No figure in The Simpsons is as steeped in mystery, myth and legend as John Swartzwelder. He's one of the most overlooked and unknown comic geniuses around. He’s as wily and elusive as Bigfoot, as daring as a Yeti and as fantastical as the chupacabra. He’s scored far more writing credits than any other writer in Simpsons history yet he’s seldom been photographed. He doesn’t do interviews. He doesn’t do audio commentaries.
He’s self-published a series of science fiction and detective novels via his Kennydale books, perhaps because he’s not the type to go press the flesh and smile pretty at book signings or go on Fresh Air and jibber-jabber with Terry Gross about his craft. It seems wrong that a guy like me is able to write three books for a classy outfit like Scribner while a comic God like Swartzwelder engages in self-publishing.
“Bart the General” marks the very first of Swartzwelder’s record-setting fifty-nine Simpsons episodes. The J.D Salinger of the television comedy-writing world’s maiden exploration of Springfield concerns an incident of schoolyard bullying that escalates into full-scale warfare.
The tomfoolery begins when Bart accidentally ends up bloodying Nelson Muntz’s nose during a cupcake-related scuffle. Muntz isn’t used to being covered in his own blood instead of those of his victims so he subjects Bart to a vicious beatdown. When Bart returns home in disgrace there’s a great gag that exemplifies The Simpsons’ genius for simultaneously exploiting and subverting sentimentality and for defying expectations. At the sight of his son in tears, Homer tenderly offers to wipe the tears from his eyes, then sticks a hairdryer in Bart’s face that transforms his visage into a grim mask of pain and discomfort.
Marge advises Bart to go to the proper authority but Homer tells him that snitching violates the schoolyard code, which dictates that people who are different must always be mocked and that it’s never wise to express an opinion unless you’re absolutely sure everyone else agrees with you. He also admonishes Bart to kick Nelson in the crotch, a tactic that proves useless when he’s unable to get within a foot of the bully’s body.
In desperation, Homer and Bart go to the toughest Simpson: grandpa. Grandpa’s introduction is a thing of beauty: he’s first seen in a fit of rage pounding away at a typewriter as he angrily demands that senior citizens be portrayed in the media as they really are: angry, resentful fuddy duddies who pine desperately for the old days when entertainment was bland and inoffensive, not as sexy, dynamic, fun-loving party animals.
In less than a minute, the fevered monologue defines grandpa: his impotent rage, his pointless nostalgia, his jaundiced take on the modern world and irascible fighting spirit. Such economy! Such wit! Such precision! Grandpa recommends enlisting the service of Herman, a spooky, one-armed kook who works at a military supplies stores and peddles Nazi underwear.
Under Herman’s leadership, Bart quickly becomes a pint-sized George S. Patton. He brings together a motley coalition of bullied Poindexters willing to band together to put an end to Nelson’s bullying once and for all.
Speaking of George S. Patton, there’s a gag in today’s episode that illustrates why The Simpsons’ pop-culture references, at least in the early going, occupied a higher evolutionary plane than those found on Family Guy.
Bart tries to console a freaked-out soldier in his homegrown army of angry geeks but when the scared tyke begins to spazz out Bart slaps him. This angers Grandpa, who tells Bart that a general can send his men off a cliff, he can send them on a suicide mission, he can send them to die on some godforsaken rock but for some inexplicable reason, he can’t slap his own men.
This is a reference to the famous scene in Patton where the titular general smacks one of his own men. If this were Family Guy the joke would begin and end with having a character recreate a well-known bit from television or movies. It’s pop-culture reference-as-punchline. On this episode, however, the pleasant jolt of recognition that comes with a successful pop culture reference is only the beginning of a smart, satirical and scathing critique of a military mindset where generals who send tens of thousands of men to die are considered heroes while a general who slaps a soldier is considered a dangerous, volatile loose cannon.
Bart and his guerrilla battalion of geeks emerge victorious but the battle is far from over. Hell, it continues to this day. There’s something endearingly old-fashioned and All-American about Swartzwelder’s aesthetic, especially in a fantasy sequence where Bart, like Tom Sawyer before him, witnesses his own funeral; Homer is psyched to get a day off from work and needs to be coached to express sadness over his only son’s death while Nelson gets in one last punch. Ambitious satire, heart and corpse-punching; even in its rough beginnings, The Simpsons was like nothing else on television.