In a two-panel sequence of Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks” that ran on Thanksgiving Day, a black grandfather and his two grandsons are sitting down to dinner. One of the boys, a 9-year-old would-be revolutionary named Huey, offers grace. “Ahem,” Huey declares. “In this time of war against Osama bin Laden and the oppressive Taliban regime . . . we are thankful that our leader isn‘t the spoiled son of a powerful politician from a wealthy oil family who is supported by religious fundamentalists, operates through clandestine organizations, has no respect for the democratic electoral process, bombs innocents, and uses war to deny people their civil liberties. Amen.” As soon as he’s finished, his grandfather responds, “This is the last time you say grace, boy.”
It‘s a nearly perfect bit of comic timing: A familiar setup — Thanksgiving with the family — is given an unexpected twist, then snapped back into place with a savage punch line. But there’s also a more subversive element at work — you finish the strip not sure, exactly, how to reconcile what you‘ve seen. Amid the patriotic frenzy of the last four months, sentiments like Huey’s have been pushed increasingly to the fringes; they‘re more the stuff of rants and mass e-mailings than of the comics page of the daily newspaper, where they’re juxtaposed against the mindless blur of “Cathy” and the hyperdomesticity of “9 Chickweed Lane.” Even if you‘re not among the people who write off comic strips as a particularly disposable form of light entertainment, you have to wonder: How is he getting this stuff in?
The answer, McGruder suggests late one afternoon at Victor’s Square Deli in Hollywood, has everything to do with the strip‘s strange mix of the radical and the conventional, the way it plays with many of the customs of the comics form. Like “Peanuts” or “Calvin and Hobbes,” both of which McGruder cites as influences, “The Boondocks” revolves around precocious children (Huey, a self-described socialist and agitator; his gangsta-wannabe little brother, Riley; and their friend Michael Caesar, all of whom have interests well beyond their years); like “Doonesbury” or the late, lamented “Bloom County,” it uses humor to score political points. “Look,” McGruder says, sitting in a back booth, drinking apple juice through a straw. “Comics are a sanitized, conservative medium. I do what I can to push the boundaries, but there’s still a lot that I can‘t do.” Since “The Boondocks” debuted in April 1999, he has taken on the Klan, Jar Jar Binks, presidential politics and Black Entertainment Television. In a recent series of strips, Huey compiles a hate book, listing all the things about the world that he can’t stand. “I was thinkin‘ . . .,” he tells Caesar, “let’s say — hypothetically — Santa can actually go to every house on the planet in one night . . . He uses that power to give kids a bunch of junk they don‘t need! He could deliver food every day to starving kids! Drop off medicine to underdeveloped countries! . . . Santa just made the hate book!!” In 1999, a similar storyline provoked a paper in Buffalo, New York, to drop “The Boondocks” for being “anti-Santa,” but McGruder believes his characters’ youth has kept more protests at bay. “The characters couldn‘t be adults,” he says. “If they were adults, the strip would never have made it into the newspaper. Huey’s politics are so strong and so uncompromising that if he gets any older, he becomes Louis Farrakhan.”
But there‘s more to it, for Huey and Riley represent a clash of cultures, two black kids from the South Side of Chicago who move with their grandfather to the nondescript suburb of Woodcrest and then must a struggle to fit in. It’s a clash that comes out in the characters‘ efforts to remake their surroundings — Riley’s guerrilla campaign to change the local street names from Gurgling Brook and Timid Deer Lane to Buckshot and Notorious B.I.G. Avenue, or Huey‘s resistance to attending J. Edgar Hoover Elementary School. The struggle, though, is also an internal one, which seems true as well of McGruder himself. At 27, wearing Adidas and jeans, hair shaggy, eyes limpid behind frameless blue-tinted glasses, he seems suspended between the college student he was when he first developed the strip and the professional he’s become. As we talk, he periodically glances through a pile of financial statements, and at the end of the conversation he calls someone — a business manager? — about a discrepancy in an Internet charge. It‘s a strange moment; briefly, I wonder what Huey might say, then realize I’m witnessing the fine line between revolution and the mainstream that marks “The Boondocks.” McGruder seeks to raise consciousness in a popular medium, 20 million readers at a time. And that‘s an intricate balancing act. Like the characters in his strip, McGruder is figuring it out as he goes along.
Since September 11, McGruder has amped “The Boondocks” to a fever pitch. His first response appeared within 13 days of the tragedy; then, on September 28, the papers ran a strip in which Huey watches a TV newsman interview a “gay, African-American environmentalist and former critic of the president,” who explains, “Former critic, yes. Now I realize that America is all about blind, unquestioning faith in our almost-elected leaders.” Shortly thereafter, the New York Daily News pulled “The Boondocks,” telling McGruder he’d be reinstated when he stopped writing about the attacks. Rather than give in, McGruder pushed back. On October 17, “The Boondocks” announced, “Due to the inappropriate political content of this feature in recent weeks, it is being replaced by ”The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon,“ which we hope will help children understand the complexities of current events. United we stand.” This was followed by a single panel in which a victory ribbon and an American flag stood beside each other. “Hey, Flagee,” said Ribbon, “there‘s a lot of evil out there,” to which Flagee replied, “That’s right, Ribbon. Good thing America kicks a lot of *@#.”
“I didn‘t have qualms,” McGruder says of his decision to address the aftermath of September 11, “but I really had to be prepared to lose my career. Because this was such an unprecedented thing going on, nobody could predict how people would react to seeing strips like these. It was just a risk.”
Were McGruder an older, more entrenched cartoonist, the risk of losing his career might have been stifling; even Garry Trudeau was strangely noncommittal for the first month or so after the attacks, as if he had to feel out the territory before he could react. Risk, however, resides at the very heart of “The Boondocks,” which takes chances by its mere existence, as a black strip in an overwhelmingly white medium, where politics is often less important than a good one-liner, and controversy only sells up to a point. This, too, is part of the dynamic, the way the strip keeps pushing up against its own limitations, even as it accommodates the expectations imposed by its commercial form.
“Look,” McGruder says, “I was talking with a friend of mine just last night, and he put it very succinctly. He said, ’We‘re born into this world with an inheritance. We come in carrying part of what went on before us, and black people inherit a war. We inherit a struggle. You can choose either to be a part of it or not to be a part of it, but it’s there, it‘s yours.’ And so I think that, at the end of the day, that‘s what I’m doing. I‘m conscious and aware of an ongoing struggle, and I’m making a definitive choice to be on one side. I still have a job, and I‘m still going to be funny, and I’m still going to be aware that people don‘t want to hear me preach. But at the same time, I recognize the power of this medium, and I’m going to do what I can.”