Filed under: Paper Pusher | Tags: Bart Simpson, Blake Jones, Blood of the Young, Bort, cartoons, Dimitri Karakostas, Homer Simpson
In my conceptualizing of this series, it was difficult to choose what type of endeavor to begin with— do I try a literal serving spoon, something historically defined as a “zine” or “artists’ book”? Do I throw a conceptual stone off the cliff and hope the ripples spread further than a gradual descent into the pool? Do I pick a single artist’s project, or a collaboration? After much deliberation I chose My Son is Also Named Bort because it surprised me. I attached to it immediately, cradled by the subject matter and intrigued by the challenge of digesting what it all meant.
Publisher: Blood of the Young (Toronto, Canada), 2013
36 pages of photocopied drawings (Sharpie, pen, pencil, ink washes), all in gray scale and stapled.
The Simpsons are timeless characters for anyone who’s watched the television series in any of its 25 seasons. There is a healthy dose of satire and comedy, cultural commentary, and punchy immediacy that allowed them to soar during primetime. The title of this zine comes from an episode in the sixth season entitled “Itchy and Scratchy Land.” The gist of the story is this: Bart and Lisa convince the family to spend their vacation at Itchy and Scratchy Land, and Marge begs not to be embarrassed by the usual hijinks. After being air-lifted to the island, Marge and Homer overlook the violent overtones of the entire realm, but eventually depart to take refuge on Parent Island while the kids imbibe in the madness. Itchy and Scratchy clones overwhelm the ant hill in the form of traditional costumed disguises as well as oafish robots, the latter of which were used mostly for parades and displays of looney, chainsaw violence against their own kind. Homer and Bart (naturally) get themselves incarcerated for respectively abusing a hardworking character-actor. Upon Marge’s arrival to bail them out, the Simpsons men are released only to find that the robots have overwritten their codes and are recognizing humans as prey. The family is left on the island as retribution for their wrongdoings. But alas! When Homer throws a camera at an approaching tsunami of robots and its flash scrambles their circuits, their solution for survival makes itself clear! Disposable cameras from the gift shop seal their fate, as the A.I. fall victim to the blinding light, and they confirm that this was the best vacation ever…that they will never speak of again.
The zine takes its title from an exchange in the gift shop after Marge and Homer leave the children to wander the park unattended. Bart discovers personalized license plates embossed with “Bert” and “Bort,” skipping “Bart” entirely. A small child approaches the rack and requests a plate from his mother. A creeper reading a book in the shop alone turns around when she addresses him as Bort, and the title of the zine closes the scene. The questioning of ulterior universes and identity, where Bart is somehow the odd man out, carries throughout the zine. The introductory recto presents the original Simpsons family as they appeared in 1987, when the series appeared as a short on The Tracey Ullman Show. The family existed as such until 1990, when The Tracey Ullman Show ended and they entered the primetime lineup, shedding their cocoon like a sorcerer’s moth and entering the cultural canon. Stylistically it appears that Karakostas leads with several portraits of Bart, one per page. His blog, Portrait of the Young Artist as Bart Simpson, was started in 2009 and contains transmutations of Bart in a similar style. The introductory portraits show Bart toking, a form many have envisioned and depicted yet never seen on the show. These puffing portraits are anxiety-ridden, converse to the shameless rebellion of our youthful protagonist. After all, in his 25th year, he’s right on schedule for his quarter-life crisis. The floating heads are somewhat crude but reveal character subtleties we’ve never witnessed. Downturned eyelids or a fatter head alter Bart’s reality, accompanied by text that undermines the confident, reckless kid we’ve implanted into our memory. Bart, or probably Bort at this point, takes on personas including an obnoxiously cute cat-boy (“Don’t have a meow, man!”), a zombie addressing insomnia with impunity, and a nerdier version of Scumbag Steve. Bart as centaur brings the reader back to the boy they know, and he looks awfully disheveled, returning to the ganga for solace. This simple outline of the galloping horse’s body looks traced, and is a testament to the confinement, the limit, of working in a specific form.
A cartoon strip follows, which seems Jones’ contribution and is several frames long. In the strip, Bart dies and his spirit (in pizza form) inhabits Homer, morphing him into a skateboarding hybrid of the two characters. The verso after that page portrays Bart dead in a coffin, with the word “FINALLY” written at top. After that, things degrade into havoc. The energy rivals that of a casino: some corners host one lonely sitter, other places you have a slew of worthy subjects; everyone is drunkenly slurring their speech and I am just wishing I could take my beer goggles off to truly decipher if I know that dude at the end of the bar. The style is looser, clownish, bulbous. Although the primary focus is the Simpsons men, characters like Milhouse and Jimbo Jones also appear, intermingled with madness, as if to remind the reader of the safety of predictability. Toward the end, a maddening portrait of Homer on the verso is paired with a cloud of Mr. Potato Head on the recto, defining the pages before it as a whirling dervish of manic motion. The very end of the zine is physiological consistent with the cover: we see the pixelated backside of Homer with a tattoo of a Bart’s head, slain and mounted upon his skateboard as blood pools—presumably the dirty little secret of the terrifying, bug-eyed patriarch.
When it aired in 1994, the episode poked fun at the commercialism of theme parks and family vacations. Jones and Karakostas seem to be more entertained by the juvenile normalcy of Bart and what the viewer takes for granted. The moment in the gift shop, the namesake of the zine, is a fleeting interaction where Bart feels alien to his own universe, where “Bort” being a common name is obscene and the lack of a “Bart” plate is offensive. Here, Jones and Karakostas have created their own universe—there is no scene, location, or situation within which to place Bart and thus we, for the first time, infer Bart’s temperament. But Bart as a human being is uncomfortable, a meerkat in the rainforest. The enduring fiction that has allowed for an uncomplicated digestion of allegory and satire has vanished with the dissolution of his normal likeness. It reminds us that the narrative in cartoons often functions at the expense of character evolution. As much as I’d love to hear what that pip-squeak had to say about the Springfield nuclear power plant or Lisa’s complexes, the episodes are better if we can rely on his smart-ass deductions of the Flanders family and loyalty to Krusty.
Cartoons can hypnotize viewers with this reliable stagnation.The artists gave Bart the opportunity to experience his quarter-life crisis, with all the anxiety and inhibitions that sneak up after belligerent, invincible youth. The text, the phrases we assume to be his psyche talking, distance the reader from Bart’s public persona. We root against him for the sake of clarity. Every attempt to redefine himself or reach an apocalyptic conclusion in the zine undermines the Bart we know: a juvenile dude who rarely learns from his mistakes (regardless of how much detention he serves), a partner to Lisa despite resenting her femininity, and a general badass. When Homer is forced to reassess his “whole entire everything” as “some sick joke to a more malevolent creator,” we know it to be true. We have stolen the soul of these characters, a la Susan Sontag’s theory that photographs capture the souls of their subjects. Bart (and Homer, for that matter) is impervious to change, but we are crushing him under the anvil of reality in this zine. His eyes strain to see any way out of his tumult. Next time you think about how traumatic any change in your life is, remember poor, poor Bart in this zine and remind yourself that you were actually made for this.