I’ve always enjoyed reading comic strips. Since I discovered Peanuts as a five year old, I would enthusiasticly get the latest newspapers just to read the latest of my favorite comic strips. In the late 1980s, though, I stopped regularly reading the comics page as my favorite 3 comics retired early: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. So during the following years, I missed some really good comic strips. One of the best comics of the past 10 years is Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks”. Many people have recommended that I read it, so I bought a few months ago the book All The Rage: The Boondocks Past and Present. It’s a great collection of incisive cartoons.
The Boondocks concerns two children, Huey and Riley Freeman, who live with their grandfather in a predominantly white neighborhood. Huey Freeman is named after Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and he frequently makes cynical insights about the latest news while watching t.v. or walking with his friends. His grandfather Robert Jebediah Freeman seems to be Huey’s main counterpoint, a rather conventional thinking senior citizen who frequently takes offence at Huey’s more radical observations. Jazmine DuBois is a biracial girl who seems to like Huey in spite of his coldness to her.
Since The Boondocks debuted in the nation’s major newspapers in April 19, 1999, Aaron McGruder has dealt with many major controversies due to the radical left wing views of the comic strip and its critiques of certain elements of African American culture. His comic has made fun of Whitney Houston, Bill Cosby, and Cuba Gooding Jr., but it saves its most scathing humor for Black Entertainment Television. The special significance of the Boondocks for me has been its willingness to voice a leftwing point of view in a fairly conservative mainstream news media.
The Boondocks is has been one of the strongest voices of dissent in the mainstream newspapers during the Bush years. In the September 2003 edition of the Comics Journal, R.C. Harvey quotes Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Joel Pett:
“There are a lot of newspapers where Aaron’s comic strip is the only consistent voice of dissent…. He’s getting ideas out to people who don’t always read the opinion pages. He’s influencing a lot of young people about how it’s okay to question the government and the media. When you think about it, what he has done since September 11 has just been incredible.”
Boondocks had been one of the most consistent critics of the past Bush administration policies in Iraq, in domestic affairs, and in the economy. McGruder has compared Bush to Hitler, has portrayed Condeleeza Rice as Darth Vader, and named Reagan as an accomplice to terrorism. For these comics, the Boondocks has often been dropped from jittery newspapers. But McGruder’s courage has also elicited much admiration from alternative cartoonists and members of the Left. In the book Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists by Ted Rall, alternative cartoonist Mikhaela B. Reid said of the Boondocks influence on her in the early 2000s:
“The flag started popping up everywhere and I felt like everyone had lost their minds. Altie political cartoons- and my favorite comic strip ‘The Boondocks’- were one of the few things comforting me at the time. I was like ‘Oh, I’m not insane.’ So then and there, I decided I had to start cartooning.”
The Boondock’s dissenting voice also found admiration from the progressive magazine, The Nation. In a January 28, 2002 issue of The Nation, John Nichols writes:
“But the cartoonist knew that the controversy he would stir in the weeks after September 11 would be different from any he had provoked before. What he did not know was that, unlike Trudeau in the Watergate era, he and his preteen characters would challenge a popular President and his policies with little cover from allies in the media or Congress. “Sometimes I do look around and say to myself, ‘Gee, I’m the only one saying some of these things.’ That can make you a little paranoid. But I don’t think that’s a reflection on me so much as it is a reflection on how narrow the discussion has become in most of the media today. The media has become so conglomerated that there really are very few avenues left for people to express dissent,” says McGruder. Well aware that he is a young cartoonist- as opposed to a senator or veteran television commentator- McGruder is the first to note, “I should not be the guy right now. I should not be the one who is standing out here saying, ‘Hold it. this doesn’t make any sense’… There are a lot of people who do this so much better than I do. I just have the distribution and the opportunity.”
Aaron McGruder’s left wing politics was heavily shaped by the Hip Hop culture that he grew up with in the early 1990s. In an interview with R.C. Harvey for the September 2003 Comics Journal:
“My political perspectives as a young adult was shaped by hip hop’s political era, which was 1987 to 1992, roughly when I was in junior high and high school. We had Public Enemy, KRS-One, X-Clan, Brand Nubian and all of those very overtly political groups… It was actually Black Nationalism; it was radical socialism. There was no black leadership supplying these political ideals to the next generation, and what few people there were, a lot of us- discovered that through hip hop.”
I never was a big fan of hip hop, but in reading McGruder’s comments, I realized I missed something important in the hip hop culture. In reading “All the Rage” I see a cartoonist who is very skilled at creating differing personalities and who has the courage to rile some very important feathers. Though I have come late in my admiration of The Boondocks, I see a comic that follows the traditions of dissent of past strips like Pogo, Li’l Abner, Doonesbury, and Bloom County. I read in the book that McGruder has stopped doing his strip to concentrate on The Boondocks television show. It would’ve been interesting to see how Boondocks would’ve handled the Obama administration. Though I think it’s a loss for the newspaper comics page, I’ll have to take some time to watch the television show.