Aaron McGruder’s ‘The Boondocks’ Strip Not Returning to Newspapers

Date: Tuesday, September 26, 2006
By: Jackie Jones, BlackAmericaWeb.com

From the very beginning, Aaron McGruder charted his own path with his irreverent comic strip, “The Boondocks.”

He lampooned everything from the NAACP Image Awards for honoring celebrities who had exhibited questionable judgment in their public behavior to BET founder Bob Johnson and the predominance of booty-shaking videos on his network, and many newspapers became skittish about running the strips when he went on a riff after the U.S. invasion of Iraq about Condoleezza Rice needing a man.

The plot of the strip, which debuted in April 1999, centered on the lives of the Freeman brothers, 10-year-old aspiring political activist Huey and 8-year-old gangsta wannabe Riley, and the boys’ adjustment from living in inner city Chicago to life in an affluent, overwhelmingly white suburb with their grandfather, Robert Freeman.

Edgy and wildly popular, “The Boondocks” spawned popular books and a television cartoon, and McGruder found himself with a ton of work on his plate. After six years—a short run for most cartoonists—he announced he was taking a six-month leave of absence. Then on Monday, Universal Press Syndicate told its 300-plus subscribers of the cartoon they should start looking for something to replace the strip. Papers that still carry “Boondocks” reruns can continue them until Nov. 26, Universal said.

“Although Aaron McGruder has made no statement about retiring or resuming ‘The Boondocks’ for print newspapers ... newspapers should not count on it coming back in the foreseeable future,” Universal’s president Lee Salem said in a release. “Numerous attempts ... to pin McGruder down on a date that the strip would be coming back were unsuccessful.”

In the statement, Salem said McGruder needed to submit his Sunday strips by mid-September to meet newspapers’ deadlines of publishing the strip by the end of October.

Now it appears that just as McGruder was unafraid to push the envelope with his comic strip, he may be willing to risk burning some bridges behind him.

The Washington Post cited industry sources who said that McGruder’s editor at Universal flew to Los Angeles and spent a couple of days trying, apparently unsuccessfully, to get McGruder to return at the end of the six-month leave.

“I do think actions speak for themselves,” Amy Lago, comics editor for the Washington Post Writers Group, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

“It’s sort of giving newspapers the back of his hand,” Lago said. “He can’t even return the syndicate’s phone calls? It’s one thing if you step forward and say, ‘I’m going to pursue this dream.’ But to ignore the ones who helped you develop that dream ... he has a client base to answer to.”

Asked if McGruder might genuinely be torn about whether to return to daily cartooning, Lago quickly replied, “I don’t think that at all. I think he knows exactly where his heart lies.”

Salem sounded a more positive note, however, in his statement: “Aaron is a brilliant cartoonist who brought a revolutionary voice to the comic pages. This situation is a far cry from the end of our relationship. Our hope is that we can work with him in the future, either in newspapers or in different media.”

McGruder certainly is not the first cartoonist to take a leave of absence. Garry Trudeau took a break from “Doonesbury” after 12 years; Bill Watterson ended “Calvin and Hobbes” after six years, and Gary Larson dropped “The Far Side” for several years. Often, a cartoonist’s work lives on in books, T-shirts, mugs, calendars and other memorabilia. When Larson and Trudeau returned to cartooning, their fan bases followed.

“The Boondocks” was developed by McGruder while he was still a student at the University of Maryland in 1997, created for the student newspaper, The Diamondback. Universal signed McGruder in 1999, and the strip quickly developed a client base of about 300 daily and Sunday and online clients.

The televised version of “The Boondocks” premiered last October on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, a late-night block of animation targeted to adults. Actress Regina King and comedian John Witherspoon are voices for the show, which has been renewed for another season, according to Universal. The DVD of the first season was released in July.

Newspapers who have carried “The Boondocks” may find a substitute or make other adjustments.

“There might be some papers going with a change in web width (page size) who may not replace the strip,” Lago said. “By and large, though, most will replace it with something.”

She said The Post, for example, is constantly building a client list for cartoons that are waiting for a slot to open up in the newspaper. Asked if editors weigh issues like age, gender, race and other demographics among readers when selecting a comic strip, Lago said, “It would really be nice if things worked out that way, but it’s much more like something really good just lands on your desk, and you use the demographics to sell it.”

For example, she said, The Post recently moved up the launch of “Watch Your Head” by Howard University graduate Cory Thomas, which looks at the lives of six college students at Oliver Otis University, an elite black school. Staff at the fictional university interact with the students and “townies,” local residents who don’t always interact easily with the students in their communities. She said The Post believed the strip would appeal to a wide audience, including fans of “The Boondocks.”

“This might be a good time to hit the syndicates,” said Manny Otiko, whose comic strip, “Ghetto Fabulous,” has been compared in some circles to “The Boondocks” because of its edginess.

“I think every artist hits their wall, so to speak,” Otiko told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “In McGruder’s case, he was doing everything himself—he was drawing the cartoon and doing the television show, although in recent years he hired some help. Maybe he just had a hard time juggling all those things.”

Otiko—whose strip runs on his Web site; in the Florida Courier, a statewide black newspaper; Izania, a black professionals networking site, and on The Juice, an urban e-zine—said he has 180 strips in stock so he can guard against writer’s block.

“I’m still producing stuff as it goes along,” he said, maintaining that he tries to look at more universal areas that affect black life so that he doesn’t risk having a cartoon go stale.

“I did a joke about Attorney General John Ashcroft that’s still works even though he’s no longer attorney general. But I did one about Dick Cheney, and I wonder if this still is going to be applicable since it’s about the shooting incident” in which the vice president accidentally shot a hunting companion, he told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “Sometimes you can tweak the jokes.”

But as a fan and contemporary of McGruder’s, the news that “The Boondocks” might go away permanently wasn’t good news to Otiko.

“I’m kind of disappointed to see that,” he said, “because it was a groundbreaking cartoon in many ways.”

Posted by loni on 09/28 at 12:37 PM in Blogging

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