DOES "The Boondocks," a new comic-strip featuring black characters and written and drawn by a black artist, succeed in exploring racial issues -- or is it just racist?
Since the Los Angeles Times introduced the strip April 19, about 250 readers have telephoned or written to comment. Many people passionately criticize it as racist and accuse it of promoting violence and negative stereotypes of blacks. But an almost equal number say the strip portrays their lives accurately and with humor and critically exposes stereotypes. Readers on both sides threaten to cancel their subscriptions if the Times continues to run -- or drops -- it.
"The Boondocks" deals with the everyday lives of several black children who have moved from the inner city to mostly white suburbia. There's Huey, who is a black nationalist with a scholarly bent named after the late Black Panther Huey Newton, his gangsta wannabe younger brother, Riley, and Jazmine, a biracial neighbor struggling with her identity.
The June 4 strip generated the most negative response. It featured a little white girl who was knocked down when Riley hit her on the head with a toy light saber. Standing over her, he says, "See?! You're still alive! This thing is worthless!'
Creator Aaron McGruder makes his case for the strip on his Web site (http: //www.boondocks.net): "I care nothing about tearing down stereotypes . . . I only want to represent truth, inspire thought and make people laugh."
Future strips, however, reflect the controversy and are milder.
The comic strip had an extraordinary launch -- 174 newspapers (including The Sun in Baltimore) in the United States and abroad and 22 Internet sites.
Since then, responding to complaints, one newspaper canceled it, and one moved it off the comics page. Others, including the Times, continue to evaluate it. The question is whether an edgy commentary on race belongs on the comics pages, where the form is caricature. The answer is yes, unless it slips from satire to malice.
Clearly, comic strips strike a nerve. They've become an important arena for social commentary and arguably influence attitudes. Maybe that's what fans of "The Boondocks" most hope for -- and what its opponents most fear.
Narda Zacchino is the readers' representative for the Los Angeles Times for which this was written.