When I was in the eighth grade, in the spring of 1990, I wore a Simpsons T-shirt. In this way I was no different than, say, 73.5 percent of teenage American males. But mine was different than most. Instead of lemon yellow, Bart’s face was more of a yellow ochre. His spiky hair was too high, even for an era ruled by the New Kids and Vanilla Ice. And behind that slingshot, his eyes glowered a bit more angrily than I’d ever seen them on TV before.
The Matt Groening signature beneath Bart’s sneaker could not disguise the fact that the T-shirt was a shoddy fake. But Groening, the series creator, was himself nonchalant about knockoffs such as those. As he told Entertainment Weekly that year, “rampant copyright infringement is the sincerest form of flattery.”
And so it was that, in the waning days of Bush Père, the streets were flooded with Simpsons simulacra. Rasta Bart. Stoned Homer. Bart as M.C. Hammer. Bart flying high as Michael Jordan. Bart hanging out with Nelson Mandela.
Groening himself is a longtime collector of these ersatz artifacts. His favorites include a series of plaster “Tijuana Bart Sanchez” figurines, and a Russian Simpsons coloring book. (The “artist probably was shown an episode for 15 seconds and then based an entire comic book on his vague impressions,” he told the Onion.) In this month’s Vanity Fair, Conan O’Brien reveals that Groening’s treasures include disturbing handiworks, such as “a Marge made out of a lizard’s skull” and T-shirts from behind the then–recently fallen Iron Curtain, in which Bart uttered phrases “that were mildly threatening or racist.”
Ah, those were the days. The Simpsons Movie grossed $71,850,000 this past weekend, and the family from Evergreen Terrace is as big as ever. But the once-thriving cottage industry of Simpsons bootlegs has subsided somewhat.
Sure, you can still scour eBay for Simpsons Russian nesting dolls or a drunken Homer Christmas ornament. You can bid on a “Bart The Simpsons Doll Plush Cowabunga Man” that looks as if it’s afflicted with elephantiasis, or a T-shirt emblazoned with Homer and his drinking buddies, their ass-cracks exposed above the barstools on which they sit.
But the landscape is different these days, says Noel Bankhead, 39, a fanatic from North Carolina whose “Simpsonian Institute” (i.e., his house) is stocked with thousands of yellow-skinned tchotchkes, which have cost him as much as $20,000 over the past seven years.
“The bootleg stuff is still pretty strong, it’s just where it’s coming from that has changed,” says Bankhead. “When [the show] first came out, it was mostly coming from Mexico, and now it’s coming from China.”
The US market has cooled since the early ’90s when “everybody was out to get a quick buck,” says Bankhead. “Matt Groening himself even signed his name wherever he could. The show was popular, and it wound up over-saturating the market.”
All the same, there was a renaissance in Simpsons merchandising around the time of the show’s 10-year anniversary, and it seems the movie has kick-started a second one.