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The Cartoon Character BART SIMPSON

6 minute read
Richard Corliss

He must stay after school, every single episode of his life, to write a homily on the fourth-grade blackboard (e.g., “The Pledge of Allegiance does not end with ‘Hail, Satan'”). In a family of noisy eaters, he is perhaps the loudest, at least in decibel-to-kilogram ratio. He has a few weaknesses: exposing his buttocks, sassing his father, making prank calls to Moe’s Tavern (“Is Oliver there? Oliver Clothesoff?”) and speaking like a Cockney chimney sweep. One of the few trophies on his bedroom shelf is labeled EVERYBODY GETS A TROPHY DAY.

Bart Simpson is an underachiever–“and proud of it,” as a million T shirts read, back when The Simpsons began its run on Fox and he was the first fad of the ’90s. Remember “Eat my shorts”? Recall “Cowabunga” and “Ay, caramba”? His fame skyrocketed in no time; burnout was virtually assured.

Ah, but this young Sprinfieldianite has staying power: staying in the fourth grade, to the endless vexation of his teacher and his principal; staying glued to the living-room tube to watch his idol, Krusty the Clown; staying for years in the hearts and humors of a fickle, worldwide TV audience. This young scamp–with his paper bag-shaped head, his body’s jagged, modernist silhouette, his brat-propelled skateboard–may be “yellow trash” to the town gentry, but to his mother and everyone else, he’s our special little guy.

It’s true that a few other cartoon characters might try to claim Bart’s place of honor. This century is gaily strewn with them, from Winsor McCay’s benign Gertie the Dinosaur (cinema’s first animated icon) to Fox’s other cartoon glory, King of the Hill (whose Bobby Hill, all perfect circles and mute yearning, is the anti-Bart). The Warner menagerie–Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, Wile E. Coyote–energized three decades of Saturday matinees. And when cartoons invaded TV, creatures from Bullwinkle Moose to Tex Avery’s Raid insects kept alive a hallowed comic tradition. Bart fits in snugly here. As he once cogently boasted, “I’m this century’s Dennis the Menace.”

That Bart is a cartoon character–a sheaf of drawings animated by smart writing and the unique vocal stylings of Nancy Cartwright–makes him both “real” and surreally supple. Cartoon figures can do more things, endure more knocks on the noggin, get away with more cool, naughty stuff than the rest of us who are animated only by a telltale heart. The face-offs of Bugs and Daffy in Chuck Jones’ cartoons of the ’50s involved many shotgun blasts and rearranged duckbills, but the humor and humiliation, the understanding of failure and resilience were instantly translatable to kids and adults alike. The injuries were fake. The suffering, pal, was genuine.

Suffering and failure are at the core of The Simpsons, which was created by newspaper cartoonist Matt Groening as crudely drawn filler material for the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, then went weekly in 1990. A Honeymooners with kids, the series features a man in a deadening blue-collar job (Homer, the nuclear-plant safety inspector), his epochally exasperated wife (Marge of the mountainous blue hair) and three conflicted kids. Bart, 10, is clever and cunning but addled in class; Lisa, 8, is a near genius whose intelligence deprives her of friends; year-old Maggie expresses frazzled wisdom beyond her years with the merest suck on her pacifier.

Springfield boasts a teeming gallery of low- and medium-lifes–surely the densest, funniest supporting cast since the ’40s farces of Preston Sturges. The church, school and pub are places of refuge and anxiety. But home, 742 North Evergreen Terrace, is where the show’s heart is, where everyone’s despair is muted by familial love. Homer (whom the writers hold in a sort of amazed contempt) bumbles into some egregious fix. Marge fusses and copes. Lisa sublimates her rancor by playing her sax. And Bart is…Bart.

Lisa, when not condemning Bart and all his works (she once called him “the devil’s cabana boy”), tries to explain him. “That little hell-raiser,” she recently ranted, “is the spawn of every shrieking commercial, every brain-rotting soda pop, every teacher who cares less about young minds than about cashing their big, fat paychecks. No, Bart is not to blame. You can’t create a monster and then whine when he stomps on a few buildings.” Nice try, Lisa, but not quite. He’s not Bartzilla. The kid knows right from wrong; he just likes wrong better.

His rude streak is indeed stoked by cartoons. After savoring some impossible TV torture that Itchy the mouse has wreaked on Scratchy the cat, Bart says, “Lisa, if I ever stop loving violence, I want you to shoot me.” (Lisa: “Will do.”) Maybe the Simpson home carries its own germ of carnage. In the episode where evil old Mr. Burns adopts Bart as his heir and whisks him away, sweet Lisa is seen ripping off strips of wallpaper. Confronted by Marge, Lisa explains that she is “just trying to fill the void of random, meaningless destruction that Bart’s absence has left in our hearts.”

We’ll admit this: Bart has a riven soul. He needs to be loved (“Tell me I’m good!” he pleads of his friend Milhouse’s mom). But do hold the pathos. The reason for his appeal is that he’s so brilliant at being bad; his pranks have a showman’s panache. When he drives off in what is touted as Hitler’s car, he chortles, “It’s Fuhrer-ific!” After impishly filling Groundskeeper Willie’s shack with creamed corn, he listens to Willie curse, “You did it, Bart Simpson!” and murmurs, with practiced modesty, “The man knows quality work.” So do we.

One of Bart’s blackboard punishments was to write, “I am not delightfully saucy.” But he is, he is–a complex weave of grace, attitude and personality, deplorable and adorable, a very ’90s slacker who embodies a century of popular culture and is one of the richest characters in it. One thinks of Chekhov, Celine, Lenny Bruce, little boy lost. Anyway, we love the kid and his endlessly terrific show; so here he is in the TIME 100.

Congratulations, Bart. For once, you’ve overachieved.

TIME senior writer Richard Corliss has been an animated-cartoon fan for nearly 50 years

Win, Lose And Drawn

Bart Simpson joins a line of memorable cartoon heroes and rascals — all worldwide stars. A few immortals:

MICKEY MOUSE More a salesman than a performer, he became Disney’s logo. The world’s most-loved corporate symbol is the retired star of films unseen by millions of kids who visit his parks

SUPERMAN The Man of Steel, created in 1938, caught America’s self-image: mild-mannered on the outside, a will of kryptonite within. Nearly every overmuscled action hero is indebted to him

BUGS BUNNY Part Cagney, part Groucho, the wascally wabbit and Warner’s other tummlers — Daffy, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, sweet Tweetie Pie — were frantic vaudevillians, superb comic artists.

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