Monday Memories: Before Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie There Was Akbar & Jeff


This is the fourteenth of my Monday Memories series of posts. In these posts, I pull a book off my shelf, somewhat randomly, and tell you a bit about it. It's not a review of the book so much as a memory of the book, a bit about what might have been going on in my life when I read it, and my thoughts on who might like this book. 

The Book

Akbar & Jeff's Guide to Life - A Cartoon Book by Matt Groening. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Copyright 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 by Matt Groening. Dedicated "to my son Homer".

Why This Book?

It's summertime here in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means time for some lighter fare on the reading menu. So this week is a flashback to some favorite comic strip characters from the 1980s. 

What's This Book About?

From memory:
This is a book full of strips featuring the characters Akbar and Jeff from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening's 1980s comic strip Life in Hell. Akbar and Jeff are a couple of guys who live together. At first glance, it's possible they could just be brothers - because they look exactly like each other. But no, that's not the case. They're gay lovers.

From perusing the book after I re-checked it out of the library:
If you are unfamiliar with Akbar and Jeff I can describe them fairly quickly. They wear fezzes and Charlie Brown style t-shirts. They are quite a bit shorter than the other characters in the strip. They have large noses and serious overbite. They tend not to talk too much, with Groening getting across his point more in their actions than their words.

Among the strips in the book are many of their "flyers" for their business ventures, like the Liposuction Hut ("Our Guarantee - Any vital organ accidentally sucked out of your body will be returned to you immediately AT NO ADDITIONAL COST!!") and the Compact Disk Hut ("Buy the same old music but on Compact Disk!!!"). They also evade their landlord to whom they owe back rent, and entertain their nephews, despite worrying that the boys might be unnerved by their "alternative lifestyle". A few of the strips feature the weird rabbit people characters that also populated the Life In Hell universe.

What Was Going On In My Life When I Read This?

I think I first came across Life In Hell in the mid '80s while living outside of Springfield, MA. But I became a real fan after I moved to the Chicago area, where I was regularly picked up the weekly Chicago Reader, one of many alternate newspapers around the country that carried Groening's strip. I never missed a week's Life In Hell comic.  When the books collecting the strips started coming out of course I had to get them.

The 1980s were not a good time to be gay in America. There were gay people who were out and proud of course, but to the general population of the country gay people were, if thought of at all, to be pitied.  The AIDS virus was claiming victims, and the Federal government did not particularly seem to care. To someone like me, struggling with my sexual identity, AIDS and society's reaction to it was all the more reason to stay in the closet. 

There were not a lot of positive gay characters in pop culture either. Ellen DeGeneres' TV coming out and the hit TV show Will and Grace were still a decade in the future. But in the 1980s in Life In Hell there were Akbar and Jeff, a cute couple who might bicker a bit, but who always cared for each other in their own comical way.

Why Would Someone Like This Book?

If you still remember alternative newspapers and the 1980s, this book is like a walk down memory lane. If you don't, but are a fan of the Simpsons, this book will show you what Matt Groening was up to before creating that show. This book was published in the same year that The Simpsons TV show debuted. 

If you are at all interested, you can still pick up a used copy on ThriftBooks or AbeBooks, or most likely at your favorite used book retailer. 

So that's my "Monday Memories" book post for this week. Do you remember alternative newspapers before they became corporatized? Were you a fan of Life In Hell? Or were you more of a Zippy the Pinhead person? Leave a comment below.