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Comic distortion

'The Boondocks' draws an outcry even before its debut.

November 02, 2005|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

THE automatic weapon African American junior militant Huey Freeman is aiming at the wealthy white banker visiting his grandfather is just a toy. But there's nothing playful about the hidden Huey's steely eye or the message being delivered by the sniper scope's blood-red laser focused on the unsuspecting target's head.

Ten-year-old Huey and his gangsta-wannabe younger brother Riley are trying to fight the powers that be in the suburbs. But the "enemy" -- white folks -- think Huey's black rage is adorable, their surroundings are exasperatingly vanilla. Meanwhile, the boys' grandfather is having "relations" with a scantily clad gold-digging hooker who delights in annihilating Riley in PlayStation combat.

In this idyllic setting then, the kids are not all right. Which is perfectly all right with their creator, cartoonist and provocateur Aaron McGruder.

After several years of development, which included rejections, revisions and a creative divorce, McGruder is poised for the two-dimensional realization of his longtime dream. His hip-hop flavored, politically charged newspaper strip "The Boondocks" becomes animated on Sunday at 11 p.m. as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming.

The half-hour series is a stylized version of the controversial strip syndicated in about 300 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. The comic, with its sharp-edged riffs on politics and popular culture, has become one of the country's most popular syndicated strips, even though some nervous editors have pulled installments they said crossed the line in language and in attacks on the Bush administration.

Like the strip, "The Boondocks" centers on the two brothers from Chicago who reluctantly move to the suburbs with their gruff grandfather. Regina King ("Ray") is the voice of both Huey and Riley, and John Witherspoon ("Friday") is "Granddad" Robert Jebediah Freeman. Other characters include Uncle Ruckus, an African American associate of Granddad who dislikes black people.

Relaxing in his darkened Culver City office decorated with "Star Wars" artifacts, McGruder is characteristically low-key but noticeably upbeat about his creation finally seeing the light of late night. He is thrilled at the show's Korean-drawn anime aesthetic, and believes that the TV show takes the strip to fresher, funnier heights.

He seems just as pleased about the eye-catching promotional billboards around the city featuring the unsmiling Huey and Riley -- an indication of the promotional push Adult Swim is giving to the show in its effort to capture the 18- to 34-year-old audience that have made hits out of not-ready-for-prime-time fare such as "Chappelle's Show," "The Daily Show" and "South Park."

"They're a miracle," says McGruder of the billboards. "However, all of this is just like what I thought it would be. There's been 10 years of buildup for this, thinking what it would be like when the moment arrived. This is as good as it gets for me."

But as the premiere approaches, so is a brewing storm.

Even before the first episode hits living rooms, "The Boondocks" has become the latest in a series of urban-themed comedies to draw fire for what community advocates say is racially offensive humor. Critics are taking issue with the show's liberal use of the N-word, which is said more than 15 times in the pilot episode, and they are planning to take action. Although the word is a staple in the hip-hop culture and rap songs, they charge that it is historically painful and degrading to African Americans, particularly when used in a humorous context.

Concerns may erupt over future installments. One episode, "The Return of the King" in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes out of a 32-year coma and rethinks his "turn the other cheek" philosophy. Producers removed references to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in another episode following her death last week.

The forces behind the show are braced for the opposition. In fact, Turner Broadcasting-owned Adult Swim and Sony Pictures Television are counting on "The Boondocks" to be a hot button. (The series is rated TV-MA, for mature audiences only).

Proclaiming "The Boondocks" as the most expensive series in its four-year history, Adult Swim is positioning the series as the crown jewel of its adult-oriented block, spending an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 an episode and flooding the country's top 10 television markets with an intense promotional campaign utilizing 130 billboards, numerous bus placards and posters at bus shelters and subways. There's even "The Boondocks" coffee sleeves.

Mike Lazzo, senior vice president of Adult Swim, said, " 'The Boondocks' is a show that you're not going to see anywhere else right now. It's in keeping with what we want to do, to find provocative voices and giving them a show."

His inner Huey

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