Aaron McGruder, a 25-year-old cartoonist from Maryland, is shaking up the funnies from coast to coast. He sees his comic strip, "The Boondocks," which made its debut in about 160 newspapers in April, as "intelligent and sophisticated and at the same time biting and very funny." Many readers agree with him. Many others object, dismissing "The Boondocks" as perpetuating stereotypes of black youth as menaces to society.
These reactions were not unexpected at The Post, which a few days before launching "The Boondocks," alerted readers that it would be "a very different new comic strip" that "celebrates the hip-hop culture and boldly explores race relations, tackling issues never before addressed in such a straight-forward -- and, we think, funny -- way on the comics pages." The comic strip, which McGruder sees as a form of satire and social commentary, revolves around two brothers, Huey and Riley Freeman, who have moved with their grandfather from a tough Chicago neighborhood to a "recently desegregated" suburb. How they adjust, their suspicions about the whites they encounter, white reaction to their presence and their interactions with Jazmine, a biracial girl who is conflicted about her identity -- these are among the subjects addressed in "The Boondocks." But McGruder also has taken on "Star Wars," the Internet -- and even the comics.
In one strip Huey warns younger brother Riley to keep away from the Internet when there is no one around to supervise him. Huey: "There's some really dangerous stuff out there." Riley: "Please. You could say that about anything. TV, radio, CDs, video games, comic strips." Huey: "Comic strips? Since when are they dangerous?" Riley: "Since April, I think . . . " McGruder also shines a spotlight on hypocrisy and other human frailties, as when Jazmine gently cares for an earthworm but declares a slug to be "gross." Says Huey: "Hmmm. Selective salvation. You may have a bright future in foreign policy."
At The Post about 24 people from the newsroom and other departments volunteer to screen comics and offer suggestions about what to add and what to drop. " `Boondocks' got really high marks," according to Shirley Carswell, an assistant managing editor responsible for comics. Some of the older screeners were more cautious than were younger adults and even children whose views were solicited, fearing that the comic strip would "stir things up," Carswell said. Moreover, she said they thought that "the characters were very angry and that could become tiresome." Among top editors there was concern that so young a cartoonist might soon run out of material. In the end, however, The Post decided to drop "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" from the daily paper and "Nancy" from the Sunday paper to make room for "The Boondocks."
McGruder's humor is not for everyone. "Some people think it's racist to even discuss race. A strip like mine is bound to make some people mad," he said in an interview. While some readers say the comics should not serve as a forum on race relations, others say it is McGruder's approach to which they object. "I find the strip cynical, offensive, even racist," one reader wrote, adding: "I am white, and I am trying to raise my child in as racism-free an environment as I can. . . . I don't want the Sunday comics to teach him these negative stereotypes." Not just whites have objected; so have some blacks, including a caller who said that he was 84 years old and feared that children might follow Riley's example of attacking girls with a Star Wars-like light saber.
"We are trying to reach young people," Carswell said, "and it definitely reaches young people. It's touching a group of people who normally aren't touched by the newspaper." For that reason, The Post is hanging in there with "The Boondocks." Like other comic strips, however, it is routinely monitored for its subject matter and for reader reaction.