Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: How to Go to Hell

A Fair Trade Book

Title: How to Go to Hell
Author: Matt Groening
Date: 1991
Publisher: Harper Collins
Length: pages not numbered
Illustrations: cartoons by the author
Quote: “Annoying Performance Artist Magazine: Not to be confused with Annoying Street Lunatic Magazine.”

Wow. What's this title doing on a Christian-friendly web site? Should I introduce this one as "A Book I Like but Lots of Christians Will Hate"? I don't think so. "Christian-friendly" does not mean "exclusively Christian." Matt Groening is certainly not an evangelical Christian cartoonist, but neither is he a hater, nor do I hate him or his books. I think this one has redeeming social value, and, yes, it belonged on the store display from which I sold the physical copy reviewed here, and yes, it belongs on this web site. I think Groening might even be interested in reading a Christian reaction to his book...so here goes:
Groening didn’t really need to call his newspaper cartoons “Life in Hell.” He wasn’t living in the Michigan town by that name, nor were the cartoons recognizably more about Michigan than about any other part of the United States, and the only real purpose of putting “Hell” in the title was to keep the cartoons that eventually became “The Simpsons” out of the “family” newspapers.
But it was the 1980s. Certain artsy types were deeply disturbed by the Religious Right. “Irreverent” was a term of praise in some social circles. Groening wanted his cartoons to be noticed in those circles. Hence “Life in Hell.” Not that the scenes portrayed couldn’t as easily have been called “Life in Baltimore,” or in any other city where the Truly Local Weekly Paper carried Groening’s cartoons. (I discovered them in the Baltimore City Paper first.)
Many of the cartoons deal with relationships. When the aspect of relationships being held up to ridicule is gender-specific, the characters portrayed are the married rabbits, Binky and Sheba. When the aspect of relationships being ridiculed is power, the focus is on their son, the one-eared bunny Bongo. When the aspect of relationships held up to ridicule is just human selfishness and stupidity, the characters are the identical twin sock monkeys, Akbar and Jeff.
The position of Akbar and Jeff in the cartoon-animal world was cleverly used to gain readers from both sides of the artsy community as it had polarized in the 1980s. They were, after all, sex-free stuffed toys, uttering lines that could belong to “Brothers? Lovers? Whatever.” They expressed love by touching fingertips, pleasure by bouncing about, and (in this collection!) anger by falling down. However, in a cartoon not included in this collection, Groening decided that Akbar and Jeff could be considered “gay” since they were definitely the same kind of cartoon animals, and furnished “Hell” with a “gay bar” for sock monkeys where dozens of sock monkeys, all obviously stuffed and dressed at the same factory, bounced about together. Nice trick.
Kids, who seldom read the magazines and newspapers that printed “Life in Hell” but did buy the books, are probably better off thinking of Akbar and Jeff as brothers, like Ernie and Bert on “Sesame Street.”  We learn about loving and sharing before we’re capable of learning about sex, marriage, and parenthood. The cartoons make it easy to see Akbar and Jeff as analogous to Ernie and Bert; they’re drawn smaller than baby bunny Bongo.
However, the rabbits get more ink than the sock monkeys. Their humor is mordant, bordering on morbid. The comedic device is simple: take ordinary pessimism and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity, where it becomes funny. Binky clicks through fifteen TV shows, rating thirteen “Garbage,” one “Trash,” and one “Seen it,” before observing that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Bongo pulls petals off a daisy chanting “I love myself, I hate myself,” ends with “I love myself,” gets a response of “I hope you’re proud of yourself for destroying that poor innocent daisy,” and concludes, “I despise myself.” Binky gives up on other methods of coping with stress, searches for the “inner peace” of renunciation, and fades out in the final frame of that week’s cartoon with, “I forgot my mantra.”

These cartoons make readers laugh by making us think about human selfishness and stupidity, how we deal with them, and how we avoid them. For some people, they did that more efficiently than either the Christian or the secular psychological self-help books that were overloading bookstore shelves in 1991. Usually the cartoon characters are examples of thinking and behavior patterns we want to avoid, but they don't make those behaviors seem exciting; they show how self-defeating and silly the behaviors are.

In fact, there are Christians who believe that Heaven and Hell are metaphors for the ways we construct and experience our earthly lives, and for those people the way these cartoon characters live can quite fairly be described as Hell.
Binky, Sheba, and Bongo are of course the forebears of Homer, Marge, and Bart Simpson. Binky is younger and smarter than Homer, Sheba is slimmer and nicer than Marge, and Bongo is much more pathetic than Bart, but the resemblance is there. So, How to Go to Hell is part of the Simpsons’ family history, and belongs in any Simpsons souvenir collection.