On the first day of school in "The Boondocks," Huey R. Freeman, a scowling, pint-size black nationalist, issues a warning to his elementary class. "Don't start none, won't be none. Whoever got beef, I'm breakin' my foot OFF in their behind, Jackie Chan style."

And if you think Huey, who has just moved from Chicago to the way-out suburbs, is an unlikely central character for a comic strip, then wait until you meet his lunch-box-jacking little brother, Riley.

It's just another day in "The Boondocks," brainchild of 23-year-old University of Maryland senior Aaron McGruder. The strip, about the interaction among five transplanted city kids, ran on the Hitlist World Wide Web site last year, and this year in the University of Maryland campus newspaper, the Diamondback. The characters -- including Ceaser, who wears dreadlocks, drives a Big Wheel and hails from Brooklyn; his well-grounded love interest, Isis; and the mixed-race Jazmine, along with the brothers Freeman -- are funny, edgy, hip and vulnerable. Filled with attitude, slang and irreverent humor, the strip won loyal fans among students and faculty.

Now he wants to take it national. But things are a little too edgy in "The Boondocks" to suit the cartoon syndicators. McGruder has submitted "The Boondocks" to seven of the nine major comic strip syndicates, and has gotten some praise and encouragement in return. But six, including the Washington Post Writers Group, have turned him down so far. Too angry, too college-oriented, one syndicator said; too confrontational, said another.

Amy Lago, executive editor for comic art at United Media, says it's a conservative market. "There are complaints among edgier readers or cartoonists who would like to do edgier material that everything on the newspaper comic page is milquetoast. It becomes very difficult {for newspapers} to take chances anymore," Lago says. "There's too much chance that enough readers will complain about the subject matter of the strip and they'll threaten to cancel their subscription."

The real criticism, McGruder believes, is that his strip is too black.

He sits in his room in his parents' Columbia home, back to his drawing board. It's an eclectic place, filled with 20 years' worth of "Star Wars" paraphernalia and posters of his other heavy influences: artists like De La Soul, EPMD and A Tribe Called Quest from the late '80s and early '90s, the so-called "golden age" of hip-hop. "The Boondocks," he explains, is a hip-hop strip.

In 1993, when he got the idea for a strip, rap music had taken a "gangsta" lean that McGruder found destructive and wanted to parody. "Everything in hip-hop was street and ghetto and hard," McGruder says. "I didn't want to be fake. There's always a certain number of black people from the suburbs who really pretend like they're living in the city. It's this notion that you're only truly black if you're from the city and you're poor."

Though he set "The Boondocks" in a white neighborhood, McGruder says he wanted the strip to be mostly about the relationship among the black characters. Take Huey and Jazmine, McGruder says. "Once you have the radical black nationalist, you have to have the confused biracial to play off him."

Huey, who is almost always scowling, is cute but mad. He's also almost always carrying a book. Then there's Riley. Like Nas, the rapper, Riley has just changed his last name to Escobar. "{Riley's} imitating a rapper imitating a Colombian drug lord," says McGruder. "Then there's a certain number of white kids who . . . emulate that. It's all really silly."

McGruder was born in Chicago, and moved to Columbia with his parents when he was 6. He grew up drawing and took his first art class two years ago. In 1993, he took a year off from school to try to become a comic book illustrator. He attended major comic book conventions, had his work critiqued, and practiced to make his drawings more professional. When he wasn't hired, he returned to school, majoring in Afro-American studies. A fan of the politically aware strip "Bloom County" (now defunct) since he was a youngster, McGruder got the idea of doing his own strip.

After nearly 30 strips for the Diamondback, he had about what he needed to try the major syndicates that have a virtual lock on the comics that appear in daily newspapers. From thousands of submissions each year, the syndicators try to find strips that will sell.

McGruder has had promising conversations, including two with Stuart Dodds, editor and general manager of Chronicle Features. Chronicle was the first to syndicate Gary Larson's wildly successful "The Far Side." "It's beautifully drawn," Dodds says of "The Boondocks." "It seemed to me to have what a comic strip should have. Obviously there's a keen racial awareness in it, but he has this wonderful ability to stand back from it and see the humor."

But the strip was eventually rejected. Dodds says he "could not get enough people here at Chronicle Features and at our parent newspaper," the San Francisco Chronicle, "to share my enthusiasm."

"What am I supposed to do when I get letters that say, I love your drawings, I love your characters. Don't change a thing. Sorry we can't run it'?" McGruder says.

Dodds believes that most newspaper editors really do want diversity. In the abstract. "In theory they are looking for certain things to extend their readership, to have younger readers, more women, more Hispanics, more blacks. But when it comes right down to it, they act with the same old cautious habits." Last year, an Emerge magazine article about syndicated black cartoonist Robb Armstrong, who produces the "Jumpstart" strip, reported that there were four syndicated black cartoonists in the country. McGruder says he has since heard of two others and puts the total at fewer at 10, including those who self-syndicate.

A rejection letter from United Media in New York called "The Boondocks" impressive and encouraged McGruder to continue submitting strips, but also said he should "focus on character development as opposed to the unrelieved anger many of these characters exhibit." Diana Loevy, vice president and editorial director at United Media, declined to comment specifically about the strip.

McGruder has also had blanket rejections, like one from the Creators Syndicate in New York, where his work did not pass even the first-round screening process.

According to Frank Cho, a 1996 University of Maryland graduate whose strip, "Liberty Meadows," is syndicated by Creators and runs in nearly 85 papers worldwide, "you have to compromise." Cho's work, which ran in the Diamondback as "University2," often featured voluptuous women in situations that mimicked fraternity stories of sex and drunkenness. It was hugely popular. For "Liberty Meadows," the characters and much of the innuendo is toned down. "I think it's easier trying to break into Fort Knox than trying to break into syndication," Cho says.

McGruder has gotten nibbles. Recording giant BMG has offered him a contract to run "The Boondocks" on its Web site, and Vibe magazine and Universal Press Syndicate are taking a hard look at the strip. At a trip to the National Association of Black Journalists convention last month, McGruder went from table to table showing the strip to editors. There, "The Boondocks" caught the eye of Garry Howard, senior sports editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"If this can't get in the paper, then we should all quit," says Howard.

Stanley Allison, a development and hiring editor for the Los Angeles Times, says that after reading the strip, "you dig these kids, even though Riley is a little gangsta wannabe and poor Jazmine. . . . I know these kids now." Both Allison and Howard are lobbying their papers to run "The Boondocks."

For now, McGruder is in the same room he's been living in for 18 years, preparing for his last semester at Maryland and staring at posters of Darth Vader. "Selling {Huey} out is not an option," he says. But he realizes that he is "dealing with national papers and there is no getting around the fact that there's a lot that I'm not going to be able to say. . . . You fit it to your audience."

For example, McGruder says, Huey can show the humor in black nationalism. "I think that's evolution," he says, "being self-critical, not taking yourself too seriously."

There is a reason, after all, people call them the funny pages. CAPTION: Aaron McGruder at home in Columbia. The 23-year-old University of Maryland senior is trying to go national with his comic strip, "The Boondocks." CAPTION: Too angry, too confrontational, the syndicates say: A "Boondocks" strip. CAPTION: Aaron McGruder with Huey R. Freeman, the central character in "The Boondocks."