So what is it about Bart Simpson, the funny-looking cartoon character with a shark's-tooth haircut and endless stamina to create mischief, that has made the fictional fourth-grader the toast of schoolchildren?

Bart T-shirts are everywhere on District, Maryland and Virginia school campuses. Sidewalk stands throughout the city sell bootleg shirts. Kids gather in school on Monday to talk excitedly about Bart's antics on the previous night's episode of "The Simpsons," the Fox Broadcasting show on which he appears. Students draw pictures of their renegade hero on their school assignments. Black youths wear T-shirts of a black Bart with slogans expressing racial pride. Alarmed school principals ban from their campuses Bart T-shirts that they believe contain negative messages.

As Bart might say, the kid's hot, man.

At first glance, Bart seems an improbable icon for inner-city youth. He isn't a dazzling, gravity-defying basketball star, like Michael Jordan, or a caped urban crime fighter, like Batman.

But as the kids and youths explain it, Bart's appeal stems from the fact that he is, in their eyes, so much like them and kids they know. He struggles in school. He wants to be popular. His smart mouth gets him in trouble with authority figures. He doesn't think much of his father's well intended but often inept advice. He is bad at times but not evil. His weapon of choice is not a small-caliber handgun, but a slingshot.

He is the Everykid of the playground set.

This is how 12-year-old Francis Franklin, of Northwest Washington, sporting one of his 11 Bart Simpson T-shirts, put it: "He's sort of like me, bad but funny. I do bad things at school, pick on people, get on the teacher, get detention."

Daniel Stevens, 9, of Northwest, agreed. Bart "acts just like us children. He's playful. I like him a lot."

Carmen Martinez, also 9, of Northwest, chimed in, "He reminds me of somebody in my {classroom}, who fights too much and gets on my nerves and cusses at the teacher."

And Bart's popularity isn't limited to the pre-adolescent set.

A number of young adults can be seen around the District wearing Bart T-shirts, and when children watch the show, they often watch with their parents.

While kids see themselves in Bart, parents see Bart in their kids.

Judith Franklin-Delaney, mother of Francis and a Simpsons fan, sat in her living room and watched as her son for no apparent reason started grappling with his 11-year-old cousin, Lynette, on a sofa. "Bart kind of reminds me of Francis," she said, pausing before adding, "a little too much."

Of course, Bart couldn't wreak much havoc without family members to be wreaked upon.

They include his father, Homer, an employee at a nuclear power plant who is alternately angered and vicariously amused by Bart's adventures; Mrs. Simpson, Marge, whose hair is mounted in an Everest-like blue beehive; Lisa, the deep-feeling, deep-thinking, sax-playing sister in the second grade; and Maggie, the Simpson baby, who doesn't speak but is constantly sucking on a pacifier and who often seems to be, for all her innocence, the wisest Simpson.

The Simpsons were created by comic-strip artist Matt Groening, creator of the "Life in Hell" cartoons. The feature began as a short, animated segment on the "Tracy Ullman Show."

"The Simpsons" premiered in January, and within two months its ratings had soared into the top 15 shows in the Nielsens. With that popularity have come Simpsons posters, watches, towels and cardboard cutouts.

And some controversy.

At least two principals in the D.C. school system have banned Bart T-shirts. Other school principals throughout the country have instituted similar bans, and the JCPenney men's division has banned a T-shirt with the word "Underachiever" over a picture of Bart, who is shown saying, "And proud of it!"

Anne N. Thomas, principal of Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington, does not allow students to wear Simpsons T-shirts with profanity printed on them. One such shirt shows Bart proclaiming, "I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?"

Thomas said she believes such a shirt "isn't anything {students} should be proud to wear."

Thomas said she has told students such a shirt is "a poor reflection on them, their parents and their school."

And Harriet J. Weatherspoon, principal at Powell Elementary School in Northwest, has banned the "Underachiever" shirt, said Francis Franklin, a Powell student. Weatherspoon declined to comment.

But other educators said they didn't think the shirts' messages were harmful because students are sophisticated enough to understand the humor of the show.

Carmen Rioux teaches a class of fifth- and sixth-graders with learning disabilities at Louise Archer Elementary School in Vienna, part of the Fairfax County school system. All are Bart fanatics, Rioux said.

They don't see Bart glorifying underachievement, but celebrating individuality, Rioux said.

"The way they see it, Bart doesn't care what people think of him," Rioux said. "They think Bart is really smart, he just doesn't show it."

Her students have vicarious fun watching Bart, Rioux said. "He's fulfilled their fantasies. Every kid would like to be like Bart and write something heinous about their teacher on the board," she said.

Rioux said she thought prohibiting certain T-shirts would merely increase their appeal.

At any rate, the prohibition at Powell Elementary means little to students, Francis Franklin said.

In true Bart-ian spirit, students at Powell have defied the ban, wearing them anyway, the boy said. Sometimes school officials catch T-shirt scofflaws and put tape over the offending word or words on the shirts.

In such instances the students don't have a cow (as Bart would say). They simply remove the tape, Francis said.