The Simpsons is one of those miraculous things that began its life in pop culture and infiltrated the human consciousness like few other properties. It’s hard to fathom being the creator of something with as much cultural cache as The Simpsons, but it’s placed Matt Groening into a pantheon occupied by Walt Disney, George Lucas, and Gene Roddenberry – all creative luminaries that have tapped into some part of our collective consciousness and were able to articulate it like no one else. So, like Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader and Mr. Spock, The Simpsons have appeared on an unquantifiable amount of merchandise.
So, a long time ago, a family friend took a trip to Italy. Instead of returning with some kind of touristy shotglass or Christmas tree ornament featuring one of the many historical sights to be found in Italy, he returned with Simpsons gum. I’m not sure if it was cheapness, a last-minute airport purchase, or genuinely being attuned to stuff I gave a damn about (to which old buildings do not qualify), but I got Simpsons gum.
At the time, I was very heavy into collecting Playmates’ World of Springfield line of action figures. Too young and poor to drive myself, I’d scour the Hudson Valley with the help of my patient mom, seeking out the newest set of figures, and frothing at the Wizard Magazine Pin Pal Mr. Burns scandal – something which still riles me to this day. The Shamus brothers are a pile of hospital garbage.
World of Springfield was one of the greatest action figure lines of all time, and I’ll fight you to death if you disagree in any way, because that’s what nerds say on the Internet. Each WoS figure plugged into one of many playsets, activating a number of spoken phrases from the TV show. Each new figure obtained was like a key, unlocking a new facet of play. I eventually set up a small pseudo-business for myself by buying entire cases of figures and reselling the extras online, allowing the hobby to pay for itself. Note to collectors: convincing yourself that a hobby can “pay for itself” is a sure way to travel down a very dark and expensive path.
So, I was really into Simpsons stuff. It was only a few years prior when Matt Groening announced that all of the Eat My Shorts t-shirts that we’d been seeing at flea markets and wearing proudly to school weren’t officially licensed, as The Simpsons were not yet officially licensed to appear on products. The popularity and ubiquity of bootlegged shirts undoubtedly revealed the sheer marketability of Simpsons stuff, and an empire emerged, from Burger King toys to Halloween masks, and whatever happens conceptually between those two things. When our family friend saw something Simpsons at a concession stand it Italy, he grabbed it for me.
Until now, I’ve had no idea what was inside of these aside from gum. They hung out with a large box of ’90s trading cards until yesterday, when I dragged the old box out from under the bed. I’ve often pondered what lived inside of these, but was instead driven by the misdirected urge to preserve them for future generations or something. Was it a small figure? Was it gum in the shape of a Simpsons character? Was it just gum in a branded package?
After seeing that the ends of these had been saturated with decaying gum and crystallized sugars, I figured it was time to open them up and hope for the best. I’m not sure where the compulsion to keep things forever comes from, especially in cases of “collectible food”. You know, those limited edition Jones Soda bottles that taste like Christmas ham or potato latkes. Collectible food presents a lot of quandaries for the collector, because food will expire, and if you’re dealing with food that never expires, I think that the definition of “food” comes into question. Your body should be able to digest anything that’s being sold as food, and if it makes any claims that hint at some brand of Galactus-like immortality, I can guarantee you that it’ll have the opposite effect on your digestive system. Except for jerky. Jerky will not be held to your pitiful mortal sciences.
It’s a strange aspect of consumer culture that decided that anything edible could also be marked “collectible”, and the word “collectible” itself is something that’s used with dangerous frequency. It suggests a kind of value to an object, and worse, an investment. Prospecting on any kind of object or material item that isn’t diamonds or gold is a fickle place to try to make a profit, and more so when it concerns food items. In terms of basic collectability, a vintage food item is generally worth more if the food within the package has been removed, protecting the package artwork from decay and the chemicals that aging food will produce. By saving this Simpsons gum for some kind of special occasion, I all but destroyed everything it once was.
Dissecting the plastic wrapping with an Xacto blade, I didn’t find anything worth 13 years of wonderment. Inside were bunches of gum in the shape of wrapped crayons, or possibly cigarettes. Being born and raised in America, I’m unfamiliar with gums that come in any shape other than flat stick, Bazooka Joe, or Big League Chew. The sickly salty-sweet smell of rotten gum and a sticky film of pink goop was encroaching on the one prize inside: Simpsons stickers, written in Italian.
There was one sticker in each of the three packs, none of them corresponding to the character on the pack itself, and when translated, they speak to some cultural difference between American Simpsons and Italian Simpsons.
Using the trusted tool of Google Translate, Italian Lisa reads pretty close to her more familiar counterpart, but the relationship between Homer and Marge is just a little depressing.
First, let me just say that “fingere che tu mi piaci” didn’t mean what I thought it did, and I’m very thankful for that, but it’s even more disappointing that one of the greatest love stories in TV history is reduced to this aggressively contentious, unloving cliche of a marriage. This isn’t funny, Italy. I’m putting you on notice. I’m not sure how to protest Italy’s mistreatment of Homer and Marge, but I’m pretty sure it involves a boycott of eating spaghetti. Or eating all of it, but refusing to enjoy it.
Bart proved a little more difficult to translate, but it did have a butt. Butts are bonus points, always.
After conducting a completely professional survey of people I know on Facebook, this translates slangily to “In your ugly face!”, which is the Italian equivalent of “Eat my shorts!”
By now, this gum would be in 9th grade. It would by noticing girls and sneaking around on inappropriate websites. Instead, it lived in a box under my bed, its potential unrealized. It’s a little daunting to consider all of the games that are unplayed, models that are not yet assembled, books that haven’t been read, and toys that suffocate in their packages while I wait for the perfect moment to enjoy them, or maybe reach a mental state where I can enjoy them — but those thing don’t happen.
There’s a principle explored in the book Otaku Spaces which explores the differences between “collectors” and “otaku”, a word which has no simple English equivalent. Collectors are happy to possess an item, for whatever reason they’re compelled to obtain it. An otaku makes these things their lifestyle, and incorporates the things that they love into their everyday existence. On a material level, it’s the space between keeping your Green Lantern Converse in a closet and wearing them out. It’s decking out your car in full Pokemon regalia, if that’s what you’re into. I won’t judge. I’m sure you have other redeeming qualities. I can’t help but feel like otaku have more fun, and can accept the temporary nature of physical objects in use. Watching this object almost destroy itself from disuse is tangible proof of that.
Unusual, ephemeral artifacts that represent a global cultural consciousness? Awesome.
C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.