Talk of the Toon
- ('Man, that was boring.' McGruder is talking about a gruelling lunch
with Fidel Castro on a trip he made to Cuba with a relief organisation.
He's full of admiration for what Castro has achieved, flinging
statistics around with professorial earnestness, about the education
system and infant-mortality rates. But still, 'It was a one-hour talk
stretched into, like, four hours.')
Talk of the Toon
It was banned after 9/11, caused an outrage by using the 'n-word' and
once featured Condoleezza Rice as Darth Vader. Just three of the reasons
why the forthcoming TV version of Aaron McGruder's Boondocks is being
tipped as the successor to The Simpsons as television's new must-see
cartoon. Phil Hoad meets the man who mixed Peanuts with the Nation of
Sunday October 31, 2004
The [UK] Observer
American etiquette rule No 1: try not to insult government ministers in
public. It's March 2002 and Aaron McGruder, the creator of radical
cartoon strip The Boondocks and ascendant African-American media
firebrand, is accepting the Chairman's Award at the NAACP (National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Image Awards.
One small problem: he's been seated in the front row of the auditorium,
near Condoleezza Rice. In his acceptance speech, he makes brief
reference to this irony, denounces America's recent invasion of
Afghanistan, then leaves the podium in relatively compliant style.
Minutes later, he's mingling, when he feels a hand on his shoulder. He
finds himself face-to-face with America's national security adviser.
McGruder has never divulged full details of his conversation with Rice,
except for the fact that he called her a mass-murderer ('in a clever
way') and that she requested he write her into The Boondocks.
McGruder insists the Rice fracas has become a millstone. He's holding
back a full disclosure of the exchange for an autobiographical book, but
he insists: 'Because everyone asks me about it and I never tell, it's
going to be so uninteresting when I actually tell the story.' But he got
back to Rice on her request in October 2003, suggesting that as a
'female Darth Vader' she might be less bent on destroying the world if
she had a man in her life to give her 'some good old-fashioned lovin".
The Washington Post pulled the strip for a week; just another ban in the
life of The Boondocks.
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Huey Freeman, the 10-year-old Don King-coiffed star of The Boondocks,
stares out over Aaron McGruder's penthouse from a huge framed cover of
liberal political weekly The Nation on the wall. His 30-year-old
creator, diminutive, goateed and handsome, sits beneath him on a
voluminous brown couch, where all the work on the strip takes place.
We're on Beverly Hills' borders, just north of LA's vast Four Seasons
hotel; McGruder tells how, a few nights ago, two police helicopters were
hovering in the zone between the hotel and his apartment building,
waiting to swoop on the city's latest outbreak of evil-doing.
'I think something like 70 per cent of the jail population in America is
non-violent drug offenders. So you know, we're still living in the era
of prohibition,' he reflects. With his hair clipped much shorter than in
the dust-jacket photo on the back of his latest Boondocks compendium, A
Right To Be Hostile, McGruder no longer shares the topiary with Huey,
but there's no mistaking where his schoolyard alter ego gets his
politics from. On his beat around the middle-class suburb of Woodcrest
where he lives with his grandad, Huey is perpetually pissed off with the
status quo, whether it's Bush's stem-cell research policy or P Diddy's
On the September afternoon we meet, the latest batch of The Boondocks,
syndicated to nearly 300 newspapers in the US, is giving McGruder a
serious headache. Even with coy asterisks, several papers are objecting
to his latest story line, 'Can a n**** get a job?', a spoof of Donald
Trump's NBC show The Apprentice. McGruder balks at any changes. 'The
strip's very personal to me - I don't wanna engage in dialogue about
Wednesday is supposedly his day off from the strip, but he's busy
finalising details for the Boondocks TV show, which is about to go into
a 62-week production schedule for its first series. Currently, he's
testing voice actors for Huey - he's thinking of going with a girl, a la
Bart Simpson. Among the names on the casting list are Fresh Prince of
Bel Air starlet Tatyana Ali and fem-rapper MC Lyte.
McGruder started drawing The Boondocks while studying African-American
studies at the University of Maryland, grounding it in a combination of
radical black politics and pop-culture roughage. He decided to use kids
in the strip (Huey has an eight-year-old brother, wannabe gangster
Riley) to 'seduce the audience' - Charles Schultz by way of Nation of
Islam. 'You're taking someone [people] would maybe otherwise find
unpleasant and making it pleasant to look at. And instantly,
psychologically, the impact it has is tremendous.'
With an anti-authoritarian instinct that later made him notorious,
Jayson Blair (of the New York Times fabrication scandal), then editor of
college paper The Diamondback, began running the strip in late 1996. Two
years later, McGruder signed up with Universal Press Syndicate, which
also published Doonesbury, and The Boondocks began running immediately
in 160 papers - a large launch - and grew from there.
The early days of the strip were 'very, very tough'. Compared to The
Boondocks of 2004, which often features near-static panels of Huey
slackly commenting on television, he was more ambitious. Plotlines were
carefully interlacing and other characters featured more often: Huey and
Riley's cantankerous grandad; Caesar, a dreadlocked schoolmate from
Brooklyn; Tom Dubois, a cosy African-American lawyer whom Huey needed to
periodically remind about Black Power; Tom's racially mixed daughter
Jazmine, a bit stuck on the young revolutionary.
The latter two have been all but erased from the strip now, but McGruder
reckons they were a necessary sacrifice. Bad at meeting deadlines
anyway, he found the Sisyphean nature of his labours dragging him under.
'If I had known how hard it was going to be, I may have thought twice
before doing it ... Bringing the characters to life and exploring their
personalities is tough to do in just two or three panels.' By 2000, he
couldn't eat or sleep properly and was once hospitalised with acute
gastrointestinal pains. It's obvious, looking at the increasingly
self-referential strips from the period, that creative entropy had set
in. Huey was fretting over filling his own bolshy newsletter, The Free
Huey World Report, and handing over the logo for his impending
insurrection, he moaned: 'I don't know why I gotta lead the revolution
and illustrate it.'
McGruder himself has ended up farming out the inking, but it was
September 11 that really changed the strip. The attack fell on a
Tuesday, his deadline day, giving him a week to decide whether he was
going to touch the subject. Even hitting the national stage on the 25th
with an initial swipe at glassy-eyed media patriotism, he was the first
(Doonesbury followed later). 'I think this is where it helps to be a
black American,' he says, "cause I think for the most part as an ethnic
group we are so much more suspicious of the government in general. I was
never one of those people who thought this was the time to rally round
the flag and support Bush. Because if he was an idiot on September 10,
he was still an idiot on September 12.'
McGruder's deadline problems disappeared and the strip, a previously
loose sense of scorn, catalysed into a focused beam of outrage. It was
too much for some: the New York Daily News banned The Boondocks for
several weeks. As public criticism of the strip mounted, he fired back
sarcastically, 'censoring' Huey and fellow conspirators for four days
and replacing them with 'The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon', a talking
Stars and Stripes and a patriotic ribbon. McGruder suddenly found
himself increasingly in demand on radio and TV as house iconoclast (as
well as the subject of the odd flattering death threat - one was once
phoned in at a restaurant he was eating in). 'What happened after 9/11,
I think, was actually a very, very good thing in that I took on a
greater importance, not only in the comics business, but also in the
national dialogue about politics in general. Because nobody else wanted
to criticise the government.' The Boondocks may have had to downsize,
but its creator was on the up. Another flashpoint came last December,
when McGruder let slip the n-word at a birthday dinner for The Nation at
New York's Metropolitan Club. Dinner ($500 a head) over, and Uma Thurman
stepped up to introduce the cartoonist.
The assembled luminaries must have known about McGruder's Molotov
reputation, but it's unlikely they anticipated that he would turn his
scorched-earth policy on them - at their own dinner. He rubbished The
Nation's liberalism, scoffing at its so-called 'courage' and accusing it
of letting Bush and his administration go unchecked. Then came the
clincher: he told diners he had voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. A Nation
staff member shouted out, 'Thanks for Bush!' McGruder's response was to
move his hand crotchwards and suggest that the journalist 'Try these
He disputes this account. 'I said the word "Nader". And that's all -
that was it. My attitude is: we're sitting here at a really nice party,
we're celebrating, but there's nothing to celebrate. We're getting our
asses panned by George and we're sitting here drinking up.'
He's intensely politicised, but it's 'a common-sense thing, being able
to see when people are obviously lying', rather than any kind of
Trotskyite upbringing. He was born on Chicago's South Side and, with his
parents and older brother Dedric (also a part-time political
cartoonist), moved to Columbia, Maryland, at the age of six.
The Boondocks begins when the Freeman brothers make a similar move to
the middle-class 'burb of Woodcrest. Apart from the liberal coasts, it's
perhaps somewhere in this anonymous section of America's consciousness
that McGruder finds his audience. 'I think it reaches a very sort of,
er, large, quiet minority of people who understand the strip's
sensibilities. Not the cross-section of people who live on television
... I think it's a lot of people who are quietly outraged at what's
going on in the country, but who have no means to make their voice heard
and have given up on the political system.'
McGruder's attitude towards Bush and his government has been caustic
since The Boondocks started, and the administration comes in for a
roasting in another of his projects, the graphic novel Birth of a
Nation. Co-written with House Party creator Reggie Hudlin, it's based on
the Florida fiasco in 2000; after an impoverished black area in St Louis
is gratuitously disenfranchised, it decides to secede from the Union.
East St Louis becomes Blackland and lets Prince audition to write the
national anthem, while scantily veiled versions of Bush and Cheney flap
about how to rein in the recalcitrant state.
He's currently laying into all-comers in the run-up to the 2004
election: Huey has been on the phone to John Kerry, marvelling at his
incompetence; agog at Bush's stem-cell research phobia; and had Tom
Dubois kidnap Democrat-wrecker Nader (McGruder is voting Democrat this
time). 'I don't look at the strip as a tool for political change,' he
says. 'I don't think it has that kind of power. It is just me telling
jokes that I think are funny.'
He's a friend of Michael Moore, who wrote the foreword to A Right To Be
Hostile, praising The Boondocks as 'the most truthful thing in the
newspapers'. McGruder cites Fahrenheit 9/11's $120m take as one of the
few things in American political and cultural life that give him hope.
But, he says, he'd be cautious about wielding the same level of
influence as Moore. 'It comes with having to fear for your life ... He
has to be concerned. Not even so much about the government as random
weirdos and crazy people.'
America has acquired a coterie of comic dissenters, including Moore;
Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury enjoyed its own period of exile from 38
US newspapers in July; and David Rees, responsible for the excellently
profane Get Your War On, co-opted by Rolling Stone - and McGruder is
high among their ranks. He's unsure, though, whether Bush has been the
gift to US satirists you'd expect. 'It's a big problem, because Bush is
so stupid and has not changed or grown or matured at all in the last
four years. And there's only so many times you can tell the same joke,
y'know. But yet, he just stays stupid.'
But behind this comment, you get the impression that the old boredom
that stymied The Boondocks after the last election might be waiting to
strike again and, still straitjacketed into three-panel 'comic
claustrophobia', McGruder is still searching for the right outlet.
'Man, that was boring.' McGruder is talking about a gruelling lunch with
Fidel Castro on a trip he made to Cuba with a relief organisation. He's
full of admiration for what Castro has achieved, flinging statistics
around with professorial earnestness, about the education system and
infant-mortality rates. But still, 'It was a one-hour talk stretched
into, like, four hours.'
Maybe McGruder needs to condense his efforts, too. The Boondocks, by his
own admission in the foreword to A Right To Be Hostile, only splutters
into clear-throated articulacy from time to time. Hemmed in by
twentysomething detritus - Run DMC dolls, piles of comics, a pair of
light-sabres, Clinton's biography, a photo of McGruder's Filipino
girlfriend of three years, a portrait of the cartoonist by the late
Richard Avedon, amid wooden African masks and arboreal potted plants -
there's a sense of a certain restless creative promiscuity. As well as
daily Boondocks duty and his non-fiction book, he's working on two
screenplays: one about an African-American pilot drafted into an RAF
kamikaze squad in the Second World War, another about a fictional beef,
cooked up by two rival rappers, which gets out of hand.
But the big hope, of course, is The Boondocks TV show. McGruder holds up
The Simpsons as the obvious example of a show that 'works in a lot of
politics without talking about the news'. To this end, as well as
allowing him to break through the limitations of the daily strip, he's
going to restore all the faces from the early days, as well as introduce
newcomers to the neighbourhood. He's currently working on getting a
'very well-known' person to play himself.
The Simpsons' network, Fox, actually passed on The Boondocks, due,
McGruder says, to financial issues rather than any fear he might hack
off the hand that feeds him. With the pilot episode completed in Korea
and production under way, The Boondocks will now be the flagship show on
Cartoon Network's Adult Swim strand.
Only just 30, McGruder seems very much the Hollywood player now - even a
celebrity. His idealism is long established, but you get the impression
that the muscles he has built most assiduously since moving to LA five
years ago are his corporate-diplomatic biceps. As we decamp to a cafe
for lunch, he talks over a chicken burger about how much he likes giving
lectures, even though he's a shy person. He always improvises his talks,
he says, and enjoys the ability to control people's emotions. One
favourite rhetorical tool of his is to lie to the audience at some point
and own up later, because, pace 9/11 and Iraq, 'that's what the
authorities do'. Plus, 'a little bit of notoriety' has its own benefits.
He performs a cheeky calculation: if 500 people attend a lecture and
half are girls, say 1 per cent will be good looking, then chances are if
those two girls are prepared to wait half an hour in a queue to let you
sign their Boondocks book, then they'll probably want to sleep with you.
Strategy is what most progressives need, McGruder insists. With the
Democrats equally caressed by the tendrils of big business, the radical
fringe 'never figured out what to do when the devil was the only person
in the room left to negotiate with. They just didn't know what to do.'
He refuses to go down the same path. 'I don't see myself as any kind of
political activist, mostly because I think what I do in the strip is
more effective than anything I could do as an activist. I'll reach a lot
more people than if I'm out there in the streets, marching with a sign
or something, protesting. I've got other avenues to express myself.'
I ask him if his brand of radicalism (and, with Boondocks merchandising
on the way, a brand is what it will be) is in danger of becoming just
another commodity for sale. He admits that, 'Money has to be your focus,
because money is the focus of everyone you're in business with.' An
ultra-bright, blinding admission of how traditional left/right
polarities are meaningless in an era when bottom-line merchant Harvey
Weinstein whips up a 'coalition of the willing' to distribute Fahrenheit
9/11, after Disney bottled it, and Nike-wearing twentysomethings go to
see documentaries like the forthcoming (and very good) The Corporation
for their anti-corporate lifestyle tonic.
McGruder knows that with The Washington Post publishing his strip,
Random House his books and Cartoon Network his TV show, he's as
complicit as anyone. And he's getting rich without qualms. 'I always
wanted to get rich. I wanna live very, very well. The world sucks when
you're poor. It's fucking deplorable. But I don't think it means you
have to be part of the fucked-up system of oppressors and leaders just
by virtue of making a lot of money.'
Can he stay principled? He's already turned down offers to rope Huey and
co into commercials. 'I don't spend a lot of time moaning about what I
can't get away with, because there's always other media. Rather than
trying to be so radical, you just put yourself out of the game. Find the
smart way to make the most out of these mass-media outlets. It still
requires courage and it still requires pissing people off. You just have
to know how to walk the tightrope ... If you're not disciplined, it can
be dangerous. You're literally dancing with the devil.'
McGruder takes a phone call from his assistant Shawn, fleshing out more
details about the casting for take-no-prisoners grade-school guerrilla
Huey. Then a burst of mild flirtation with the busty, synthetic-faced
Beverly Hills waitress, and we leave. Rebel with a stencil or media
Faustus? If being Aaron McGruder was ever for sale, if there's any
justice, one day soon the devil will wake up in his Bel Air condo and
find that he got more than he bargained for.
· A Right To Be Hostile (£9.50) and Public Enemy #2: An All New
Boondocks Collection (available in March 2005) are published by Three
Rivers Press. Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel (£13.94) is published by
Crown. Visit: boondocks.net