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When Ritual Performances Slip Dangerously into the Real

While in high school, the artist Cameron Jamie used to go dumpster diving in trash bins behind local public schools with an older friend, a burgeoning cartoonist named Matt Groening. The two were on a mission to reveal the sinister reality behind their plastic, suburban, Southern California neighborhood. In the bins, at the end of the school year, they could find discarded notebooks and scraps of paper featuring violent drawings by delinquent children. Here it was, right in front of them — this is what was really happening. Behind the Leave it to Beaver façade, what actually existed was confirmed in these pieces of outsider art ephemera, a nightmare lurking just beneath the surface.

Although Groening and Jamie’s lives would eventually diverge — the former went on to alternative comics semi-fame before ascending to the pop culture pantheon with The Simpsons — their work would stay rooted in this traumatic break in the suburban real. Groening’s Life in Hell comics, which were syndicated in alternative weeklies across the country, took a satirical pose toward the reality of the suburban childhood home. Parents, teachers, classmates, and coworkers were presented as archetypes, reading from a script. The only way to make it through to the other side was to not listen and keep your head down. These comics, for the most part, were light-hearted, although occasionally real terror would jump out that spoke of things more frightening. In the final chapter of Childhood Is Hell, Groening draws Binky, the main character of these comics, curled in the corner of a room with the menacing shadow of his father hovering over him. “Did I say childhood was hell?” Binky says. “Gee, I don’t know what I could have possibly been thinking.”...

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