The first thing comic-strip author Aaron McGruder says that catches my ear is not some rant against the ills of white America or some reactionary defense of his controversial syndicated comic strip, The Boondocks. It is the modest admission that he loved playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. Until this point, I thought only two black people had ever played the game (I and one of my older brothers).
McGruder reminisces with me over the game’s intricacies for a good 20 minutes. I tell him that when people ask me about early literary influences, I list D&D right behind my mother teaching me to read. “People don’t understand—this was not any other game,” says McGruder. “They think of devil worshiping or whatever. But you had to read whole books to understand the game. You had to know mythology and all of these rules.” Dungeons & Dragons was never in vogue among black folks. If anything, it got you labeled an Oreo. “We have to be cool, you know,” McGruder says. “And it’s always some black folks that’s gonna look at you funny if you’re having too much fun.”
Lately, McGruder, 25, has been having way too much fun as creator of The Boondocks, a comic strip that probes the black experience in the post-civil-rights era, and a lot of blacks, whites, and everyone in between (literally) have been looking at him funny. The strip won national syndication earlier this year and debuted in 160 newspapers—making it one of the largest comic strip launches in the history of the business. In response to the strip, mountains of letters have piled up in newsrooms around the country.
McGruder’s strip has already won legions of fans, but he has at least as many detractors: Black critics insist that McGruder is upholding stereotypes of black males; white critics charge that the strip bashes whites at every turn; biracial critics contend that the strip attacks children of mixed parentage.
To read some of his hate mail, you’d think that McGruder was Khalid Muhammad with a syndication deal. But this is a cat who was in love with Dungeons & Dragons, a game based primarily on Europe of the Middle Ages. McGruder is a fan of Marvel comic books and calls Star Wars his earliest creative influence. Yet, even though many of his motivations weren’t exactly gleaned from Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America, McGruder’s strip still takes a sledgehammer to the niceties that often block honest racial dialogue. The Boondocks examines the black experience through the lens of the brazen hiphop generation—a group that has little use for political correctness.
The strip has already been pulled from three papers, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution moved it from the comics page to the editorial page because of pressure from its readership. But although McGruder says he worries about the strip being canceled, the chances of his lightening up its content are next to zero. “Don’t even waste your time writing to me. Write to your newspaper,” McGruder says with a short laugh. “Because you’ve got a better chance of getting them to pull the strip than of me changing it.”
Since The Boondocks premiered in April, McGruder has become a hot property. The Tonight Show and Good Morning America have inquired about possible appearances. After a shot of McGruder recently appeared in Time, he got a call asking him to read for a part in a new sitcom about high school. The offer stunned McGruder. “They said I look young, and they want me to read. All I know is that it’s a million people in Hollywood waiting tables until they get a break…but what am I going to say, ‘No?’”
Even more exciting for McGruder’s fans is the distinct possibility of an animated series based on the strip. Disney has already called to inquire. McGruder, a skinny, light-skinned dude who sometimes wears glasses, is wholly unfazed by the hype. In fact, he still lives with his parents in Columbia, Md., where his models of Star Wars spacecraft sit on his dresser and X-Men posters hang on his bedroom wall.
McGruder says his instinct toward art came during the years when the Star Wars trilogy was at its height. “My mom used to buy us all the Star Wars toys, because back then an action figure was, like, two dollars,” says McGruder. “We would get the action figures and then make the play-set out of milk crates.”
McGruder didn’t consider drawing as a profession until high school, and it was comic books, not comic strips, that were his initial career goal. During his college years at the University of Maryland, McGruder repeatedly tried to latch on to a comic book company, but he got no breaks. “I tried to break into comic books from, like, ’92 to ’94….It seemed like an impossible task for a while. So I just started focusing on my strip,” he says. It can take comic strip artists 20 years to get syndicated. McGruder created The Boondocks in 1993 and secured a syndication deal in 1997.
As swift as his ascent has been, the phenomenal thing about McGruder, a self-professed hiphop head, is that he has created an icon of hiphop culture smack in the middle of the white bastion of newspaper publishing. That The Boondocks is a young black voice with access to millions of readers makes it anomalous; that it is also a voice from hiphop’s underground makes it revolutionary. But he is as much a critic of the underground as he is a spokesperson: The Boondocks frequently responds satirically to rap’s malign fixation on bitches, brews, and blunts. McGruder says that he conceived of his strip as a reply to gangsta rap, the dominant genre of hiphop at the time.
McGruder is not a ’90s head whose rap history begins with Nas. He’s an old-school guy: His Web site has a plug for the local rap act Unspoken Heard. McGruder wants Gang Starr’s classic single “Manifest” to serve as the theme song for his show. And at a recent performance at Nation featuring Gang Starr, the show’s master of ceremonies, DJ TaekOne, got a response from the crowd when he gave a shout-out to McGruder. “It’s relevant to a lot of people,” says TaekOne of The Boondocks.
The Boondocks “shows how hiphop is just starting to get recognition,” says local MC Priest da Nomad. “It’s permeated so much of American life. Why not the newspapers?”
The Boondocks centers around two black kids, Huey and Riley Freeman, uprooted by their grandfather from the inner city and moved to the suburbs. “I wanted to do an allegory of the black experience, so you needed displacement first and foremost,” says McGruder, invoking the Middle Passage as well as the great migrations of blacks from the South. “You have to have somebody forcibly moved from one place to another.”
In each of The Boondocks’ characters you see some facet of black America. McGruder uses Huey and Riley to explore the two sides of black rage: positive and negative, thug and militant, Detroit Red and Malcolm X, Easy E and Chuck D. Huey fulfills the role of positive black rage. He fasts on the Fourth of July, starts his own Klan-watch organization in the neighborhood, and invokes Angela Davis. Riley, the younger of the two, is the other half—a self-professed hard-rock who enjoys visiting Internet sites like www.thugnews.com and practicing his thug-mug in the mirror.
And then there is the strip’s most controversial character—Jazmine, the product of a black-white marriage. “People take Jazmine as a slam on multiracial people, but it’s really not about that,” says McGruder. “Jazmine is really about…being an African people reared in North America. It’s all symbolic. That’s why her last name is DuBois, because of the color line and double consciousness….Jazmine is confused because we are all confused. We can’t decide on a name; we can’t decide on how we feel toward Africa or America. Jazmine is our confusion.”
The only prominent white character is Cindy, a little girl who’s almost charmingly amazed at every black person she sees.
The forces that each character represents seem heavy for a comic strip, but McGruder is a master of pulling laughs from very real issues. In one cartoon, Riley explains to Huey that he’s proud of the fact that a white woman, with her kids in tow, crossed the street when she saw him. In another, Jazmine convinces Huey to play a game of Gone With the Wind; in the role of Rhett Butler, Huey remarks, to Jazmine’s dismay, “Boy, I sure am tired of beating slaves. Where’s the lemonade?”
The subtleties of the strip are lost on most of The Boondocks’ critics. What troubles them most is how McGruder portrays the members of their respective ethnic groups. “Either you have something in your head that allows you to understand satire and irony, or you don’t,” says McGruder. But critics argue that his idea of satire goes beyond comedy and demeans black, white, and biracial people alike.
Little Huey and Riley have attracted criticism from black folks who argue that the two do scarcely more than affirm racist stereotypes of young black males. “I am disgusted with the caricature of Afro-Americans in the comic strip,” wrote one reader to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The caricature…is borderline racist and works against the Afro-American community.” Still others charge that McGruder’s depiction of whites amounts to “reverse racism” because he portrays them as clueless nitwits with little awareness of the black community.
At the Web site for a group called INTERracial, one column accuses The Boondocks of being “bigotry disguised as a comic strip,” which, with its treatment of Jazmine, targets “an already oppressed segment of the population, biracial/multiracial children and adults as well as those monoracial individuals who choose to marry across color-lines.” So far, five columns have been posted on the site attacking the strip. There are even a Web poll for opinions on the strip and a direct link to The Boondocks’ own site.
McGruder offers some sympathy to his black critics—but not much. “The criticism from blacks, I take very seriously, no matter how off-the-wall it is,” McGruder says. “It’s not that I don’t believe stereotypes are out there…[but] I believe that a healthy black person, a truly healthy black person, has a complete and total disregard for what white people think—and that’s when you’ve achieved equality….It is not my job to break down [the white community’s] stereotypes.”
But it’s those who say the strip is racist toward whites who really get McGruder’s hackles up. “These [white critics] use the word ‘racism,’ and they think racism is any time a black person don’t act like them….But I’m not getting none of them fired, and I’m not keeping none of their kids out of school,” says McGruder. “They’re mad at me because they think that in exchange for letting us have our lives, we are supposed to be as docile, quiet, and orderly as possible. And unfortunately, many blacks have come in and said, ‘We’re going to make you all glad that you didn’t murder all of us.’ And that’s just not where I’m coming from.”
The Boondocks centers around the experiences of young black America, but it is whites, not blacks, who probably could use more than a few readings of the strip. For in an age of corporate racial dialogue—highlighted by orchestrated town hall meetings and sensitivity training—The Boondocks is perhaps the most prominent, intelligent, and honest voice of young black America available. The strip offers a view of the American dream from the back alley.
Perhaps most importantly, the strip has no interest in highlighting the similarities between blacks and whites or running a PR campaign to improve the image of young black folks. The Boondocks doesn’t leave you feeling warm or fulfilled. If anything, its humor is disquieting—as is the state of America’s race relations; any attempt to put a smiley face on it all is delusional. “People who have no idea of what it means to be black say, ‘Oh, the strip is driving the races apart.’ They say, ‘Oh, you’re not doing what Martin Luther King said,’” says McGruder. “I say, ‘No, I’m not. Next question.’” CP