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Comic leaves comfort zone

When I first explained why I was there, laughter shook the walls.

Aaron McGruder, brash author of The Boondocks comic strip, had created a series of six strips based on a curious concept: hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons creating an Apprentice-style reality show dubbed Can a N_-a Get a Job?

I had a simple question: Was this offensive, especially to black folks?

For help figuring this one out, I had turned to the sage minds at my local barbershop, L.A. Clippers in St. Petersburg. Forget about college professors and cultural critics, these were black people who would pick up the daily paper and have to deal with McGruder's vision. I wanted their reaction.

When they first heard the concept, the feedback was immediate, bringing the laughter mentioned earlier. What out-of-work brother hasn't muttered those words once or twice, they said, relishing the idea of seeing black folks get a shot at Trump-level status, if only in a cartoon.

But then they saw the strips, and their attitudes changed.

With his trademark button-pushing style, McGruder had crafted a series of jokes that cut close to the cultural bone: When Simmons announces that tapings start at 9 a.m., most of the contestants quit; watching at home, one fan screams when his favorite character is fired for smoking weed in the boardroom; clips of the show's next episode feature a knife fight between two women and a contestant who would rather sleep in than win a job.

And never mind the stereotypes; according to some experts, this may also be the first time a cartoonist has scripted the word "n_-a" over a week's worth of strips for mainstream newspapers' comics pages. (McGruder used the n-word once before, in an Aug. 12 strip poking fun at a voter registration drive spearheaded by P. Diddy.)

Coming from a white artist, this kind of material would probably earn the creator a swift dismissal and an avalanche of furious criticism for playing on stereotypes black people have worked decades to overcome.

But when such stuff comes from a black, 30-year-old artist who has made a career of tweaking the mainstream, what then?

The consensus at L.A. Clippers: It was still too much.

"You poke fun at that kind of stuff, and it becomes acceptable," said one customer, cringing at the use of the n-word.

"Why's it got to be "n_-a' "? asked a barber. "Can't he just say, "Can a black man get a job?' "

The language was too spicy and the images too stereotypical, said most of the crowd, who weren't regular Boondocks readers.

Knowing the artist was black reduced suspicion that he was simply ridiculing black culture outright, but they still said the strips weren't funny enough to justify the pain. And with trust for local media in short supply, almost no one would allow me to quote him by name.

Except barber Derek Thomas. Looking over McGruder's images, he remembered watching episodes of MTV's Making the Band _ in which hip-hop producer P. Diddy tried assembling a superstar rap group from a bunch of unknowns _ and recalled similar situations.

Why shouldn't somebody poke fun at characters we all know exist in our neighborhoods?

"I didn't think it was funny, but I see cats like this all the time," said Thomas, 32. "The truth hurts. But to me, it's sad. Because we do have some individuals out there who think like that."

Part of the problem, when it comes to McGruder and Boondocks, may be context.

Featuring two black brothers who move from an urban suburb to live with their grandfather in a mostly white neighborhood, Boondocks has drawn praise and criticism for McGruder's ability to fuse searing social commentary with a youthful, hip-hop attitude.

When it debuted in 1999, it was one of the most successful strip debuts in the history of Universal Press Syndicate, home of such mainstream strips as For Better or Worse, Cathy and Ziggy. It now runs in about 300 newspapers across the country.

McGruder knows how to touch a nerve: Past strips criticizing the hedonistic videos on Black Entertainment Television, or suggesting that Condoleezza Rice wouldn't have pushed for the Iraq war if she had a boyfriend, have made waves.

And sometimes the artist doesn't provide much information on just what he's satirizing.

In this week's strips, for example, is he poking fun at viewers who sit through socially degrading reality shows? Is he satirizing hip-hop culture? Or is it a poke at reality shows that showcase the worst aspects of young black culture? Probably all of the above and more.

McGruder, who is struggling mightily to make deadlines for both his comic strip and an upcoming Boondocks TV show on Cartoon Network next year, wasn't available to comment.

But Greg Melvin, the associate editor at Universal Press Syndicate who handles Boondocks, said, "The content is defensible because it's really trenchant satire . . . (making) a point about pop culture, hip-hop culture, and all of that. The best satire is going to offend somebody. And there's nobody else doing humor quite like this on the comics page."

Anticipating client concerns, the syndicator offered newspapers a choice: one version with the middle letters of the n-word dashed out, another version with the entire word replaced by symbols, and an older set of strips from last year on a different subject entirely. The Chicago Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times are among major newspapers that ran the dashed-out version, but the Washington Post chose to substitute the older strip.

"One paper called and said, "Can you asterisk out the "a'? _ weird, hairsplitting stuff," said Melvin, who estimated he heard from "seven or eight" newspapers that planned not to run this week's strips, though other outlets could have decided to use the substitute strips without calling him. "But when satire bites at people's hands, or just bites them, that's when it's most effective."

Audrey McCluskey, an assistant professor of Afro-American studies at Indiana University, said sometimes McGruder's work is less about a coherent message and more about just saying something provocative.

"He goes with his gut feeling . . . and that is the power and the limitation of the strip," said McCluskey, who counts herself as a Boondocks fan. "He says things other people won't say. Sometimes, it's farfetched and without credibility, but sometimes these things need to be said. That's what you get when you get Aaron."

B. Keith Murphy, an associate professor of English at Fort Valley State University in Georgia and an expert on the history of the black image in comics, said most black-centered comics have focused on countering the stereotypes of black people in mainstream strips.

So to see a black-centered strip that occasionally evokes stereotypes the way Boondocks does may seem particularly shocking, Murphy said.

"Sometimes creative people can only see if what they're thinking is close to being right by putting it out there to see the reaction it gets," he said. "But all of McGruder's characters are smart, black, have a voice and are concerned about the world around them. And we need gadflies to constantly goad us about the hard-and-fast worldviews we have."

Such explanations didn't cut it with 18-year-old Lin Fields, a senior at Northeast High School, who looked over McGruder's strips while studying at the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library in St. Petersburg. As an aspiring comic artist himself, he had a tough time accepting the language used, even after learning that the artist was young, black and trying to speak to the hip-hop generation.

"You look at this strip, and what do you think? Some Cracker out there is making fun of us," Fields said to a friend who liked the strips. "I know lots of people use that word when they talk. But when it's written down, it's different."

At the St. Petersburg Times, editors considered pulling the strips (if McGruder hadn't dashed out the n-word in his panels, removal of the strips would have been a certainty). But in the end, management decided to let the artist have his say.

"I'm extremely reluctant to censor an artist just because the work is provocative," wrote Neil Brown, executive editor at the Times, in an e-mailed statement. "If it doesn't cross the line, then I'm comfortable letting readers decide for themselves whether they find the work funny or not."

At first, after digesting myriad opinions, I felt these particular Boondocks strips were less offensive than disappointing _ like seeing a great home run hitter send a pop fly straight to right field.

But I had to admit, there's some subversive pleasure in seeing a young, black artist use the n-word to expose the absurdities of hip-hop culture and reality TV in one swoop.

Like it or not, there really is no one else willing to make these points in quite this way. So, uncomfortable as it may make some to see strips featuring the n-word on the comics page, it seems appropriate here; too bad there are some readers out there who may never truly appreciate the joke.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or