"I felt shocked and betrayed," Tolentino says. "It's not like I'm a Tijuana sweatshop worker who's making bootleg Bart Simpson shirts. I thought we were using copyrighted characters in a recontextualized setting, which makes it a parody within fair use, kinda like a political cartoon." Though Binky was only slightly altered, Tolentino argues, you would "never mistake the cover for a Matt Groening work -- or a box of cereal, for that matter." (Groening's lawyers did not return calls.)
To be fair, copyright holders must prove that they've aggressively defended their ownership of their intellectual property against infringement if they want to maintain it. The artist R. Crumb eventually lost the rights to his Mr. Natural character when he took no recourse against all the bootleggers who slapped it on bumper stickers in the early '70s; the popular lexicon is filled with generic terms like "yo-yos" that were once registered trademarks. But the Groening empire is built on cleverly reworked pop-cultural references and appropriations, such as The Simpsons do Cape Fear.
"It's so hypocritical that his lawyers chastised me for what their client does very well himself," Tolentino says. "The cover was in the spirit of his own work."
Besides complaining that the illustration "employs one of his characters in a situation that Mr. Groening would not have approved," the epistle lays a curious guilt trip: "Given the well-known generosity of our client and his longstanding devotion to his fans, your abuse of his creative work is particularly hurtful." Groening wasn't shedding many tears in 1990 when a wave of unauthorized "Black Bart" T-shirts swept the streets, telling a Washington Post reporter that he was "flattered" if filled with "mixed feelings." He even spoke admirably of kids who "send in their pictures of Bart beating up other cartoon characters." Can't Binky get a break?
Tolentino hopes that the legal action was only the idea of overeager lawyers: "[Groening] gets so much mail, maybe the oompah-loompah helpers who do the devil's work saw it and passed it to the lawyers." Tolentino's previous zine, Waffle, featured a parody of Sonic Youth's Goo album art, with Ren & Stimpy filling in for the original couple. "Lee Ranaldo saw it and said, 'Wow, this is the greatest parody I've seen yet,' " Tolentino says.
Members of Negativland, recognizing elements of their own sampling/copyright battles with U2 and Casey Kasem, called Tolentino with info on pro bono legal help, but it was too late. Too broke to hire a lawyer and fight, Tolentino had already complied with the letter: He trimmed the covers of hundreds of Bunnyhop copies -- essentially decapitating Binky -- and mailed off the heads to Groening's lawyers.
Undaunted, Tolentino parodied both Bill Keane's Family Circus cartoon and the Playboy logo on his newest issue. "I had to stand my ground on issues of artistic freedom and expression," he says. And Bunnyhop's appropriation has already been appropriated: Stores on Haight Street are selling T-shirts bearing the infamous cover art -- Binky's head intact.
By Sia Michel