On the one side, we have a naughty little boy who stirs up trouble every single week. On the other side we have a naughty little boy who used to stir up trouble every single week. What separates the two, well, age for one. Dennis has been running in The Beano since 1951! Bart Simpson on the other hand has only graced out TV screens for the past 20 years.
Both characters share many similarities, both being boys for a start, both having dogs that engage their shenanigans (Gnasher with Dennis and Santa’s Little Helper with Bart) and both seem to revel in creating mischief for pretty much any figure of authority.
Disregarding the fact that Dennis is older than my father, it is clear that his character is immensely popular and has endured the constantly changing shifts in consumer tastes and contemporary culture. Why has Bart Simpson not followed suit?
The reasons are many. Bart is a cartoon character as opposed to a comic strip one. He therefore has to be so much more whole in the eyes of the audience. Comic strips are dependent on the reader filling in the gaps between panels and using their imagination to bring the characters to life. Animation on the other hand tricks the mind into thinking it is seeing a moving image and requires little imagination.
The other reason is that an animated TV show has a much longer plot than a comic strip, whose stories can be read in about a minute as opposed to a cartoon which lasts upwards of 20 minutes. This however, does not explain how Bart’s character has become as flat as it has.
Dennis interacts with adults only when he is about to get into trouble. His parents are to some extent rarely seen in the comics. Bart’s parents on the other hand are all over the place. In fact, in the early stages of the shows development, it was perceived that Bart would be the main protagonist. Once the show was broadcast, that role was rapidly transferred to Homer where it has remained to this day. This move had the result of pushing Bart into a secondary position within the series. Today, it is rare for a plot to centre around him and him alone without at least some interference from Homer (in fact, nowadays Bart often acts as Homer’s sidekick).
One could argue that the intended audience is another reason. Dennis the Menance’s target audience remains firmly in the children’s age range with a few dedicated adult fans. Bart on the other hand has had to please audiences from those same young kids all the way up to folks in their middle-ages. That’s hardly an easy task for the best of us!
The Beano is still as enjoyable today is as it’s always been. Sure the style has changed and it’s now in full colour, but it has moved with the times, updated the lifestyles of the characters and stayed fresh with the storytelling. Bart on the other hand has been allowed to stagnate while the rest of the planet has surged ahead. As noted by Seth McFarlane, the notes he receives from the network are of a far more serious tone than those that were given to the Simpsons back in the day.
The point of this post is not to beleaguer the point that The Simpsons is past its prime, it’s just to illustrate that it is possible for characters to remain popular over a substantial period of time. South Park is a show that has managed to stay fresh and relevant, whereas Family Guy has started to turn a wee bit stale. Other shows like the original Nicktoons still seem as fresh today as they ever have. The proof is in the pudding, strong characters and a willingness to make them interesting and relevant to contemporary society can give them very long lives indeed.