By Aaron Blevins, 11/08/2012
Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip may have ended its 35-year run this summer, but its characters — Binky, Sheba, Bongo, Akbar, Jeff and family — continue to live on through l.a.Eyeworks ads that appear in the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press.
The business’ co-owner, Gai Gherardi, said Groening drew the advertisement in the early to mid-1980s to promote its inaugural “big sale”, which is now held annually in the fall. Groening, who would go on to create “The Simpsons”, was — and remains — a customer.
“We garner a huge amount of feedback and love and joy and delight,” Gherardi said. “It’s just one of those iconic little moments in the history of not only l.a.Eyeworks, but Los Angeles.”
Groening’s sense of humor is on display in the ad, assuring potential patrons that “No, this is not an optical illusion,” and, “This is quite an unusual phenomenon, we assure you.” His enthusiasm — “No kidding! Woo!” — is also apparent.
Gherardi and her fellow co-owner, Barbara McReynolds, commissioned the “Life in Hell” creator to create the piece shortly after the strip was created. The two were fans of the comic, which centers on Groening’s experiences after moving to L.A. a few years prior.
“Matt was an emerging artist at the time and was brilliant, and we knew it,” Gherardi said. “We loved his cartooning.”
“Life in Hell” began in 1977 as an avenue for Groening to describe his life in L.A. to his friends in his native Oregon. The strip eventually blossomed, and was syndicated to as many as 250 newspapers. In the beginning, Groening sold his strip while working at Licorice Pizza on Sunset Boulevard.
It also segued to “The Simpsons”. The comic was introduced to producer James L. Brooks, who asked to use the “Life in Hell” characters for a spot on “The Tracey Ullman Show”. Fearing that he would lose ownership rights to the characters, he created “The Simpsons” instead, using his own family to create the main characters.
The rest has been written in the history books of Springfield. But prior to his success, Groening was driving a beat-up car around Los Angeles while working at a number of odd jobs to pay the rent — in hopes of eventually being hired as a writer.
Gherardi could not recall how much the business paid the Oregon native to draw the ad, though l.a.Eyeworks pays Groening each year that it runs. Gherardi and McReynolds also hosted a show for Groening to display his cartoons at the restaurant they owned next door, City Café.
“We just thought he was a gifted and brilliant artist. We loved his work,” Gherardi added.
She couldn’t speak highly enough of the artwork he did for l.a.Eyeworks. Gherardi said the business had just started out, and to have “Life in Hell” characters lining up outside the door was “fantastic.”
“When Matt did that, we thought it was so hysterical,” she said. “It was just perfect. It was just his humor. We loved everything about it. We could look at it endlessly. About 30 years later, it just continues to delight you every time you look at it.”
The company had commissioned other artists, such as Gary Panter, for ads and would eventually go on to appear in “Bladerunner”. Groening’s ad, though, became even more appreciated with the success of “The Simpsons”.
“All of a sudden it was, ‘Whoa, is that really Matt Groening?’ Certainly, the regard for it has taken on a greater meaning,” Gherardi added.
She said she was “bummed” to hear that “Life in Hell” ended this summer, and said it speaks to the financial issues facing some publications. Several had reportedly stopped publishing the strip due to budget concerns.
“Why? Why did that have to happen? …It’s been a source of real delight since the day it was born,” Gherardi said. “Utterly remarkable.”
As for l.a.Eyeworks and the “big sale”, everything is “going great,” she said. The business, located in the 7400 block of Melrose Ave., held the annual sale less than three weeks ago.
“We’re strictly independent and very happy to be in business,” Gherardi said, omitting the “No kidding!” and “Woo!”