New comic is touching a nerve

Controversy: Columbia artist's unflinching takes on race draw criticism, but they keep people reading `Boondocks.'

July 05, 1999|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,SUN STAFF

The harsh words of critics, angry e-mails, nasty letters -- nothing seems to be able to unwrap Aaron McGruder's fingers from around the pen he uses to create not only cartoons, but controversy.

McGruder, of Columbia, is the creator of "The Boondocks," a new comic strip about two black kids from Chicago, Huey and Riley, who move far from their urban element into a predominantly white suburb. In the 2 1/2 months the strip has been on newspaper comics pages -- including The Sun's -- 24-year-old McGruder has endured a lifetime's worth of criticism.

"The Boondocks," in syndication since mid-April, has drawn fire for its racial humor and references to hip-hop and gangsterism. Some have taken offense at Huey's "Klanwatch" crusade, in which he inspects the neighborhood for evidence of Ku Klux Klan activity. Others have been offended by what they say is the comic's stereotyping of blacks as rap music junkies and gangster wannabes.

For the most part, McGruder is unmoved by all the uproar. "Some people," he says, "don't understand satire."

He says the comic is not meant to offend anyone.

"I write the comics so they're funny for me," he says. Otherwise, he says, "you get into bending and shaping the comic to the whims of other people, and an artist shouldn't do that."

He acknowledges that he tries to keep the comedy of "The Boondocks" edgy. He thinks that is what keeps people reading, and given the number of complaints, "even the angry people make a point to read every day," he suggests.

Not that he's dismissed every complaint. After the Colorado shooting massacre, some people criticized his use of guns in the comic, and McGruder removed many references to firearms.

According to Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes "The Boondocks," critics of the comic are far outnumbered by fans. The comic appears in 185 daily and Sunday papers -- more than when it started -- and has been dropped by only three newspapers.

McGruder says he realizes that as a new comic, "The Boondocks" would be on a probation period with newspapers for a while in any case, so what critics might consider "really bad stuff" has had to wait. But he warned: "We're going to keep pushing buttons."

At his home in Columbia, McGruder says he's received letters and e-mails of complaint from readers, but says he's not constantly harassed. "People don't throw things at me when I walk out of my house," he says.

Plenty of opinions have been thrown his way, though. In a letter to The Sun, Bruce Barnett of Baltimore said the comic "is not funny, educational or uplifting. It is not appropriate for a comic page read by children."

Michael Birnbaum of Baltimore wrote, "I find `The Boondocks' to be highly degrading and insulting to an entire segment of the population. It appears to me that its mission is to destroy any progress that has been made in eliminating stereotypical and defamatory connotations about African-Americans."

Frank Katz, 60, of Baltimore, disagrees. He says McGruder is "bringing out issues that need to be talked about. White people don't want to talk about anything at all dealing with racism."

In his career in social work at the Baltimore Veterans Association Medical Center, Katz says, "I do a lot of things here with white supremacy as a mental health issue, and I think McGruder is right on target with the strip. I think he's a genius."

Whatever people might think of "The Boondocks," McGruder wants to set one thing straight. Though he was born in Chicago and then moved to suburban Columbia, much like the characters in the strip, it is "not meant to be autobiographical."

"People get that very wrong," he says. "I moved out of Chicago when I was a few months old. I keep telling people that."

The controversy certainly hasn't dampened McGruder's enthusiasm. In fact, he's considering a move to Los Angeles to develop an animated version of "The Boondocks" for television.

While he can't say much about the possible series, he did say it wouldn't resemble another animated series featuring black characters that's created its own controversy: Eddie Murphy's "The PJs" on Fox. "I can say wholeheartedly, it will be nothing like the `PJs,' " he says.

In the meantime, McGruder says he'll try to take the criticism in stride, and he seems to have the mindset necessary to survive in the spotlight. People may love or hate his work, he says, but as long as they continue reading it, "I get paid regardless."

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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