What to do with Aaron McGruder? He's funny, he's smart, he loves to pull off political scabs in his syndicated comic strip, "The Boondocks."
Daily newspapers in the United States take turns pulling the cartoon because it's not "factual" (hello, it's a cartoon), or just because it's nasty. The New Yorker noted, in a 2004 profile,
that "a dozen editors had already expelled the [strip] for good; still others had relocated McGruder to the op-ed page."
Remember the series that called U.S. Secretary of State (then the prez's national security adviser) Condoleezza Rice a lezzie? "Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn't be so hell-bent to destroy it," said one character, with another agreeing: "Condoleezza's just lonely and bitter." McGruder's denied the she's-bad-cuz-she's-a-dyke angle, but is it any wonder women readers hated that one?
Here's the dialogue from today's "The Boondocks" (Granddad has bought an earring):
Little Huey: "Granddad, supposedly only 'certain kinds of men' have their right ear pierced."
Granddad: "Well, the guy at the jewelry store had his right ear pierced, and he didn't seem like a 'certain kind of man.'"
A voice from outside the frame: "Granddad! The jeweler is on the phone! He wants to know if you're up for dinner!"
Granddad: "Tell him I'll call him back."
Little Huey: "I wouldn't."
Is this a hint of homophobia? A suggestion for avoiding an awkward moment? Or is granddad going out on a date? This one made me think hard about how to interpret it. Unlike many Boondocks strips, it leaves much out.
And that's a good thing. People rarely understand that: they don't like having to puzzle through what a punch line really means -- it makes them uncomfortable. Just as they don't like the harsher McGruder strips: People also don't like raw anger -- it makes them uncomfortable. That discomfort is what makes me love "The Boondocks."
ADDENDUM: From The New Yorker profile, a quick recap of the history of blacks in the funnies: "It wasn’t until 1965, with Morrie Turner's 'Wee Pals,'
that the mainstream press carried a syndicated cartoon strip by a black man, with recurring -- and respectably human -- black characters. And it took the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, to spark real national distribution for the strip. That same year, Charles Schulz gave Charlie Brown a black friend, Franklin, and Brumsic Brandon, Jr., started 'Luther,'
which was named after Dr. King. 'Luther' was set in the ghetto, and Brandon said that his intention was to 'tell it like it is.' In the strip, which ran until 1986, Brandon introduced characters with names like Oreo and Hardcore, but he dealt only sparingly with race relations.
"By the late nineties, when McGruder was starting out, there were still just two widely read comic strips being drawn by blacks: 'Curtis,'
by Ray Billingsley, and 'Jump Start,'
a decidedly bourgeois feature, by Robb Armstrong. 'The Boondocks,' with its dreadlocks and manga influences, looked immediately different from these and everything else in the newspaper. Today, thanks in no small part to McGruder's accelerated success, the typical comics page offers at least a modest degree of diversity. There is a strip called 'La Cucaracha,'
with mostly Latino characters, which began in 2001 and runs in about fifty papers. And there are more new black-themed strips enjoying minor distribution, like 'Candorville'