Bugs Bunny, one of the most beloved and enduring characters of the 20th century, turns 75 today. That's a major milestone for any American pop culture icon, putting him on a plane right beside the likes of Superman in terms of sheer longevity. As a cartoon character, he's a legend; many of us, along with our parents, grew up with him. He even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But if anyone asked you who the single greatest cartoon character ever created was, you might waffle. It's really not that hard. Bugs is GOAT.
Let's start with the cartoons themselves. If you want a semi-formal study on why Bugs and his Looney Tunes brethren are so great, you should probably start with Chuck Jones. Jones was one of the most important animators of the last century (he won three Oscars for his work, not that that really matters) and understanding him is to better understand what made Bugs so irresistible:
Jones gave us the classic "Hunting Season Trilogy" along with what What's Opera, Doc?, which is widely considered one of the finest cartoons ever made. But he was just one artist who touched on Bugs as a character. Others like Friz Freleng and Bob McKimson also directed classics like Knighty Knight Bugs and Devil May Hare, respectively, that expanded on Bugs' character. Each one built on the myth. Bugs, minding his own business, would run into some adversary who wanted his hide. Faced with a challenge, Bugs would inevitably triumph with wit and grace.
And the myth is everything. As a character, Bugs Bunny is king, and he's as close to an animated culture hero as we're going to get. Think about it. He's the person you want to be — the smartest one in the room who's still effortlessly cool. He's quick-witted, funny, and even a little cruel, but only to his tormenters. He could hang with Wagner and Rossini, but you never forgot he was from Brooklyn. And he's the guy you want in your corner when the bullies come calling, because he didn't need brawn to win. In effect, Bugs embodies a kind of American icon that's simultaneously exceptional but still the underdog. You can't help but root for him even if you know he's going to win.
Bugs is an American icon, at once exceptional but ever the underdog
That you want to root for him is key. As a culture hero, Bugs punches up. He's the hunted one, the one tending to his garden when the white guy with a gun or Confederate soldier comes along to ruin his day. He's rarely ever in an empowered position. So often, he's lost and disoriented when the bullets start flying. But he is uniquely able to take on the establishment and win. He even cut Florida away from the Union, just to show people he could. Do you really want to mess with him?
And he can even do it in a dress. Bugs' love of drag lends credence to the idea that he is possibly one of the most progressive cartoon characters ever created. Dresses don't make him weak. He's somehow even more powerful when dressed as Scarlett O'Hara, and manages to break down our assumptions about the gender binary because he never needs to pass. To borrow from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, put a wig on his head, and suddenly he's Miss Midwest. And it always works flawlessly.
Other characters certainly come close to this kind of power. Homer Simpson is the quintessential everyman, and is able to bend the world around him with sheer joy and stupidity. Meanwhile, The Simpsons is one of the most influential cartoons ever made. Still, you probably wouldn't want to be him. Mickey Mouse is perhaps an even bigger icon since he represents one of the biggest companies in the world. Nevertheless, his identity has faded into his logo. What is Mickey Mouse even about if not a massive corporation bent on swallowing civilization?
Homer Simpson and Mickey Mouse fall short of Bugs' greatness
Bug Bunny is those things and more. He's a company mascot, but you know his voice. He's what Americans are but also what they wish they could be. He's truly aspirational. Is there any wonder why he could take on Jordan in his prime?