducks Are Next

But don't bet on that showing up in one of his cartoons. He eventually plans to use the ducks, but in a strip or book titled (what else?) "Ducks Are Hell."

His previous books are "Love Is Hell," "Work Is Hell" and "School Is Hell," recently published by Pantheon Books with a 75,000-copy first printing.

Ask Groening about the apparent dichotomy between his outer work and his inner nature, and he replies that many other people have noticed it too.

Says Wendy Wolf, his Pantheon editor: "You expect to meet some wizened little creature in a dark room. But he's very outgoing, very affable. While he associates with an avant-garde world, he actually writes about things that are the heart of everyday experience. I once accused him of having a direct line into the collective unconscious of the Baby Boom generation."

James L. Brooks, producer/director/writer of "Terms of Endearment" and one of the executive producers of "The Tracey Ullman Show," has been a longtime Groening fan who's also noticed the contrast.

"Maybe there's something in one that relaxes when you see the truth," Brooks speculates.

Groening, however, isn't buying any disparity.

The Real World's Worse

"There's no contradiction," he contends. "My stuff may be dark and cynical to some people, but I think it's a fairly optimistic view of the world. The world is a much worse place than 'Life in Hell.' "

Much of Groening's humor springs from his history as a childhood troublemaker in Portland, Ore., where he attended "regular, fascist, American public schools."

"I could understand getting sent to the principal's office for dropping an encyclopedia out the window," he reasons now, "but I couldn't understand them ripping my cartoons up."

The son of an advertising man-turned-film maker and a grade-school teacher-turned-mother of five, Groening managed to graduate from high school and Portland's The Evergreen State College, an alternative school with no required courses, no tests and no grades.

At Evergreen, he essentially studied film making, journalism, philosophy and pop culture. His garage/studio/cave/clubhouse--loaded with obscure books, comics and record albums "guaranteed not to be found in any library"--practically screams that those studies have never ended.

Fellow alternative cartoonist Lynda Barry, who produces a syndicated weekly strip and a monthly cartoon for Esquire, first met Groening when they were both students at Evergreen.

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