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"Life in Hell" eventually made it into the paper, and from the paper into the wide world. "[Artist] Gary Panter and I used to walk down the street in the old days," Groening recalls, "and we'd get excited if we saw one of our strips in the gutter. The high point was when I got on the bus one day, and somebody had done Binky the Rabbit graffiti in the back. And that just blew my mind. It was Binky crucified, which I didn't like very much, but it was still Binky. It may have been the Trix rabbit, actually. But I like to think it was Binky."
Groening had also begun writing Sound Mix, which was supposed to be a music-scene gossip column. "But I didn't know any gossip," he says, "and I couldn't make myself learn any." And so he turned the space to his own different ends, chronicling his various enthusiasms, obsessions, pet peeves and problems. It was spectacularly concerned with the truth. Some of it had to do with music; most of it did not. While "Life in Hell" certainly had its autobiographical moments ("Lies My Older Brother and Sister Told Me," "Lies I Told My Younger Sisters"), Sound Mix was almost all Matt, almost all the time, without the mediation of cartoon rabbits. He wrote about his family and his childhood, as in "Tales of the Beaver Patrol: My Life in the Boy Scouts." He reported his ongoing war with his noisy neighbors. He made lists of things he liked (Perez Prado, The American Thesaurus of Slang, various underground comics, William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic, the word defenestration), which might suddenly turn into lists of things he hated: "Style. Both the word and the concept. And the word yuppie. Also what I'm getting paid to write this. Also this bad cold I have. I hate everything. Yet I love everything." Some columns he filled with things he found on the street or in the trash: discarded school assignments, teenage mash notes, handbills of the insane -- little bits of real, mad city life. And, as with The Simpsons' signature swipes at Fox, he did not hesitate to bite the hand that fed him. "If you took all the Readeremployees who have left in the last six months," he wrote, naming 28 of them, from its editor in chief down to the typesetter, "and laid them end to end, they'd reach from the Reader's front door clear to the organic cucumber bin in the health-food market across the street." Finally, he was asked to give up the "music" column and perhaps write a humor column under a different title. "What an ugly word," he wrote in his last appearance there. "Humor."
WHAT WORK GROENING DOES NOT DO in the offices of Futurama or The Simpsons gets done in a little low building about five minutes away. "This is my fantasy clubhouse," he says unlocking the door and disarming the alarm. It seems not so much a clubhouse as a several-chambered walk-in closet, half of it meticulously ordered, half of it an undealt-with jumble. One room is full of videotapes, neatly labeled by Matt (in a hand that looks nothing like Akbar), part of a project to school himself in the history of film. (He also attempted, a few years back, to read the classics of 20th-century literature in chronological order.) Shelves in another room hold hundreds of compact discs; film canisters containing his father's films tower crookedly on a table. The originals of "Life in Hell" are neatly laid in portfolios kept in a safe, while boxes overflowing with pages upon pages of the found writing he used to reprint in Sound Mix line the hall -- an archive of ephemera, of effluvia, of which Matt has made himself custodian. "I was going to do a book with this stuff," he says, "but I never got around to it."
This is where he draws "Life in Hell" and where, at a small conference table before a marker board still covered with sketches and notes, Groening and executive producer and Simpsons vet David Cohen developed Futurama. Bookshelves hold a sizable library of paperbacks assembled for research and inspiration. "We would throw out ideas from the history of science fiction -- not necessarily good science fiction. We talked about various things we wanted to see. I had one specific notion in which our hero, Fry, had to deliver a package to a very hot planet, and after running across the hot-planet desert and up the palace stairs and down the long red carpet to the throne, there was nothing but a soft-drink bottle on the throne. And when he drinks it, he ends up having drunk the emperor." This will be seen in an episode entitled "My Three Suns."
Science fiction and cartoons, forms in which anything might happen and which operate by exaggeration, are both ideally suited to satire and so perfectly wed in Futurama. Stories of the future are, of course, always really about the present, and in the brave new world according to Groening ("a corporate, commercial confusing world," he told Wired, "where the military is just as stupid as it is currently") there will be addictive soft drinks, coin-operated prostitutes, suicide booths ("Please select mode of death: quick and painless or slow and horrible") and, in order to allow guest appearances by contemporary celebrities -- including Pamela Anderson, Leonard Nimoy, the Beastie Boys and, seen in passing, Groening himself -- a museum of disembodied living heads. Was it satisfying to create a distant future into which he personally survives? "Yeah," he replies. "Obviously. I don't know about being a head in a jar. As Leonard Nimoy says in the first episode, 'We try to lead lives of quiet dignity, offering our wisdom to those who seek it.' But then he gets fed like a goldfish in a bowl."
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