It's a Tuesday afternoon and Aaron McGruder is trying to get some work done. But the phone keeps ringing. Media types -- from small-town newspapers, big-city radio stations, various TV producers -- keep calling. They are clamoring to talk about "The Boondocks," McGruder's comic strip creation that just launched in newspapers around the country.
Finishing an interview, McGruder, 24, hangs up the phone in his parents' Columbia home and rolls his eyes.
"I wonder if that reporter will be able to come up with something besides 'edge' and 'attitude' to describe the strip," he asks aloud, to a reporter, before he resumes drawing.
Okay, "The Boondocks" has point and perspective -- of a sort that one rarely finds on today's mainstream funny pages. The strip's debut in nearly 160 papers last week is one of the most successful in comic strip history.
Featuring four inner-city black kids and a biracial girl trying to get along in the melanin-deprived suburbs, it is a satiric, political comic informed by a hip-hop aesthetic. It aims for a general audience, even if central character Huey R. Freeman, a pint-size radical with a scowl and an Afro, maintains he's blacker than "Richard Roundtree in 'Shaft in Africa.' " It finds humor in white hegemony and black nationalism. It parodies hip-hop's gangsta leanings. And comparisons to "Doonesbury" -- a breakthrough, genre-challenging strip when it debuted in 1970 -- are often invoked.
Still, McGruder, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1997 with a degree in Afro-American studies, knows it's a mercurial business: He remembers when the only phone calls came from friends urging him to hang in there. So while he dutifully gives interview after interview hunched over his drawing board, you've got to believe his central character, and perhaps alter ego, Huey, is off-panel somewhere cautioning, "Don't believe the hype!"
In the bedroom where he grew up McGruder is surrounded by martial arts videos, light-sabers, and Darth Vader action figures. His "Star Wars" sheets are haphazardly turned down and it doesn't look like this Jedi has been out of the house for months. The evidence of his newfound celebrity is casually strewn across the floor: a couple of dozen "Boondocks" posters from Universal Press Syndicate; a letter from a newspaper reporter asking him to sign a strip and send it back because "before you know it, you're going to be incredibly famous."
But he's fairly unaffected. After all, he won't see his first paycheck until June 18. And "the promise of money is not the same as money," McGruder says matter-of-factly.
"Certainly I was moved to see it in the paper," he says. The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun are among the dailies that now carry the strip. "But the notion that you can be dropped at any time has been very much impressed upon me . . . If this thing can last a year and there's a book in it, I'd feel a little more relaxed that I'm not going to have to work at Jiffy Lube."
Like most cartoonists, he toiled in relative obscurity while hoping for a big break. McGruder, who has been drawing for as long as he can remember, has been doing "The Boondocks" since 1996. The strip appeared in the University of Maryland's Diamondback newspaper, then on a couple of online sites and in hip-hop mag The Source. He picked up a following, but couldn't break into newspapers -- no syndicator was willing to take a chance on the strip.
It's a conservative medium, and space on the funny pages is tight. Newspapers typically must drop one strip to make room for another, making it even more difficult for new strips to find a home. Comic syndicates tend to add strips that will appeal to as wide a market as possible.
Some editorial directors told McGruder that although his strip showed promise, they couldn't get past the "confrontational" subject matter. Then, at a National Association of Black Journalists convention in Chicago in 1997, he met Harriet Choice of Universal Press Syndicate.
"I sat in on this meeting of blacks who wanted to be syndicated in comics," Choice recalls. "I was listening and looking and all of a sudden, this young man sitting behind me passes something over my shoulders and here's "The Boondocks." . . . I was absolutely blown away."
The comic was already at the bottom of a stack of strips Universal Press was considering, but the meeting with Choice, and her advocacy, helped put McGruder over the top. Then came strip drafts, conferences with lawyers, and a whirlwind sales tour.
Lee Salem, editorial director for Universal Press -- an executive who usually doesn't make sales calls at newspaper offices -- pounded the pavement with a briefcase full of "The Boondocks." And watched the eyebrows rise. "We heard, 'How are middle-class black readers going to respond to this? Are some of the characters too strident for white readers to take?' " Salem says. "We wanted to try to get them beyond those questions. Our view is this is a very talented cartoonist who has come up with a singular vision."
Most strips gain clients slowly, with 30 or so newspapers considered a good launch. Then, with luck, they pick up momentum. The number of papers that bought "The Boondocks" is nearly unheard of. Some that now carry the strip have their own syndicates, which were among those that initially refused the strip when it came across their desks. It may reflect something of a lemming effect: When edge and diversity are the buzzwords, many editors are too cautious to be first -- but scramble to be second.
So far, according to Universal Press, early newspaper reaction to the strip has been positive. Many newspapers contacted say they are optimistic. "Hip-hop culture is a pretty big part of America," says Greg Moore, managing editor of the Boston Globe, which will begin running the strip soon. "We hope the kind of people you will see at a concert by Lauryn Hill will find the strip interesting and challenging and maddening. And I think that's what you want to have in your newspaper."
The enthusiasm is encouraging, but McGruder isn't ready to move out of his bedroom just yet. Readers have only spent a week in "The Boondocks." And as he knows from experience, anything can happen.
The phone rings. It's Jim Avila from NBC's "Today" show. They want to come to Columbia -- to shoot a day in the life of the country's newest, hippest cartoonist. McGruder shakes his head, and begins to smile.
He calls his mom. "I can't even imagine the kind of housecleaning you're going to want to do for this one," he tells her. Then there are calls to the best friend. The girlfriend. The filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. Hudlin hopes one day to collaborate on a few projects with McGruder.
What would Huey -- who mistrusts the media, derides the Establishment and challenges authority -- say about all the attention?
"I don't know: This is just insane," McGruder says. "I don't even know what I'm going to say," he continues, leaning from his drawing board to once again pick up the phone.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company