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He's Gotta Fight the Powers That Be

Aaron McGruder's In-Your-Face Cartoon Strip, "The Boondocks," Takes No Prisoners--Black or White. How Did This Nice Young Man From the Suburbs Get So Mad?

April 25, 2004|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer.

"Aaron McGruder graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in Afro-American studies. Or was it African-American studies? I don't know--it was some ol' Black stuff, that much is definite. He has been a syndicated cartoonist since 1999, when 'The Boondocks' first launched in newspapers around the country. He has since moved to Los Angeles, put a couple books out, been on TV a bunch of times--you know the usual. 'He's controversial.' 'He got an Image Award.' Blah, blah, blah. Nobody cares. When it's all said and done, his life just isn't that interesting.

"Aaron is a Gemini."

-- "About the Author" note written by Aaron McGruder from "The Boondocks" collection, "A Right to Be Hostile."

*

The angriest black man in America sits in his living room, far from relaxed. As usual, he is engaged in battle.

As the sun disappears and the room grows darker, Aaron McGruder hunkers down on a plush couch that almost swallows his slight frame. The combative creator of "The Boondocks" comic strip is taking on his latest opponent, temporarily putting aside his usual targets--President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Puff Daddy, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Justin Timberlake, the BET and UPN networks, flag-wavers, black movies such as "My Baby's Daddy," and the war in Iraq.

The cartoonist, writer, producer, unofficial prophet of the hip-hop generation is fighting a cold. And at this moment, on a chilly late winter evening, the cold is kicking his behind.

"I'm OK, I'm OK," says the warrior, who has little appetite but is forcing himself to snack. "Just trying to do too much, got run-down. It will be all right."

It's a battle the 29-year-old can't afford to lose. In a few days, McGruder will fly to Korea to oversee animated footage for a TV pilot based on his edgy comic strip about two black brothers from Chicago who reluctantly move to the suburbs with their gruff grandfather. The strip is syndicated in about 300 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, making it one of the country's more popular syndicated strips. "A Right to Be Hostile," a "Boondocks" collection from its first five years, was a recent bestseller.

There has never been a comic strip in American newspapers quite like "The Boondocks"--a blunt, critical remix of race relations, pop culture icons, black politics, rappers and racists. The strip mirrors much of McGruder's perspective about current affairs, as seen through the eyes of the militant 10-year-old Huey and the gangsta-wannabe Riley, who is "8-ish."

With his once-fashionably unkempt Afro now trimmed to a smoother shortness that highlights his subtly handsome features, McGruder may look like a young scholar more at home in the library than on the front lines of political discourse. But his low-key demeanor hides a passionate, plain-spoken activist who is seldom at a loss for words--particularly words that bite the powers that be. His college lectures often sell out, filled with fans who come to hear humorous commentary but wind up hearing an artist consumed by conspiracy theories and concern for his country.

And woe to the unsuspecting person who approaches McGruder at a party to challenge his views.

"I'm ready to fight outside work," he says. "If someone wants to come up and start a political conversation with me, it can quickly turn into an argument. People don't understand--a lot of this [expletive] is not funny to me."

If humor masks the pain of the comedian, then satire masks the indignation of the political cartoonist. But in the case of Aaron McGruder, it's not much of a disguise. Unlike his heroes, Garry Trudeau--whose once-radical "Doonesbury" lefties have lost their edge to middle age--and Berkeley Breathed--whose "Bloom County" has a playful, absurdist tinge--McGruder's "Boondocks" is transparently cynical rage, filtered through an African American prism. It's no coincidence that one of the strip's protagonists shares a name with former Black Panther firebrand Huey Newton.

Just as hip-hop music, fashion and attitude dominate pop culture, McGruder's Afrocentric strip is read by cultural cognoscenti of all colors. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore wrote the foreword to "A Right to Be Hostile." Bill Maher frequently invites the cartoonist for his "Real Time" HBO discussion fest. Comedian Chris Rock featured projected images of Huey and Riley before each show on his recent tour.

And all this from a nice young man who grew up in Columbia, a middle-class Maryland suburb, with his stay-at-home mother, his father, who works for the National Transportation Safety Board, and an older brother, Dedric. Though the McGruder boys grew up in a suburban setting that mirrors Huey and Riley's, McGruder says politics "was not a big deal in our house," and he maintains his strip is not autobiographical.

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