He’s Gotta Fight the Powers That Be
“Aaron McGruder graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in Afro-American studies. Or was it African-American studies? I don’t know--it was some ol’ Black stuff, that much is definite. He has been a syndicated cartoonist since 1999, when ‘The Boondocks’ first launched in newspapers around the country. He has since moved to Los Angeles, put a couple books out, been on TV a bunch of times--you know the usual. ‘He’s controversial.’ ‘He got an Image Award.’ Blah, blah, blah. Nobody cares. When it’s all said and done, his life just isn’t that interesting.
“Aaron is a Gemini.”
-- “About the Author” note written by Aaron McGruder from “The Boondocks” collection, “A Right to Be Hostile.”
The angriest black man in America sits in his living room, far from relaxed. As usual, he is engaged in battle.
As the sun disappears and the room grows darker, Aaron McGruder hunkers down on a plush couch that almost swallows his slight frame. The combative creator of “The Boondocks” comic strip is taking on his latest opponent, temporarily putting aside his usual targets--President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Puff Daddy, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Justin Timberlake, the BET and UPN networks, flag-wavers, black movies such as “My Baby’s Daddy,” and the war in Iraq.
The cartoonist, writer, producer, unofficial prophet of the hip-hop generation is fighting a cold. And at this moment, on a chilly late winter evening, the cold is kicking his behind.
“I’m OK, I’m OK,” says the warrior, who has little appetite but is forcing himself to snack. “Just trying to do too much, got run-down. It will be all right.”
It’s a battle the 29-year-old can’t afford to lose. In a few days, McGruder will fly to Korea to oversee animated footage for a TV pilot based on his edgy comic strip about two black brothers from Chicago who reluctantly move to the suburbs with their gruff grandfather. The strip is syndicated in about 300 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, making it one of the country’s more popular syndicated strips. “A Right to Be Hostile,” a “Boondocks” collection from its first five years, was a recent bestseller.
There has never been a comic strip in American newspapers quite like “The Boondocks”--a blunt, critical remix of race relations, pop culture icons, black politics, rappers and racists. The strip mirrors much of McGruder’s perspective about current affairs, as seen through the eyes of the militant 10-year-old Huey and the gangsta-wannabe Riley, who is “8-ish.”
With his once-fashionably unkempt Afro now trimmed to a smoother shortness that highlights his subtly handsome features, McGruder may look like a young scholar more at home in the library than on the front lines of political discourse. But his low-key demeanor hides a passionate, plain-spoken activist who is seldom at a loss for words--particularly words that bite the powers that be. His college lectures often sell out, filled with fans who come to hear humorous commentary but wind up hearing an artist consumed by conspiracy theories and concern for his country.
And woe to the unsuspecting person who approaches McGruder at a party to challenge his views.
“I’m ready to fight outside work,” he says. “If someone wants to come up and start a political conversation with me, it can quickly turn into an argument. People don’t understand--a lot of this [expletive] is not funny to me.”
If humor masks the pain of the comedian, then satire masks the indignation of the political cartoonist. But in the case of Aaron McGruder, it’s not much of a disguise. Unlike his heroes, Garry Trudeau--whose once-radical “Doonesbury” lefties have lost their edge to middle age--and Berkeley Breathed--whose “Bloom County” has a playful, absurdist tinge--McGruder’s “Boondocks” is transparently cynical rage, filtered through an African American prism. It’s no coincidence that one of the strip’s protagonists shares a name with former Black Panther firebrand Huey Newton.
Just as hip-hop music, fashion and attitude dominate pop culture, McGruder’s Afrocentric strip is read by cultural cognoscenti of all colors. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore wrote the foreword to “A Right to Be Hostile.” Bill Maher frequently invites the cartoonist for his “Real Time” HBO discussion fest. Comedian Chris Rock featured projected images of Huey and Riley before each show on his recent tour.
And all this from a nice young man who grew up in Columbia, a middle-class Maryland suburb, with his stay-at-home mother, his father, who works for the National Transportation Safety Board, and an older brother, Dedric. Though the McGruder boys grew up in a suburban setting that mirrors Huey and Riley’s, McGruder says politics “was not a big deal in our house,” and he maintains his strip is not autobiographical.
“All the characters come from me, but they are not all me,” he says. “They live in a household without women, which was not my experience. Huey is not bound by limitations. He’s more morally pure; he sees the world through 10-year-old eyes.”
McGruder started drawing when he was a small child. Deciding in his late teens that he wanted to be a professional cartoonist, he started developing the strip while attending the University of Maryland. Early on, he focused on developing characters. The earliest “Boondocks” were less political, made distinctive by McGruder’s simultaneous embrace and attack of black culture, and flavored by his dry wit. But the events of Sept. 11 changed him and his creation.
“I started seeing a problem,” McGruder says. “Journalists stopped being journalists. All this cheerleading started. All of a sudden this lame president was being hailed as a bold national leader. No one was asking questions about how every system designed to protect this country failed. And where were all these flags coming from?
“I was disgusted by the whole thing. And I thought, ‘What am I going to write about now? Puffy? That seems stupid now.’ I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. And the material just wrote itself. It was then I became a political cartoonist.”
“The Boondocks” has since raised hackles in political circles, mostly due to McGruder’s attacks on the Bush administration and its policies. The Washington Post last October yanked a week of strips making fun of Rice and her love life. Previously, a few papers had pulled strips denouncing the wave of patriotism following the war.
But McGruder’s public comments have brought him as much notoriety as his strip. He has bragged about calling Rice a “murderer” to her face. He has knocked the Democratic Party for not being aggressive or nasty enough to take back the White House, a declaration that earned him some boos at a dinner honoring The Nation magazine.
The aspiring cartoonist started sending out packages of “The Boondocks” in 1997, a year before he graduated, to various newspaper syndicates. He wasn’t getting much encouragement, but opportunity came at a National Assn. of Black Journalists convention.
Harriet Choice, who was then a vice president with Universal Press Syndicate, went to the convention looking for minority talent. As she sat in on a seminar on black cartoonists, someone handed her some papers over her shoulder. “I turned around and there was this young man there,” she recalls. “He didn’t say anything. He just smiled. I looked at what he had given me, and it was some strips. The first thing I noticed was his unique style. The drawings just had a different look. I knew the minute I saw them that this guy, with the proper nurturing, could be a major force in comics. I could see there was something biting about the comics, but it was also touching.”
Lee Salem, executive vice president and editor of Universal Press Syndicate, adds that McGruder also came along at the right time, when there was a push for diversity among cartoonists. With the exception of the family-oriented “Curtis” and “Jump Start,” there were no black-themed strips. And only “Doonesbury” and “Mallard Fillmore” were taking bold political stances.
“We knew that ‘The Boondocks’ was not a tried-and-true format, and that it would not sit well with a lot of people,” Salem says. “It was not a slam dunk, because we knew some would love it and some would hate it.”
McGruder laughs now when thinking back on his last school year, when he had postgraduate job security: “I was just intolerable. I did my undergraduate thesis on me!” More accurately, he says the thesis was about African American political cartoonists. The syndicate waited another year before launching “The Boondocks” in April of 1999. McGruder moved to Los Angeles that year.
The sensibility of the strip reflected the philosophies of McGruder’s early heroes, musical acts such as KRS-One and Public Enemy, who used rap to convey political messages. He is disdainful of most contemporary hip-hop. Sean Combs--a.k.a. Puff Daddy a.k.a. P. Diddy--was a frequent target of “The Boondocks” wrath.
Except for a sporty car and a Beverly Hills address, McGruder does not surround himself with the trappings of his success. He shuns celebrity and the party circuit, preferring to socialize with a small group of friends or write screenplays at home. He is an avid collector of “Star Wars” and other movie memorabilia.
He’s also a bit awkward in crowds, particularly when he is the center of attention. When the American Civil Liberties Union honored him last year at a garden party in Brentwood, McGruder was visibly uncomfortable as he was shuttled from one famous member to another. When Los Angeles became the capital of Hip Hop Nation during the NBA All-Star Weekend in February, he left town.
“Aaron is not a loner by choice,” says filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, one of McGruder’s closest friends, who is co-developing the TV pilot for Fox and Sony Pictures Television. “He enjoys other people and enjoys collaborating. He just doesn’t suffer fools. The nature of his work makes the stakes higher than just doing a comic strip or a TV series. The vacuum of political thought in black America adds to the pressure. Given his youth and the scale of pressure he has, he handles it very well.”
Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, has called “The Boondocks” “one of the most distinctive comic strips in American history,” comparing McGruder to Thomas Nast, the father of American editorial cartoons.
On the other side of the “Boondocks” fence is conservative radio talk-show host Larry Elder, who labels McGruder an artist out of control. Elder regularly rants about the cartoonist on his daily syndicated show.
“He’s an obviously successful illustrator, and I find the strip sometimes quite funny,” Elder says. “But he is ill-informed, childish and mean-spirited.” Elder believes the strips about Rice and her love life “went over the line.”
“Look at what she’s accomplished: She’s a concert pianist. She’s fluent in Russian. She’s a force of nature. And she’s a figure that deserves a certain amount of respect.
“And when you say things such as Colin Powell is like Darth Vader, it’s outrageous. The reason he gets less criticism is because he’s black.”
McGruder’s response to Elder was to make him one of the potential suitors for Rice in the strip, making fun of the radio host’s self-proclaimed title of “The Sage of South-Central.” And the statuette for Huey’s annual “Most Embarrassing Black People” award almost got a new name: “The Larry Elder.”
As for Black Entertainment Television--a constant “Boondocks” target for what McGruder perceives as its over-reliance on booty-shakin’, thug-lovin’ music videos--network spokesman Michael Lewellen says: “Some of Aaron’s commentaries have been shortsighted where the network is concerned. It’s hard to tell whether he has a good understanding of what BET is all about. He certainly at times has sought to antagonize BET, and has made [founder Robert Johnson] a target. For reasons of his own, he’s chosen to ignore the positive quality of BET. He’s focused on the microcosms of the network, and has not seen it for what it’s become.”
The tv pilot is just the tip of the evolving McGruder empire. He, Hudlin and artist Kyle Baker are putting the final touches on their upcoming graphic novel “Birth of a Nation,” about the chaos that erupts when East St. Louis secedes from the country. A “Boondocks” movie, merchandise and a clothing line are planned.
And then there’s the never-ending commitment of the strip. McGruder must come up with ideas to fill six daily installments, plus a Sunday edition. Even with assistance in drawing and writing “The Boondocks,” McGruder laments, “it all basically comes back to me.”
But, he admits, “The pressure I feel now with getting the show ready is nothing compared to the first four years of the strip, when I had two deadlines a week all by myself. Those years were all about getting the strip in on time. And I was always beating myself up about that.”
McGruder regularly operated on panic mode with his deadlines. Prone to procrastination, he would look for inspiration from CNN, the newspaper, talks with friends. But inspiration was frequently elusive.
“A lot of people handle deadlines better, they have more experience,” he explains. “But for me, it was a continual black cloud over my head. I aged 10 years in those first four years of the strip. And I grew to hate the strip.”
According to his Universal Press Syndicate editor, Greg Melvin: “What compounded the situation was that drawing a comic strip, by its very nature, is a solitary profession. It’s no bed of roses. It’s one person looking at a blank computer, trying to come up with 365 good gags a year. And Aaron is his own worst critic.”
There were times in those first years when McGruder was so distraught that he couldn’t sleep and could barely eat. The mental stress manifested itself into a physical pain that racked the cartoonist day and night.
Hudlin witnessed McGruder’s gradual meltdown: “It was horrific. He has this incredible job, but it’s the job that never ends. And this was with a guy who had never left home before, and he had moved to the other side of the world. It all finally caught up to him. And it was the most scared I’ve ever seen him.”
Other personal pressures weighed on him. His growing celebrity alienated him from longtime friends back home. “I felt very isolated during those first two years. I had just moved across the country. Some of my friends started buggin’. Everybody thought I had this glamorous life in Los Angeles; I was on TV and magazines. But they didn’t know what I was going through. Egos got crazy. They anticipated change when there was none. I went back home to try and repair things, but there were shouting matches; irreparable damage was done.
“All this made me a very dark person. Friends would call me from parties, saying, ‘Man, you should be here,’ and I’d think, ‘Yeah, but I’m working, trying to think up stuff.’
“I thought, ‘What’s the point of all this success if you’re not having fun?’ ”
The angst manifested itself in the strip. Several installments of “The Boondocks” focused on Huey’s procrastination about cutting the lawn, which was McGruder’s way of illustrating his problems. And in one installment, Huey has difficulty coming up with an appropriate logo for the so-called “revolution.” “I don’t know why I gotta lead the revolution and illustrate it, too,” he declared. “I don’t even like drawing.”
Then, one day in 2000, the panic became so severe that he suffered gastrointestinal pains that put him on the floor. During a visit home, he was rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital. When he told emergency room doctors that he had a deadline to meet, one warned him that he might die if he didn’t do something about his stress
Says McGruder: “Things really changed at that point. I had to acknowledge that these deadlines were not worth my health. I came to accept that blowing a deadline would not mean the end of the world, or the end of my career.”
September 11 changed the world forever. It also changed the world of “The Boondocks,” providing its creator with a newfound sensibility and making the strip more confrontational.
The regular characters were temporarily replaced at one point by “The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon,” featuring a talking American flag and a patriotic ribbon. But not everyone was laughing. Editors at several newspapers thought that the nation was still too raw to appreciate a sarcastic swipe at patriotism. Several papers refused to run them.
McGruder grew even more radical and critical of Bush and the government. The cartoonist counts the period as one of his best, and believes it was award worthy. Universal Press Syndicate nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize.
“I wasn’t even a finalist,” McGruder says. “I care little about awards, but I felt I deserved it. Other political cartoonists were saying how good my work was. It was a remarkable point in history, and it was really frustrating.
“That was my window, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get another opportunity to shine like that. That’s why getting the NAACP Image Award made up for it.”
In 2002, McGruder was to receive the Chairman’s Award, the civil rights organization’s highest honor. But even that was bittersweet due to another honoree--National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. had just invaded Afghanistan, and Rice had become one of McGruder’s chief nemeses. The two were to be feted at the same ceremony.
McGruder used the occasion to bite the hand that honored him.
“It was a delicate situation,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘How is that for crazy?’ I started doing strips about the Image Awards honoring her.”
The cartoonist says he contacted NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, “and told him I would have to address it in the strip, making fun of how they could honor her, but I wouldn’t be inappropriate. But I had to not be hypocritical. I had to say something.”
He would get his chance--in a way even he didn’t anticipate.
At the ceremony, McGruder, who favors casual dress, was sitting in the front row of the Universal Amphitheatre in a suit--nervous and uptight. It was one of his first appearances at a ceremony that would be on national television.
But poise returned during his speech. “I’m not exactly sure what the NAACP was trying to start when they put me and Condoleezza Rice in the same row,” he quipped, rubbing his chin. He then went into his real message. He said he created “The Boondocks” as “a radical black voice that the U.S. government could not kill.” He said he didn’t like the president, and he didn’t like the war. He said, “If they decide to take me out, someone else can write for Huey, and his voice will go on.” Near the end of his address, he told the audience to challenge what “they” tell you, “because they are lying.”
The speech drew applause but also caused a bit of a stir in the audience. Some said afterward they thought McGruder went too far, especially in Rice’s presence, and had been a bit ungracious in his speech.
After the show, he was talking with a friend when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Rice’s smiling face.
“I did not want to meet her, but there she was,” McGruder says.
The crowd watched as the two engaged in hushed conversation. When they parted a few minutes there, some attendees applauded: “They thought we had a nice little exchange.”
So what was said? McGruder is still a little uncomfortable discussing the meeting.
“She asked if she could be drawn into the strip,” he finally says. “It was an indication of how little I mean to her. She couldn’t have cared less about what I had said about her. She’s not scared of me. I’m scared of her. I am not a threat to Condoleezza Rice. What I really wanted to do was call her ‘murderer’ to her face.”
He still will not reveal precisely what he said to Rice, “but it was done in a clever way,” he says. McGruder made even more of an impression with his acceptance speech.
“I had to say something,” he insists.
One person in attendance that night was Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman.
“I was unaware of the strip at that time,” she says. “I thought his statements were so cool, so wild. I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out more about this guy.’ I called him up, and it turns out we had a lot in common. We both grew up in Columbia.
“He wasn’t ready to do anything in terms of ‘The Boondocks’ at that time, but it was the beginning of our creative relationship.”
Rice got her wish--to a certain extent. In the following week’s strip, Huey speculated that the real reason she was honored was because NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume was not really Kweisi Mfume, but an evil twin cloned from strands of the real Mfume’s hair.
As it turned out, McGruder was just getting started on Rice. Last October, Huey and Riley said they needed to find a boyfriend for Rice because, “if she had a man in her life, she wouldn’t be so hellbent on destroying the world.” The story line ran for a couple of weeks as the boys considered a list of candidates, including Elder, Ward Connerly and Montel Williams.
The Washington Post pulled the first week of strips, and Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. explained in a statement: “ ‘The Boondocks’ strips in question commented on the private life of the national security advisor and its relationship to her official duties in ways that violated our standards for taste, fairness and invasion of privacy.”
“It’s a mystery to me,” he says with amusement. “Of all the stuff I’ve done on her, I thought this was really tame. And kinda cute.”
Another Rice-flavored stir erupted in December during a Washington, D.C., dinner marking the 138th anniversary of The Nation magazine, which a few years before had put Huey on the cover. Referring to their NAACP Awards conversation, McGruder told the audience that he had called Rice “a murderer to her face.” (Rice’s office did not return phone calls regarding McGruder.) He drew boos when he proclaimed that Democrats had to be meaner if they wanted to take back the White House.
In January, on the syndicated TV show “America’s Black Forum,” McGruder repeated his Rice denouncement, causing some on the panel, including syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams, to take issue: “I can’t get over the fact you labeled Miss Rice a murderer,” he said.
McGruder calmly replied: “She’s a murderer because I believe she’s a murderer.”
Defining his confrontational comments, McGruder says: “I’ve always been aware that I have an opportunity to say things that nobody else is saying, or is afraid to say. And I don’t want to waste a single opportunity.”
McGruder should be exhausted. It is early March, and he has just arrived in New York from a trip to Asia. But there is no trace of fatigue in his voice.
“What I’ve seen is spectacular,” he says, describing his visit to the studio that is doing the animation for the TV pilot.
McGruder and Hudlin have very specific ideas about how “The Boondocks” will look and feel on television. The style will be anime, a genre favored by many in the hip-hop generation.
They both are being meticulous about every detail. Endless casting and recasting sessions have been held for the voices of Huey, Riley and Grandpa. Because of the nine-month gap between script and finished animation, the show will not have the topical humor of the strip. But McGruder insists it will be edgy, and “most of all, it will be funny.”
Outside of Comedy Central, Fox, which airs “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” would seem like the perfect spot for “The Boondocks.” But Fox is also where “The PJs,” an animated series set in a housing project, failed to catch on, while catching fire for some of its depictions. McGruder is not expecting the animated “Boondocks” to be controversial.
McGruder, however, has decided to tone down his outspokenness and focus on his franchise. As “The Boondocks” moves uptown to Hollywood, McGruder feels it’s time to cool out, at least for a while.
“The grand experiment of ‘The Boondocks’ was to take on radical politics and make it cute,” the cartoonist says. “I was able to package it as mainstream. At a certain point, when we live in a certain time where there are ramifications for saying things, I’m finding myself in a different position. Now I’m being judged. Until this show is picked up, it’s time for me to take it down. I don’t take back anything I’ve said. But strategically it’s time to stop, at least for now. Theoretically, it could hurt the show. And I can do more with the show on the air than if it is off the air.”
Plus, he adds, there are those rumors about White House calls to studios or networks to express concerns about a project, and the project’s sudden disappearance.
“Right now, I want to err on the side of caution,” he says with a slight laugh.
As Huey might say: Yo, Aaron, is The Man putting you under his thumb?
“If it gets on the air, I’ll reevaluate things,” he says. “And if it doesn’t get on the air, I’ll reevaluate things.”
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