Black kids in the `Boondocks'

Comics: A young cartoonist in Columbia has an edgy, new perspective on life, and he's going public with it.

April 19, 1999|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Pint-sized and big-mouthed, 8-year-old Huey Freeman is black, angry and has had it up to here with white people.

He and his family have just moved from inner-city Chicago into a white suburb and, well, let's just say that the adjustment to a life of big lawns and middle-class living has been a bit rough on Huey and little brother Riley lately.

"White people," he tells Riley. "You'll see them everywhere out here." At least they'll be entertaining, Riley replies, trying to look on the bright side.

"Riley," Huey deadpans, "I think you should know that real-life white people are not all as funny as the ones on `Seinfeld.' "

Such is life for Huey and Riley as they struggle with the meaning of it all in "The Boondocks," a comic strip account of a group of city kids who find themselves in the strange world of suburbia. It debuts on comics pages in The Sun and in more than 150 other newspapers today.

Confrontational, hip and definitely hip-hop, "The Boondocks" is the creation of 24-year-old Aaron McGruder, a Columbia resident who is looking to make the issues surrounding racial acceptance and identity tickle-bone funny.

Both Huey (named after former Black Panther Huey P. Newton), the strip's central character, and Riley are brash youngsters obsessed with the "gangsta" imagery of black youth culture. Often dressed in a black watch cap, Riley, cursed with a cutey-pie's face, practices scowling in the mirror to perfect what he calls his "thug mug," trying to look mean in order to maintain his urban roots.

There's Jazmine, an innocent whose mother is white and father is black. Huey, the black nationalist, immediately pegs her as black and gives her a hard time about her white roots. But Cindy, the little blond resident down the street, pegs Jazmine as a white girl who's having a really bad hair day.

Also included in the mix is Caesar, a dreadlocked, fun-loving Brooklyn native who dreams of being a rap emcee, and his sweetheart, Isis.

They all come to life on a drawing board and computer in the bedroom McGruder occupies in his parents' Columbia home. It's the same place he has lived since his family moved to the Howard County suburb just a few years after leaving Chicago.

"This strip wasn't meant to be autobiographical," McGruder says. But the similarities with his own life are there.

Though Columbia is more racially diverse than many big-city suburbs, the majority of its population is white. In the early 1980s, when McGruder was growing up, he was often the only black kid in a sea of white faces.

"I went through my periods," says McGruder. "As a black kid in the suburbs, you had two choices: emphasize your blackness or blend in with the white kids."

Though he didn't feel exactly the same as Huey and the gang, who are desperately clinging to their urban roots, he did feel their isolation.

The cartoonist says that Huey is probably a lot more like him when he was attending the University of Maryland at College Park. Huey, he says, is who he would have been at age 8 if he'd known all the things he knows now: civil rights history, militant philosophies, racial stereotyping.

It was while in college that he started to see urban life in full bloom, as he visited friends who lived in Washington. Those experiences form the basis for much of the urban pop-culture knowledge expressed in the strip.

A hip-hop music fanatic, McGruder wanted to combine his interests in music, art, social and political commentary and love of comic books into a career. In 1993, when he started thinking of launching his own comic strip, he wanted to satirize why many blacks, and some whites, think that the only "real" black people are poor and from the city.

So he set "The Boondocks" in a white neighborhood because that's "where I came from and what I knew."

Luck wasn't on McGruder's side at first. He quit college in 1993 for a year to shop the comic strip around. His work, which he showed to major syndicators, was praised but always deemed "too" something or other.

"Too black. Too edgy. Too college-oriented. Too angry," he recalls.

A few years later, back at College Park and majoring in Afro-American studies, he began cartooning for the Diamondback, the campus newspaper.

Students loved the fresh, funny strip, and the editors at the Diamondback gave him free rein, he says. It allowed him to flesh out his characters while he strived to show that black kids could be just as sophisticated and intelligent and multifaceted as white kids, he says.

McGruder says that one of his challenges has been trying to present black characters in a fresh, new way.

"It is difficult depicting black people," says McGruder. "We are different colors and shades and have a variety of features."

McGruder recalls growing up with cartoons like "Fat Albert." "The characters had over-exaggerated lips and noses, possibly to the point of being offensive," he says.

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