(Wilfred Santiago; Fantagraphics Books)
When I was dominating potty training and getting the hang of motor skills, Michael Jordan was dominating the basketball court with his fine-tuned athletic capabilities. I grew up during and the rise and eventual fade of number 23. Even after his basketball career, the Chicago Bulls maintained a presence in Nebraska. His picture was all over our elementary school’s gymnasium, kids saved allowances to buy his cards, hoping to find a rookie card. Kids wanted to be like Mike. When you grow up in Nebraska, a state with zero professional sports teams, it isn’t uncommon to see neighboring state’s pro teams represented. In fact, I owned a Bulls winter coat and I wasn’t even a huge fan of the game.
It’s clear to see that Jordan’s life and career left an impression. I remember my P.E teacher using his “didn’t make the high school team” story to instill lessons of perseverance into the classroom. I was six when “Space Jam” came out – do I need to say any more? Michael Jordan was a big deal.
The thing is I didn’t exactly grasp the magnitude of his gameplaying. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the grandeur of his accomplishments or his superb athleticism. Our Huskers were completely ransacking college football during those years, so I was used to seeing a lot of loud, happy people sporting red and white.
Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade isn’t a happy book showing off Jordan’s trophy case. It often focuses on aspects of his life that may have slipped through the everyday person’s knowledge of the Nike and Hanes sponsored professional athlete. This unique glance into Michael Jordan’s life explores some of the darker corners of his closet.
Wilfred Santiago (writer and artist) tells this story in smaller chunks of Jordan’s life throughout five major sections of the book, each including brief interludes. The nonlinear structure of the story helps maintain a smooth pace and is artistically diverse in execution.
The story begins at the 1991 NBA finals where the Chicago Bulls matched up against the New York Knicks. Up to this point, the Bulls were a young, up and coming team. Jordan scores the final points to beat the Knicks in one of his epic buzzer beater shots. Jordan is drawn slamming the ball into the hoop, with his tongue stuck out.
Santiago’s art is beautifully exaggerated, whether it’s to show upset fans in the stands or elongated basketball players to give readers the sense of just how tall they are. This works well in showing just how mighty these players are, but causes movement in the panels to take a dive. There’s plenty of movement shown on the court and during games, but the harsh angles and disproportionate physique of the players causes the images to appear rigid, taking away the fluid nature of basketball.
Santiago’s use of exaggeration moves beyond proportion-bending angles and movement based panels. It’s used to depict intensity and intimidation. After the introduction against the Knicks, the next scene shows the Bulls getting ready to face off with the Detroit Pistons. Dennis Rodman, first shown in the locker room with a car battery rigged up to his nipples, something I chuckled at because, well, Dennis Rodman. Behind the Piston’s coach, stands a coffin chained shut. The following sequence is viewed through eye-slits on the coffin; later revealing that the secret weapon inside is six-foot-eleven Bill Laimbeer, one of the NBAs best centers. Rodman’s face is always drawn with what I’d call, “crazy eyes”, an under bite and often discolored skin. These stylistic choices remind readers that despite where your team loyalties lie, the winners and good guys in this book are from Chicago.
Santiago’s coloring is carried out well. The colors reflect the era in which the story currently takes place. The scenes of Jordan’s childhood in the 70s are shown in sepia and earth tones, like yellow and burnt orange, to create atmosphere. The 90s are represented by floods of color – pinks, greens, purples, blues, whites, blacks – all thrown together like everything matches.
The story flashbacks to Jordan’s childhood in North Carolina and depicts his struggles in high school, his own attitude as well as the racism and bullying he endured. His family is presented, but not present. They leave scenes as quickly as they’re presented and only clue us into part of his life. The relationship with his father is most developed in Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade, showing how he built a basketball hoop for Mike as a kid when they couldn’t afford one, and further on into his professional career, often making visits back home just to hang out with his dad.
As the story continues, we are weaved throughout his professional career and personal life, learning about his gambling problems that are linked to his father’s murder. Santiago’s storytelling is well done on a macro level, juxtaposing Jordan’s career victories with the defeats and controversy of his personal life, however the story falls flat on the micro level.
We’re introduced to numerous people and situations that are not extrapolated, which leads me to believe this book was written mostly for fans of Jordan’s or people more in-tune with the sports world and not the occasional biography reader or comics fan. Many of the interludes feature two characters, one named Timmy and the other is unnamed. We only see their feet, one wearing Air Jordan’s, the other wearing sandals. Not much is said about them and it’s hard to place their importance to the story. We also learn of Jordan’s affair, the commercial jingle that made “I want to be like Mike” famous, brief mentions of Rodney King, looting and racial upheaval. There’s another character named Doc, who Jordan visits in the hospital a couple of times, until we learn of his death. Doc seemed important to Jordan, but like much of the rest of the story, it’s not touched upon again.
Santiago had a purpose for these moments, but the execution wasn’t fully developed and left me wondering if these moments are important enough to include, why drop them off halfway?
One of my biggest concerns is the back cover. Santiago does a fantastic job melding the comics world into the sports world, something many people would see as polar opposites, an “us vs. them” sort of battle. Santiago uses his art to tell the story of one of the world’s most talented and recognizable athletes, so why is every pull quote from a sports source? Every quote supporting this book is from Sports Illustrated, ESPN, SB Nation and Fox Sports. This is a problem for me because not only is it misleading. Of course news outlets that are sports focused will be more inclined to like this book. It’s what they do. They talk about sports. This book is only somewhat about sports, despite being about Michael Jordan. Not only will they be more inclined to enjoy the book, it might be assumed that they would miss the problems in the book. Many comics readers might not be knowledgeable about the subject material, thus finding themselves wondering about things like Jordan’s relationship with Doc, his affair and gambling problem. It’s an unfair representation of the book.
Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade is a skillfully drawn book, done by a talented artist, but an average storyteller. Santiago’s drawings and colors bring a unique style into the comics medium and offers great snapshots into the life of Michael Jordan, but if you’re expecting a full-fledged biography, you’ll be disappointed.