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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.