Syndicate Says 'Boondocks' May Not Return

Aaron McGruder has been involved in a TV project during his leave from the irreverent
Aaron McGruder has been involved in a TV project during his leave from the irreverent "Boondocks." (1999 Photo By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's over for "The Boondocks" comic strip, at least for now. After six years -- a remarkably short run for a strip that found its way into 300-plus newspapers, including The Washington Post -- Universal Press Syndicate told subscribers yesterday they should start looking for someone to replace political/social satirist Aaron McGruder.

McGruder, a Columbia native who in his twenties became the Garry Trudeau of the hip-hop generation, took a sabbatical six months ago to recharge. The syndicate kept checking with him, reminding him that its newspaper clients needed several weeks in order to prepare for his return or his departure.

Apparently, the mind behind young black radicals Huey and Riley Freeman has gone Hollywood, or at least has further hopes of doing so, and has decided he can't devote himself to the grind of a daily strip. His late-night animated show, "The Boondocks," on the Cartoon Network was recently renewed for another season, the first-season DVD is out, and a film is reportedly in the works.

Perhaps for McGruder, whose broad and sometimes outrageous characterizations forced readers to confront racial stereotypes and caused cartoon editors to blanch, the future of the funny papers is in pixels rather than picas.

The cartoonist, 31, did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. A message on his voicemail indicated he was taking some time to "restore his creative juices."

The heavies at Universal are clearly not happy with the way McGruder handled the situation, although they worded their news release carefully.

"Although Aaron McGruder has made no statement about retiring or resuming The Boondocks for print newspapers . . . newspapers should not count on it coming back in the foreseeable future," Universal's president, Lee Salem, said in the release. "Numerous attempts . . . to pin McGruder down on a date that the strip would be coming back were unsuccessful."

According to industry sources, McGruder's editor at Universal, Greg Melvin, flew to Los Angeles recently and spent a couple of days trying to get the cartoonist to abide by the terms of his agreement to return in six months.

"We were getting dozens of phone calls every day from newspapers asking when he was coming back," Salem said in a telephone interview. "It seemed unfair to keep them dangling." He added that if McGruder decides to return, Universal would welcome him back.

McGruder created "The Boondocks" in 1997 for the Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, and was getting nibbles from television types, according to Salem, when Universal signed him in 1999.

The strip came at a time when newspapers were hungry for a hip black cartoonist, and McGruder had attitude to spare. His work either infuriated readers or made them laugh out loud.

He routinely slapped around Black Entertainment Television and its founder, Bob Johnson, for its dependence on booty-shaking videos. His strips after the invasion of Iraq about Condoleezza Rice needing a man were provocative enough that many papers, including The Post, refused to run them.

His apparent departure raises several questions, according to those in the industry. Is he pulling a Dave Chappelle here? The 33-year-old comedian stunned his fans when he bolted last year from his Comedy Central show, ditching a $50 million deal and returning to a stand-up tour onstage.

If McGruder is really a political commentator at heart, will he miss the immediacy of a daily strip? "I'm not going to say a strip carries the same rewards as TV, but you can comment with far more immediacy," Salem said.

And how successful will he be without his daily newspaper base?

Other cartoonists have successfully pursued outside interests, aided in part, says Jake Morrissey, a New York editor who worked with cartoonists at United Media and Universal Press, because "every single day their work was in front of millions of people's eyes."

Some of them also took sabbaticals when at the top of their game -- Garry Trudeau after 12 years penning "Doonesbury" and Bill Watterson after six years with "Calvin and Hobbes"; Gary Larson walked away from "The Far Side" for several years. When they returned, so did their readers.

But there's no guarantee that will happen. Says Morrissey, "When you leave, Americans' attention goes on to something else."

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