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.