The art behind Michael Jordan's image

Michael Jordan, today you are 50.

Happy birthday.

Now, please, Michael Jordan — please call Wilfred Santiago.

Wilfred Santiago lives in Skokie, and when I asked him if he would contact you, he paused for several seconds then said, startled, as if he had temporarily slipped into a daydream about meeting you: “Actually? There is a little intimidation on my part with that. He is a very private person, I think, and what I am doing is an artist's interpretation of his life — what we already know about him. But Jordan? Himself? It is hard to know Jordan. Or to know a lot about Jordan. So no, I won't be contacting him, or trying to contact him.”

Which is too bad, Michael Jordan, because Wilfred Santiago is about to do you a great service:

He is about to add flesh to your legend.

Also, blood, tears, pathos, insight, drama, nuance. All those qualities we've come to expect from art, particularly biographical art, Santiago will attempt to apply to the tale of His Airness. And just in time, too, because, at least as a cultural figure, Michael Jordan — sorry, but, at 50, you've become a little … stale.

Or perhaps, neglected.

Santiago, who moved here from Puerto Rico about 20 years ago, during the heyday of Jordan's Chicago Bulls, is a cartoonist. He received acclaim in 2011 for his graphic novel “21: The Story of Roberto Clemente.” Jordan is the subject of his follow-up graphic biography. But “Michael Jordan: Bull on Parade,” set for release in spring 2014 from Fantagraphics, the Seattle-based publisher of R. Crumb and Chris Ware, is no linear history; it flips between Jordan's formative teen years and his decade of dominance with the Bulls.

Incredibly, it promises something we haven't really seen — an actual artwork about Michael Jordan.

Last week Santiago showed me a handful of finished pages, including the cover, which shows the lower, sweating half of Jordan's head, his tongue hanging out iconically, probably in midflight. When I asked him “Why Jordan?” he said a graphic novel seemed like a perfect medium for exploiting athleticism, then added: “But also, Jordan, as a figure, never seemed that interested in satisfying people. Which is interesting to me.”

Santiago ran a hand along his salt-and-pepper beard and looked out across the drafting table in his high-rise condo, which points north, toward Highland Park, Jordan's home 10 miles away. “He has an amazing basketball story, of course,” he said. “But there is a cultural, psychological aspect that's unappreciated. He seems to have that problem people who accomplish a great deal at a young age go through. He seems lost.”

No, not lost — trapped in amber.

As if to underscore the point, on Santiago's desk, I noticed a stack of ancient books about Jordan — Sam Smith's “The Jordan Rules,” Bob Greene's “Hang Time,” David Halberstam's “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made.” A DVD set of old Bulls games, a pile of old Sports Illustrated magazines.

That's the research material.

There was nothing more recent than 1999, and noticeably missing was an incisive biography, a biopic, a documentary — an artwork, anything, that illuminated the man, what he meant to the game, or who he is.

All we have now is a dated brand.

A red-lettered name above a steakhouse door. An iconic statue outside the United Center — in the same scissor-legged pose as Jordan's midflight silhouette on a pillar outside Niketown on Michigan Avenue. Is it telling what remains of the great Spike Lee commercials that helped make Jordan a cultural force has boiled down to this, a silhouette? And speaking of trapped in amber: The hilariously antiquated website for “Space Jam,” the 1996 movie co-starring Jordan and Bugs Bunny, is still operational. (Trust me, Google it.)

Flipping around ESPN channels the other night I stopped on one of the many Jordan-at-50 vignettes (narrated by rapper-actor Common) the network has been airing for weeks. Though Jordan is relatively young in them, many have the vague feel of epigraphs, or unintended commentaries. “Gotta Be the Shoes,” at seven minutes, is, as expected, a salute to Air Jordans. Which is fair enough, until we get to a bit of corporate soul-crushing: “It wasn't about the shoes, but it became about the shoes … and the shoes became a part of the legend.”

Of course, I don't really expect a retired Jordan to manage the nuances of his cultural legacy; unlike musicians, filmmakers, authors, for whom greatness can be subject to fashion, great athletes — at least those who don't re-enter their sport way past their prime (George Foreman) or never have to answer for a startling, career-canceling revelation (Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno) — tend to remain golden, however varnished. And certainly Jordan deserves credit for not parlaying fame into cheap ways of keeping his face before a camera.

But at some point, legend or not, stature itself seems hollow — like a silhouette of greatness.

I did not receive an invitation to Jordan's birthday party — a private gathering, held Sunday at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, far too calcifying a place for a guy who used to show up at the Foster Park hoops in a Ferrari that matched his Air Jordans — but I imagine ennui settling over him. And if so, I hope he shakes it soon. Because, like David Bowie (until the other day), or Philip Roth (who recently retired from writing), Jordan has become one of those celebrities who goes away too soon without quite leaving the culture, a kind of ghost. But unlike Roth or Bowie, we still don't know enough.

Even when he's name-dropped in rap — where, culturally, Jordan seems the most alive — the reference has a ring of ancient history. For instance, Kendrick Lamar's “Michael Jordan” begins with nostalgia: “I used to want to be like Michael Jordan.” Then splashes a colder reality: “Figured I would hit the NBA and make me a fortune.” Even Jay-Z's “Encore,” with arguably the best Jordan reference ever — “When I come back like Jordan/ Wearing the 4-5/ It ain't to play games witchu/ It's to aim at you” — is about a career wane.

When I think of Jordan at all these days I picture a guy so inattentive to his cultural image and importance that he's making underwear commercials and sporting weird little Hitler mustaches and dressing so relentlessly '90s that he inspired a bad-fashion blog, “What the (expletive) Is Michael Jordan Wearing?”

Jordan needs a work of art about himself that will erase the memories of this.

As lukewarm as the reception was to “Magic/Bird,” a Broadway play last year about the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the idea held a nugget of promise. Jordan needs more, a work that will do for him what “Lincoln” did for our 16th president, “Mad Men” did for the early '60s and Thomas Mallon's novel “Watergate” did for Nixon — a piece of art that makes real what had become a cultural abstraction.

Standing in his Skokie apartment, Santiago flipped through a small Moleskine notebook into which he'd drawn the tentative contents of “Bull on Parade.” He stopped on an image of a teenage Jordan skimming a hotel pool during a summer job. “He hated jobs,” Santiago said, then flipped more pages. Santiago said he doesn't follow basketball much. He's just interested in bringing narrative cohesion to Jordan, “to show how he handled his life. Because, after all these years, you just get little sprinkles of how he feels about things.”

He flipped more. I spotted the United Center, Jordan trying out for his high school team, Chicago's skyline.

“I want to know how you get to where Jordan got to,” Santiago said. “How do you get to be the best ever? That's a great subject: What does it mean to get to that place? And what does Michael Jordan mean now?"

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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