Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks is probably one of my all-time favorite comic strips. I love the art, I love the comedy and I especially love the politics. Huey, the strident and righteous young man at the center of the strip is one of those perfect and rare characters who can be spouting off words that you know come right from McGruder’s heart and then turn around and be a complete fool. It’s the ability to juggle that which keeps The Boondocks from turning into Mallard Filmore-style polemic.
If you’re not familiar with the strip – shame on you! Here’s a link to where it appears daily on the web (click here) and here’s a link to the strip’s home page (click here). Finally, click here to buy the first massive compendium, A Right to Be Hostile, which includes McGruder’s ballsy post-9/11 strips.
Now the strip is making the big leap to TV, with a half hour series premiering on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on October 2. So far away! But McGruder came to San Diego Comic Con to show some clips from the show (which I missed, but I understand that the script to the pilot episode contains some of his best material ever) and I had a chance to talk with him for a few minutes on the Con floor, at the Sony booth.
Q: Here at the Con they have prints from The Boondocks for sale, and one of the prints they have is the strip where Huey calls the terrorism hotline and reports Bush and Reagan. That was the one that the Daily News and a couple of other papers wouldn’t run. Are we going to see the same kind of edgy content on the Cartoon Network show, or will the Network not allow that?
Mcgruder: It’s an interesting question because there’s an idea out there that somehow I can do whatever I want on the comics page but television will be more restrictive. The idea that late night cable could be somehow more sanitized than the comics pages is insane, but people aren’t aware of the limitations that are placed on me in the newspaper because I try to work around them. I kind of like to make people think I can say anything, but I actually can’t. There’s so much censoring and self-censoring that goes on just with the strip.
But that said, the kind of topics that we’re dealing with and the kinds of stories we’re allowed to tell are so far beyond what would we ever be able to tackle in the strip just content-wise. The difference is that I can’t do current events, which is what I do in the strip. But it’s OK! The strip is the best strip for newspapers I can do, given those restrictions and given what the medium is. When we did the show for Fox, we did the best Fox sitcom we could do with those restrictions. And now that we’re on Adult Swim, I just think we’re doing the best show. There’s been very, very few limitations put on me creatively. I was surprised.
Q: I love the idea of you working with Fox, though. There’s something funny about that.
McGruder: Well, you know as crazy as it seems it’s not really crazier than me working with the Washington Post or the LA Times or anything like that. That’s what people don’t understand. You make a decision to do something in a certain medium and you make that decision knowing it’s going to involve corporate partners and stuff like that. If I didn’t want that it would have just stayed in my basement. Finding the right partners so that it can be profitable and still be a very sincere piece of art took a long time. It took a long time to get a deal like that, with the right network, so that we could get a show. I’m happy we didn’t go with Fox.
Q: It’s a half hour show, so it will be one story per half hour?
McGruder: One story per half hour.
Q: What’s going to be the general thrust of the show?
McGruder: One thing I didn’t want to have was a standard show. It’s really kind of 15 short stories, and they have a different tone and a different mood. We try to maximize the medium of animation and go places you couldn’t with a sitcom and still have fun.
We see a lot of young Granddad. We flash back to his younger life. He’s had an amazing life. He was in the Civil Rights Movement, he was in WWII as a fighter pilot. We can go back to all of those things and have fun in all those areas, and it’s never been done before. There’s a great sequence where Granddad was sitting on the bus next to Rosa Parks, but he refused to give up his seat first and she got all the credit and he’s still mad to this day.
I’ve been given so much freedom to do anything that the hard part has been breaking down my own barriers, mentally, about what you can and can’t do. I’m pretty happy with the show so far.
Q: How’s this going to affect the strip?
McGruder: The strip is just going to keep going. I just finished writing the first season yesterday, so if we could keep the strip going through that the seasons after – if we’re lucky enough to get them – will be easier. I’m actually not concerned about the strip going away.
Q: You think the Karl Rove stuff is going to stick?
MacGruder: They seem to be completely impervious to harm, so where with anyone else you’d be thinking, “Oh he’s going down,” I just don’t know. I won’t believe it until it happens.
Q: It’s weird because they’re so impervious to harm, it’s a world where the Bush administration is handily re-elected, but it’s also a world where your strip is one of the best known and most popular in America. Now you have a cartoon. What’s going on, is there an underground boiling up?
McGruder: The Boondocks was sold to newspapers in 99. Its first launch is when we picked up 160 of our clients, at the beginning. That was 99, it wasn’t a post September 11 world. I don’t know if it’s any kind of rebellion driving The Boondocks. I think The Boondocks is profitable, and if it wasn’t profitable it wouldn’t exist.
Q: I guess what I’m saying is that is it notable that it’s profitable in a country which we’ve been told is very conservative now?
McGruder: I don’t think the country is conservative. I think the country is polarized, I think we’re split down the middle. I think that the people who are on the political right are for more organized and far more politically active than the people who are on the political left. That hurts us a lot, but it doesn’t mean those people aren’t there. It doesn’t mean they don’t have money to spend. And it doesn’t mean they don’t want entertainment. They’re the reason the Daily Show is so successful. Air America is picking up steam. The left is there, it’s just that the right controls the media, no matter what you say.
That’s not an absolute thing – Turner was willing to put the show on and Sony is willing to pay for it. Too often people talk in absolutes and that’s how we get this confusion. There are a lot of people in this country and it’s a big country, and there are lots of different kinds of people.