My American Dream: City of Angels
Space Jam, 2024 Oil on linen 75 × 100”
Space Jam, 2024
Oil on linen 75 × 100”

Space Jam is the original 1996 movie that featured Michael Jordan, featuring the Looney Tunes gang.  The plot is that Bugs Bunny and friends abduct Jordan to help them play basketball against a team of aliens (the Munstars!) that were threatening to enslave the Looney Tunes to work at an amusement park on their planet—and to save our planet from the aliens in general.  Although it was inspired by Nike Air Jordan ads that had Bugs and crew alongside Jordan, and opened to mixed reviews, it was a huge commercial success—the highest grossing basketball film of all time, and the tenth highest grossing film of that year.  It influenced generations of young people and was one of the first films (alongside Roger Rabbit) that successfully integrated live action and cartoon characters in the same sequences, in a modernized way that went way beyond the Mary Poppins era.

In real life, after a semi-retirement after his beloved father had been murdered, Jordan about to enter the second phase of his glorious career after retiring from basketball to play baseball, his original goal as a child, influenced by his dad, which they reference in the movie.  The Warner Brothers company created a basketball court just for Jordan, who would play his famous friends in “pickup games” during the filming of the movie, which inspired him to go back to the Chicago Bulls and resume his heroic basketball career.

While painting this, I listened to the biography Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby and watched/listened to all the Netflix docuseries The Last Dance about the Chicago Bulls last championship season with Jordan (on my laptop in the background, twice!), all the Jordan interviews I could find on Netflix, and more.  I also listened to Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries that Inspired the Golden Age of Animation by Reid Mitenbuler, and watched and listened to in my studio while painting the Television Academy long interviews of Warner Brothers animation directors Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, and interviews with Bob Clampett and more. When not painting, I watched documentaries of the infamous Termite Terrace that the Warner Bros animators began in, and more.  While painting each of the Looney Tunes characters, I would watch the best of their own specific cartoons they starred in to “get into character”, while of course rendering Michael Jordan watching his docs and listening to his interviews.

While I’m a stereotypical gay man when it comes to sports and didn’t watch them growing up as much as I watched cartoons, I have a deep respect for athletes, and for Michael Jordan in particular.  I have painted many images of LeBron James, as he is also of course a legend, but also for (like Billie Jean King in this City of Angels show) an athlete who has done an incredible amount of good for civil rights and the world.  While Jordan was less political overtly, he as a living superhero—someone who had almost the ability to fly—and he was in control of his own agency and career and has been an incredible businessman.  He is an inspiration to us all—we all want to be the “Michael Jordan” of whatever it is we are involved in and doing.  I always tell the students they must be “Beyonce about it” where she is in control of her business as well as her art, and is command of her agency, in much different than the way someone like Marilyn Monroe was.  My pithy epiphany of Post Modernism is about how agency—who we are as people or as souls—has been reified—folded like flour into pizza dough—of the Capitalist Machine.  When Warhol was making his silkscreens of icons like Marilyn or Elvis I feel he was doing the same thing—making them into non-living, flattened out versions of themselves (and their tragedy of how their own agency was flattened out by the corporate capital machine of culture).  For me, I want to bring out the real person behind the persona, to honor them and who they were and how they affected culture, even for cartoon characters—but also very importantly, for heroes such as Michael Jordan.  Like in the movie Space Jam, he was brought into the Capitalist Machine, but he was able to have complete control and power to become even more himself, and wildly successful using the machinations of the Machine to his advantage.

Much has been written and documented about Jordan to try to summarize here, but suffice it to say that for me he is the epitome of the American Dream, coming from a family encouraging his “ten thousand hours” to be a master of his game, and striving to be the absolute best throughout his career, from high school through post basketball retirement, raising the Chicago Bulls from a third rate team to the best in the world, and leading them to six NBA championships, making basketball and the NBA popular around the world, and being the undisputed “best basketball player of all time,” a global icon.  He also, by his own choice, a powerful businessman, from a young player collaborating with Nike to create generations of Air Jordans (among many other endorsements), being part owner of other basketball teams and car racing organizations, to become the first billionaire in NBA history, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.  He has been his entire life an incredible leader who has inspired millions of people, civil rights, and myself as an artist to be the absolute best I can be to help the world.

In the history of animation, Warner Brothers cartoons also started out as a rogue team of animators, coming from Disney and other larger outfits at the time, to work at Warner Brothers, where Leon Schlesinger, the producer of Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies a distant relative of the Warner Brothers, didn’t really care or get involved deeply with what the animators were doing, as long as they were making money for the studio.  Although they were disregarded and treated by the higher ups poorly, this also gave them tremendous freedom to create what they wanted.  Disney had become somewhat staid in their animation, which based all their figures on real anatomy, with weight and volume, and their more wholesome stories to appeal to children and families.  At Warner Brothers, they embraced the rubbery forms and movements of how animation could literally expand the plastic properties of characters to stretch and bend with the emotions and feelings they were projecting, and while also character and personality driven action, the stories and ideas were more subversive, laugh-out-loud funny and satiric for their times.  The Warner Brothers animators were doing what the Disney animators wished they could create, to make the icons and cartoons that were originally shown before features back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, but are now classic staples on television for generations, spawning more animation as the characters literally have lives of their won into the future.

In Space Jam, there are no sequences ironically in the movie itself when you see all the Looney Tunes characters in one frame alongside Michael Jordan!  This is an appropriation of a 1997 print that they sold in the Warner Brothers gift stores “gallery”, by unknown artists working for the company, signed by Jordan.  They used a photo of Jordan, mixed in with the Looney Tunes gang, and the digital components of the audience of old Warner Brothers side characters they used in the movie, which seemed to cut and paste the same characters over again in different places to fill in the dozens of people in the seats.   Bugs Bunny, whom I’ve painted before (the family that sold the Duccio masterpiece “Madonna and Child” to the Met acquired this work almost twenty years ago in Brussels—I would like to think with some of the money they got from the Duccio!) I’ve always felt was a queer character—he was a bachelor, with seemingly little romantic interest in the other sex, but was often in drag, kissing Elmer Fudd and others, and a hero—he never struck back unless he himself was thwarted, and had a homosocial/” buddy” relationship with Daffy Duck. Bugs was a hero, like Errol Flynn meets Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, not afraid of anyone or anything. Daffy was the everyman that the heroic Bugs wasn’t—Chuck Jones would say he would want to be Bugs, but most likely we are all like Daffy, with his neurosis and anxiety and ego.  Lola Bunny, the female rabbit in the image was created for the movie, based a bit on Honey Bunny, the female (very rarely, mostly in merchandizing and in one Bugs cartoon) companion for Bugs.  Lola was created as a “merchandizing character” too, and as a strong female protagonist for the film, the would-be sweetheart for Bugs (and the equivalent of more voluptuous Jessica Rabbit from 1981’s humans meet toons Roger Rabbit).  In the movie, she is a no-nonsense tomboy, great athlete, and completely in control of her own agency, a welcomed, feminist presence for the group (later, brought even more to eccentric life voiced by Kristian Wiig in The Looney Tunes Show of 2011-4).  Tweety is the famous yellow canary, originally created by Warner Bros directors Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett as the foil for Sylvester the cat.  I have always thought of Tweety as queer, as he is gender bending in every way—despite the violence that occurs sometimes fending off Sylvester’s obsessive desire to consume him—he display’s feminine characteristics and performs in ways that defy gender stereotypes.  And Sylvester, while aggressively male, is devoted to getting Tweety, so what is that about (and performed in ways that put his maleness in critical positions).  The Tasmanian Devil, otherwise known as “Taz,” was created by later Warner Bros director Robert McKimson, first appearing in 1954, and only appearing in five of the shorts was disliked by then producer Edward Selzer to shelve the character, thinking it was too violent for children, but was a fan favorite, having a cult-like status for generations and now a staple in the Warner Bros cosmology.  Mostly all id (and having a female companion “the She Devil” who looks just like Taz in drag), Taz has a rambunctious whirling demeanor, easily swayed and not so smart, but in contemporary times, a heart of gold.  I would think of all these characters individually while painting them, trying to bring them to life like the animators would in drawing and performing them.  While painting the dozens of characters in the background, I was listening/watching the best of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies in my own background, where many of them appear, but also thinking of the history of American animation, listening to that book and where we are today.  Despite any subjective interpretation on my part, the Looney Toons gang is a bunch of misfits, but with Jordan at the helm, they were able to overcome all and win the day (and even save the aliens from their own subjugation!)—and Space Jam the movie helped, with Jordan’s great appeal, to rebrand, reboot, and revitalize the Warner Bros cartoons for new generations, continuing today (as the movie has now become a kids film canon staple!).

I started out being the “comics kid” on campus, from rendering a “submarine sandwich” as a real submarine when in kindergarten for the elementary school paper, to creating the daily strip (and most all the illustration for everything) when I was an undergraduate at Brown University in the 80’s.  I thought I would be a cartoonist for the New Yorker upon graduating, but working (I did a lot of editorial in college, including being the editor of the weekend magazine) at an art magazine, and then a blue chip gallery—Robert Miller (that represented my art heroes, Mapplethorpe and Basquiat right after they died) realized I wanted to bring up ideas aesthetically via fine art (I was a Semiotics and Studio Art major at Brown, and wrote and directed plays).  But I’ve “kept it real for comics” by teaching comics since my graphic novel (a collaboration with the writer Dennis Cooper) was published in 1996, as the lead comics teacher and “Cartooning Coordinator” at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (historical for comics since its inception), in addition to teaching fine art at NYU, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Brooklyn College and more.  The University of Southern California recruited me to teach both fine art and comics eight years ago, and I am now a full tenured Professor of Art there. During the Kavanaugh hearings, I realized I had so many students from the School of Cinematic Arts Animation and Gaming departments, and I was also friends with Don Bacigalupi, the then President of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, that I should start a Visual Narrative Art program and department (I am also honored that my work is now also part of their permanent collection!).  Hopefully our own art “makes the world a better place”, but teaching does, and when students go out into the world with their creative and critical skills, it truly makes a difference.  I’ve had many a SVA grad (and fine arts students!) make work that has been important (i.e., one of my students, also in the permanent collection of the Lucas Museum is Nate Powell, who illustrated MARCH, the trilogy by Sen. John Lewis about his involvement with the Civil Rights movement) and who, with the millennial generation have become storyboard artists, art directors and directors for animation and more in Hollywood.  Like Lucas, I’m a believer in Joseph Campbell, and to paraphrase him, “an artist job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for the culture to progress” and my students have done this.  I am proud that I have taught thousands of comics students in my career (more than any other at SVA, and maybe the world?!), and like Disney, who felt art education was imperative for his animators (a USC professor was one of the first teachers for the Disney studios, which then began Cal Arts in part to train their animators), have developed my program (against the pushback of the Roski old guard who felt that “comics aren’t art”?!) at USC Roski.  Still fledgling, but with 9 classes in place and over 100 students, the program is making millions for USC, and teaching student how think critically like artists, but bringing up their ideas in both narrative art and comics, illustration, and working in collaboration with SCA’s Animation and Gaming Depts, and as an interdisciplinary minor with also Dramatic Arts and the Dornsife/English departments, it has been a tremendous success, and hopefully will become its own department by the time the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, whom I’m also working in collaboration with, open its doors in late 2025.

We all want to become the “Michael Jordan” of whatever it is we do, to hopefully make the world a better place.  In context of the show, here Michael Jordan is helping the Looney Tunes gang save themselves and the planet from the alien “Munstars” but hopefully we can all be the best we can be to save the planet and ourselves from the badness of humanity and what we have done to our world and people.  By being our best, by being leaders in our culture and humanity, we can strive to rise above our fears to achieve our hopes and dreams (and democracy!) to get over the hump of our currently tumultuous moment and to “live happily ever after”!