While many are abuzz that Matt Groening is bringing some irreverent comedy to Netflix, I’ve had my eyes on something else: two characters from his Life In Hell comic series.
Life In Hell was a very simple comic strip that Groening created from 1977 through 2012 that seemingly originated a lot of the themes and characters that would make him the super success that he is today. The comic featured talking rabbits, various Simpsons, strange animal-people with weird ears, and two normal looking fez wearing dudes named Akbar and Jeff. These two comic dudes were easy to shrug off as little characters but, given their surprising gayness in the eighties, they hold a special place in LGBT history as early comic activists to assert that queer people are extremely everyday normies who love and hate and do nothing, just like the rest of the world.
The two characters were designed in homage to Peanuts as Groening told Rolling Stone in 2012, noting that they wear the same shirt as Charlie Brown. This tie to Charlie Brown actually helped Groening see these two lovable dorks as a couple and was the reason why he lost some endorsements for creating two characters who were seen as “not normal.”
This was particularly pronounced in a failed beer deal who cited an unknowingly queer dog as their wish for a mascot in Akbar and Jeff. KUOW explained in 2015.
“A beer company approached me a few months ago and asked if they could use Akbar and Jeff as mascots,” Groening said. “They wanted Akbar and Jeff to be like Spuds MacKenzie and advertise their beer during spring break.”
The beer company planned to hand out washable Akbar and Jeff tattoos.
“Then the article in Rolling Stone came out about me, and it was revealed that, ‘Oh my god. Akbar and Jeff – they’re not normal.’ And the beer company dropped Akbar and Jeff.”
The beer company said it wouldn’t work to market gay characters to frat boys.
“I said, ‘Listen, these are cartoon characters. It’s not that big a deal. Spuds MacKenzie is a girl – he survived that scandal.’”
Life In Hell is just such a lovely exploration and explanation of gay love and, while from a straight point of view, is quite unheralded for the time. A situation like getting big beer money could have turned a worse person to straighten out his characters: that was a test that Groening clearly passed, making the characters activists instead of a homophobic joke. It was a wake up call: love them or leave them – you choose.
Comics like that adorable couch snuggle from 1986 suggests these characters and Groening as much bigger than a blip in a newspaper. Along with Doonesbury, there were few comic strip queers in the eighties: Akbar and Jeff are an adorably big deal, then and now.