Followers of the comic strip "The Boondocks" were first puzzled and then angry last week. Sometimes this edgy, irreverent and controversial strip, drawn and written by a 29-year-old African American artist, Aaron McGruder, makes some readers mad, and they let the paper know.
But last week it was the many fans of McGruder, and of the clever collection of precocious youngsters he has created, who were mad at The Post when they realized the paper had killed six days of "Boondocks" strips and substituted reruns from 1999. On Monday and Tuesday, no notification ran that these were reruns. Beginning Wednesday, the paper printed a tiny line under the strip that said, "This strip has been previously published." No further explanation was given. The paper's Web site was a bit more forthcoming: "The Washington Post has decided not to publish this week's Boondocks strip. The comic will return to washingtonpost.com Oct. 19."
The Post, from time to time, decides not to publish a particular comic if it is deemed unsuitable for one reason or another. This can be a good thing; guardians of the news sections keep watch over everything, including the comics, that gets published. Some readers call this current act censorship. The Post calls it editing.
The Post, however, has never before killed an entire week's worth of one comic strip. Actually, because the strips dealt with a single theme, it would have made no sense to publish just some of them.
The unpublished strips focus on White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and a scheme cooked up by one of the kids in the strip. The idea is to save the world by getting Rice a boyfriend. "Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn't be so hellbent to destroy the planet," says one of McGruder's rambunctious youngsters. The strip's central character, Huey Freeman, who could be a 12-year-old, thinks this is a great idea and the strip ventures deeper into some touchy territory. McGruder knows this and pokes fun at his own characters, with Huey observing that what he really likes about the idea "is that it isn't the least bit sexist or chauvinistic."
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. comes right to the point: "The Boondocks strips in question commented on the private life of the national security adviser and its relationship to her official duties in ways that violated our standards for taste, fairness and invasion of privacy." As for the lack of an explanation, he says: "We edit all parts of the paper every day, including the comics, and do not usually notify readers about what we are not publishing or why."
McGruder's strip is popular and about 250 newspapers publish it. An editor at Universal Press Syndicate, the distributor for "The Boondocks," says that The Post was the only newspaper to kill this series of strips. There were no calls or complaints about it from other papers, he says.
Once Post readers caught on, and caught up with the strip in other papers and Web sites, plenty of complaints were made -- against the paper. "We are grown-ups out here, not children," wrote one reader. "Pulling Boondocks was an insult to your readers and to Aaron McGruder," wrote another. "Has the Post become so timid as to refuse to run a comic strip that pokes fun at a member of the Bush administration?" another wrote. Many felt The Post was engaging in censorship, and that plenty of other comics and cartoons can be viewed as insulting to a public figure. "The Post has committed the cardinal sin of the humorless," added another. "It failed to recognize satire when it saw it. As the strip makes clear, we're laughing at the guy who suggested finding Condi a guy, not at Condi."
I may need a refresher course in sensitivity training, but I also found the sequence of strips within the bounds of allowable satire. I don't know a thing about Rice's personal life, nor do the characters in the strip, and I think readers understand that. The "Boondocks" characters, and their creator, were being mischievous and irreverent, in their mind's view of the world, about a high-profile public figure, and that seems okay to me.
Registering a close second on the complaint meter last week was the use of what several readers described as a "huge" picture on the front page Wednesday of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad above a headline about his plea that read: "Muhammad: 'Not Guilty.' " Another picture of him was on Page A15 and another on the front page of Style. Some said it was the biggest picture they could remember on the front. They said they were tired of looking at this person and angry at The Post for putting him there so prominently. "The remarkably extensive coverage of the 'sniper' case, followed by the exceptionally large photo, must be just what he wanted," wrote one reader. The Post published an extensive five-part, front-page series of excerpts from a book on the snipers by two Post reporters from Oct. 5-9, and had front-page stories from Sunday through Wednesday last week.