Bartman


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Bartman

(pop culture)

Fox’s long-running animated television series The Simpsons (1990-present) is replete with references to superhero comics, from Bartman (the ersatz superhero persona of America’s favorite bad boy, Bart Simpson) and the stereotypically slovenly “Comic Book Guy” who runs the Android’s Dungeon comic shop, to cameo appearances of the cast of the 1960s Batman television show, to the revelation that the fictitious nuclear-enabled muscleman called Radioactive Man has been the country’s most influential superhero for about half a century (or so it is told in the fictitious and geographically inscrutable town of Springfield).

In 1993 Bongo Comics (spearheaded by Steve and Cindy Vance, Bill Morrison, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening) underscored the cultural importance of Radioactive Man (Bartman’s principal inspiration) by actually publishing some of the atomic hero’s key adventures—the very comics read by Bart Simpson, Milhouse Van Houten, Martin Prince, and the rest of the superhero fans of the Simpsonverse. Among these four-color snapshots of Radioactive Man’s decades-long evolution are: the sought-after November 1952 Radioactive Man premiere issue (1993), which includes an origin story that lampoons the Incredible Hulk, Superman, Batman, 1950s red-baiting, and the Comics Code Authority; May 1962’s Radioactive Man #88 (1994), which lovingly skewers Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and superheroes’ teenage sidekicks; August 1972’s Radioactive Man #216 (1994), which parodies the pro-social “relevance” of DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow (“Jeepers!” exclaims a shocked Man of Atoms, “My sidekick Fallout Boy is a dirty Hippy!”); October 1980’s 412th-issue sendup of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Dark Phoenix” X-Men saga (1994); January 1986’s 679th-issue jab at Marvel’s Punisher, DC’s Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns (1994); January 1995’s watershed Radioactive Man #1,000 (1994), which aims its barbs squarely at Todd McFarlane and the Image Comics aesthetic; and the Summer 1968 Radioactive Man 80 Page Colossal edition (1995), showcasing such gems of Silver Age camp as “Radioactive Man, Teen Idol,” “The 1,001 Faces of Radioactive Ape,” and a tale of the Radioactive Man of the far-flung future year of 1995. (Since the late 1990s, a regular if infrequent Radioactive Man series has been gently massacring the remaining eras and styles of comics history.)

Subject to such powerful pop-cultural currents, it is no surprise that Bart Simpson would aspire to become a superhero himself, in the guise of Bartman. Bart first donned the purple cape and cowl on a second-season television episode titled “Three Men and a Comic Book” (1991), in an unsuccessful attempt to win a discount admission to a comic book convention. Despite this ignominious genesis—and in spite of a complete lack of superpowers, crime-fighting equipment, Batman-style training, or realistic prospects of maintaining a secret identity—Bart-man managed to make a go of superheroics (at least in his own mind). Two years later, a one-shot comic book titled Simpsons Comics and Stories marked the advent of Bongo Comics and finally brought Bartman to the medium that inspired him in the first place. In a story titled “There Shall Come … a Bartman!!” (written by Steve and Cindy Vance and illustrated by Bill Morrison and Mike Anderson), Bartman befriends Radioactive Man’s elderly creator by preventing the venerable nuclear hero from being killed off by his rapacious publisher as a sales gimmick—thereby making a comment on the stampede of speculation, hoarding, and dumping precipitated by DC’s decision to (temporarily) kill Superman.

Bartman’s first adventure proved popular enough to justify granting the spiky-haired, underachieving superhero a Bartman miniseries (1993–1995), featuring stories by Gary Glasberg, Bill Morrison, Jan Strnad, and Steve Vance, with art by Tim Bavington, Chris Clements, Luis Escobar, Jim Massara, Phil Ortiz, and Cindy Vance. During the series’ six-issue run, Bartman stops the Comic Book Guy and school bullies Jimbo Jones, Dolph, and Kearny from scamming comics fans by adding fake “enhancements” to comic book covers; encounters the Penalizer (a Punisher pastiche); has an existential crisis that leads him to quit the hero business temporarily, in an homage to Peter Parker’s historic super-sabbatical from The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (1967); transforms the family pet into “Bart Dog, the Canine Crusader,” evoking shades of Ace the Bat-Hound from Batman stories of the 1950s; and fights alongside Radioactive Man himself against the entire population of Springfield after a nuclear mishap sends the townsfolk on a superpowered rampage that began in Simpsons Comics #5. In Bartman #5 (1995) Bart’s sisters Lisa and Maggie swing into costumed action—as Lisa the Conjurer and the Great Maggeena—while Bartman is briefly sidelined by a sprained ankle.

Though Bartman has not seem much action during recent years, his fortunes might well change in the not-too-distant future. “I think there is a possibility of bringing Bartman back,” Bongo Entertainment Group creative director Bill Morrison commented in 2003. “We’re actually planning a couple of Bartman stories for upcoming issues of Bart Simpson Comics. We may decide to come out with a revived Bartman comic.” In the meantime, back issues of Bartman and trade paperback reprints of the miniseries continue to be snapped up by enthusiastic Bartophiles. And comicdom waits eagerly for the famous Bart Signal to slice across the night sky of Springfield. —MAM

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