ALL around the city, wherever billboards bloom, one has lately seen a drawing of an African American child with a wedge-shaped head and ferociously knitted brows over the words, "I don't mean '*#&%*$' in a disrespectful way." This is to announce that "The Boondocks," Aaron McGruder's socially critical comic strip about "angry black children" living with their grandfather in an upscale, mostly white suburb, is coming to television -- it premieres next Sunday on Cartoon Network, as part of its late-night Adult Swim franchise -- and joining the relatively small cadre of daily comics that have leapt to TV: "Peanuts," "Doonesbury," "Bloom County," "Garfield," "Cathy," "Dilbert" and not so many others.
That "The Boondocks," long considered "dangerous" notwithstanding that it's carried in hundreds of mainstream newspapers, has made it to TV says something not only about the strip's impact but about what's happened to television in the years since Charlie Brown bought that sad little Christmas tree. There is not only a wider market for cartoons, but -- given the way cable TV has created a thirst for the sensational that also drives the content of broadcast TV -- a wider market for cartoons perceived as edgy.
There are cartoons for everyone these days -- for all ages, tastes, levels of sophistication. From its old ghetto of network Saturday mornings and afternoon local TV, animation has become the backbone of three basic cable networks (Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, which also has its Toon Disney spinoff) and a force in the fortunes of Comedy Central, where "South Park" and "Drawn Together" live; MTV, with "Daria" and "Beavis and Butt-head"; and Fox, which over a decade ago helped drive the cartoon revival with the historically conscious Warner Bros.-produced "Tiny Toons," "Animaniacs" and "Pinky and the Brain" and which at times has had only "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" to point to with pride in its prime-time lineup.
It's not so much an animation explosion as it is a continuing accretion of cartoons -- like a growth of colorful kudzu. And much if not most of it is very good indeed, more reliably inventive, witty, lively and fun than what the makers of live-action television offer. Perhaps it's because cartoons are imagined from the ground up and because they're increasingly made by people who actively, even nerdishly love the form and know its history -- and at a time when Flash and other computer animation technologies make it possible to affordably realize sophisticated visual ideas, and at the same time have encouraged a kind of DIY/indie/punk aesthetic that Cartoon Network in particular has embraced.
Given an expanding audience and the myriad possibilities of a form whose very job it is to make the impossible happen, it's no wonder that Cartoon Network has split into several parts: Adult Swim, which retails an aesthetic of sullen mayhem and radical anomie on such shows as "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law," the new "Squidbillies" and "Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil"; the "regular" programming, such as "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends" and the "Miguzi" and "Toonami" action blocs; and the new early morning "Tickle U.," which takes an avowedly noneducational approach to preschool entertainment.
"The Boondocks" is the first Cartoon Network series to be created by an African American and likely the first black cartoon on any channel to exercise, as McGruder titled an anthology of his strips, "A Right to Be Hostile." In one episode, Huey addresses a garden party to which his grandfather has been invited by the man who owns the company that holds the loan on their house: "Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil and the government is lying about 9/11." But the people he wants to provoke only find him adorable. "They're not worried about anything," he says in disgust. "They're rich. No matter what happens, they just keep applauding."
There's a poignancy there that works only because it's drawn, in a style inspired (like the strip itself) by Japanese comics and anime, and paced like a dream. Live actors would overwhelm the moment, turn it sitcomical. (The boys aren't even voiced by children but by actress Regina King.) And Huey is, after all, adorable, in his way -- he's cousin to Charlie Brown and every other grade-school cartoon character given adult eloquence (and anxieties). At the same time King's performance catches the kid in him, which redoubles the poignancy.