They are the saddest, and most adorable, pop culture icons you will see. Super Emo Friends are based on characters that you know, Batman, Loki, the Stormtroopers. However, these larger-than-life figures are shrunken down to childlike proportions.
They are baby-faced – all chubby cheeks and big eyes – yet still maintain a lot of the characteristics of their grown-up counterparts. Their stories reflect the moments of loss and disappointment that pepper famous stories. Super Emo Friends capture a place where the young and old versions of ourselves intersect and filter those complicated emotions through pop culture parody.
For JSalvador, the Southern California-based artist behind Super Emo Friends, it started with a random conversation between friends. “We were talking about Batman,” he says. JSalvador’s friend made a comment in reference to the character, “My parents are dead.” JSalvador went ahead and drew the famed comic book character. His friends dug it.
That same night, JSalvador broke up with his girlfriend, which pushed him to paint more characters. “Before I knew it, I had twelve depressed superheroes,” he says. “Me and these twelve superheroes all could be depressed together.”
That moment changed JSalvador’s outlook. “Out of that, I was happy again,” he explains. “I was happy that I could accomplish so much.”
Since 2009, Super Emo Friends have been wowing comic book and film fanatics across the globe. JSalvador’s series of paintings and prints have appeared on blogs, at conventions, and even in proper art shows, including a few shows at Agit Gallery in Los Angeles. JSalvador has been making art for much longer than this, though.
Earlier in the ’00s, then a college student, he started painting portraits of corporate mascots. He was inspired by a book he read in class about the problems of the meat industry and by his own angst over aging, as well as a desire to move away from digital art. Using a photo of Alfred Hitchcock as a reference, he painted a portrait of an elderly Ronald McDonald, “sad and depressed with his entire existence.” He followed that with portraits of more characters easily recognizable from commercials. A rendition of Tony the Tiger is the one that prompted JSalvador to acknowledge that he could paint well.
At the same time, JSalvador was enamored with the work of Ron English, whose heavy use of pop culture references provides commentary on various societal issues. “I consider myself a disciple of Ron English because he got me up and started painting,” says JSalvador. “I wanted to paint the same message that Ron English was painting.”
JSalvador painted plenty of portraits. Cereal box characters were a popular reference, but he also captured other figures found in grocery store aisles. Still, his work wasn’t eliciting the response that he craved. “They’re really dark,” he explains. “Why would anyone want to own that? It’s so depressing and scary even.”
Super Emo Friends did what his previous work couldn’t. He describes the audience response as “so happy and sad.” People related to the new work in ways that had previously eluded the artist. “They were connecting with it emotionally, the way I wanted them to connect to the cereal characters emotionally.”
JSalvador surmises, “This was a little easier to swallow. They still got that sense of sadness that I wanted people to feel from my art.”
These days, JSalvador gets a lot of requests for characters to include in the Super Emo Friends world. He has more of his own ideas too, some of which go beyond his current, popular series. He wants to paint movie scenes on large canvases and would love to get back into the fast food portraits. “I think it’s a fun way to conceptualize the post-apocalyptic fast food culture,” he says. “That allows me to be a little more creative.” He has also expressed an interest in teaching, having already led one video editing course for kids at a school near his home in Pomona, California. Certainly, JSalvador has a lot to share with burgeoning artists.
All images courtesy of JSalvador/Super Emo Friends