Since the mid-'90s discontinuation of The Far Side, Outland, and Calvin And Hobbes (themselves holdovers from the '80s), the world of comic strips has seemed pretty dull. One person changing that is Aaron McGruder, whose strip The Boondocks made its debut last spring in more than 150 papers, a nearly unprecedented number for a launch. Set in the suburbs, The Boondocks follows the lives of several children, primarily two brothers transplanted from South Chicago to live with their grandfather. One, Huey Freeman, is a deeply opinionated Afrocentrist; the other, Riley "Escobar" Freeman, is a posturing would-be gangsta. From his strip's debut in daily papers, McGruder—whose work had previously appeared in The Source and the college paper of his alma mater, the University of Maryland—already seemed to have hit his stride, finding the right combination of winning characters, effective gags, and storylines that didn't shy away from racial issues and other political material. This latter facet served as the initial focus of most of the attention directed at The Boondocks (it landed the strip on some papers' editorial pages), but McGruder hopes, and The Boondocks' continued quality suggests, that audiences will find more to like. So far, McGruder has taken on everything from the identity problems of biracial children to his disappointment in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, to the hot button issue of lawn-mowing. Currently developing an animated version of The Boondocks with director Reginald Hudlin in addition to turning out his strip, McGruder recently took some time to talk to The Onion.
The Onion: How are things going?
Aaron McGruder: I just did another all-nighter and sent in another week of strips. I'm pretty exhausted.
O: Do you always end up pulling all-nighters when you're doing the strip?
AM: Yeah, but I need to stop.
O: You reach a certain age and you just can't do it anymore.
AM: And I've been doing it for the last six or seven weeks. Unfortunately, the way my deadlines are set up, I end up having to do two all-nighters back to back, which is like 40 to 50 hours non-stop.
O: How far in advance do you do your strips?
AM: I'm supposed to be six weeks ahead. Right now, I'm about two weeks ahead.
O: If it were up to you, would The Boondocks run on the comics page or the editorial page?
AM: Comics page. I think any cartoonist wants their strip on the comics page. But I don't make a big deal about where it runs, mostly because it's totally out of my hands. If they run it on the editorial page, they're still paying for it and people can still read it. I don't even worry about it.
O: It seemed kind of strange to me that at one point there was a week's worth of strips about a grandfather trying to get his grandson to mow the lawn on the editorial page.
AM: Well, you know me, I racialize lawn-mowing, so… [Laughs.] It does become silly after a while. The fact is that the strip is not Doonesbury. I think it's a bit broader in scope. Even if it's not as good as Doonesbury, at least I don't think it's strictly politics every day. I question it being on the editorial page, but it's not my call.
O: How much do you think race is a factor in that?
AM: Well, I think they're responding to their readership. They could very easily cancel the strip, and if this is what they feel they have to do to keep the strip and still have a good relationship with their readers, that's fine. I think it's probably unnecessary, but it's their paper and their call to make.
O: Were you surprised it had such a big launch?
AM: I was pretty surprised. We weren't expecting to launch bigger than anyone ever.
O: It was the biggest launch ever?
AM: It was either the first or second biggest launch in the history of comic strips.
O: What were you anticipating?
AM: About 30 papers. That's what I was told would be a good number.
O: Your drawing style is heavily influenced by anime. What about that appeals to you?
AM: It's a better type of art for animation. I designed the characters that way because I wanted it to be animated one day, and I knew that was the direction I wanted to go way back then.
O: Why do you think more American cartoonists aren't attracted to anime?
AM: I think more of an influence is showing up in comic books. And I think you're gradually going to see more anime… It's already growing in popularity, but I think it's going to continue to do so. In terms of comic strips, the art isn't really as important as the writing anyway.
O: How is the animated version shaping up?
AM: Right now we're in talks with a bunch of different studios and trying to figure out the direction we want to take with it, whether we want to do television or feature films.
O: How did you come to work with Reginald Hudlin?
AM: We met because we have the same lawyer. I'm a big fan of Reg's work and he's really into comics, so it seemed like a pretty good match. He's the only black director who's ever done a major animated film [1992's Bebe's Kids]. It's a good match: We've been friends now for almost two years and we work well together.
O: Garry Trudeau is clearly an influence and someone you readily mention. Who else would count among your influences?
AM: Berke Breathed [Bloom County] and Bill Watterson [Calvin And Hobbes]. And, of course, Charles Schulz [Peanuts].
O: Bloom County was the one that immediately sprang to mind when I first saw The Boondocks.
AM: Yeah, the strip is really heavily influenced by Bloom County. I just can't help it.
O: You can look at Bloom County as sort of the next step from what Peanuts was doing in using kids to deal with adult topics.
AM: Bloom County fell right in between Doonesbury and Peanuts, I think. It was really heavily influenced by Doonesbury, but he did do the kids thing, even though… I think his kids had totally adult personalities. I kind of walk the line. I think they're kind of part kid, part adult. His kids were fully mature. It was a great strip.
O: It has to be difficult to use kids to deal with adult material.
AM: Yes and no. I think it engages people more. I think everyone sort of lets their guard down when kids are involved, even if we know what they're getting into. They still don't look at it the same. It's just a different way to package it.
O: You're back in The Source now.
AM: I will be.
O: You can kind of do different things there, I would imagine.
AM: It's the same strip, but the subject matter is a lot broader. I can do things I couldn't do in newspapers.
O: Like dealing with kids, you have to walk a fine line dealing with racial issues: On one hand, things like The PJs and Booty Call get accused of negative stereotyping, while on the other you can be accused of playing it too safe. How do you deal with that?
AM: You do whatever you think is funny, and the syndicate comes in and raises a flag when they think something is going to cause cancellations. Then ultimately it's my call whether or not to go ahead with it. If it gets soft or whatever, it doesn't really bother me. I've never wanted to do controversy for its own sake. As long as it's funny… Sometimes you just want to do stories that develop the characters that don't necessarily make people mad. What I don't want is for controversy to be the gimmick of the strip. That would play itself out pretty quick. I did the first six weeks, and then I started sort of trying to go in different directions. I did not want the strip to get dull and cliched and predictable this early on. Sometimes it's just not going to be controversial at all, and people will have to accept that.
O: What do you think is the least valid criticism that's been directed at your strip so far?
AM: I find them all to be totally without merit, except when people complain about the font. The font's pretty bad. Other than that, I find them all to be baseless. Even when the uproar about the strip was at its height about a month or so ago, I just don't know how many people are angry. Because that mail doesn't come to me; it goes to the newspaper.
O: Lucky you.
AM: I know. I think a lot of it was just shock. Even the perception of the strip becoming soft, I really don't think it's that as much as that people are no longer shocked by it. It was such a big deal when it first came out that these racial issues were being discussed so frankly, and I think in a very short amount of time people realized that the world didn't end and the strip's still there. It's less shocking to people. It's the same content; it's just not brand-new anymore. Which is fine. I'm glad people are getting accustomed to it.
O: Will there be any new characters soon?
AM: There are some new characters on the way. I've just been lazy bringing them in.
O: You're probably sick of talking about this, but you're a big Star Wars fan and you didn't like The Phantom Menace very much.
AM: No, I didn't.
O: Have you softened any on that?
AM: No. It's bad. It's almost one of those things I honestly don't like to think about very much, because there's always that pain when you drive by a movie theater and it's playing The Phantom Menace. And you think, "I should still be seeing this movie, like, right now." I should still be dying to go to the theater and see this thing for the 58th time. It's just not a good movie, and I'm hearing all this stuff about Episode II, and I refuse to be excited by it.
O: Do you think the series can be redeemed?
AM: It could easily be redeemed. Let's face it, Jedi sucked, so Lucas is allowed one goof out of three. But I don't think it will be, unless he were to hand the movies over to somebody else. I think he's changed too much. His whole perspective on filmmaking has just flipped 180 degrees, not only in terms of his target audience and his target age, but in the very simple philosophy of telling a story and throwing the effects in the background and not letting it interfere with the progress of the movie. I think the biggest flaw of The Phantom Menace is that it really just moves forward so you can see what Industrial Light & Magic can pull off. I remember seeing interviews with Lucas way back in the '70s when he pointed out that they had spent all this time and money building sets that would only be shown for three seconds, because you never stop a movie for a special effect. And he has these whole 30-minute scenes where the movie comes to a dead standstill for a special effect. That whole battle with the Gungans and the battle droids… My take on The Phantom Menace is that the best part of the movie, the only part that really felt like a Star Wars movie, was the lightsaber duel at the end, which was clearly the least expensive sequence in the movie. If he could have given just 10 or 20 minutes more of that, it would have made all the difference in the world.
O: I thought it would have been a good thing if George Lucas had actually made some more movies in between and not just focused all his attention on Star Wars for all those years. You look at something like American Graffiti, and that's a great movie.
AM: I think he could have used the practice. He should have either just kept making movies or had the sense to hand it over to somebody else. As good as the original Star Wars was, Irwin Kershner did a better job with The Empire Strikes Back.
O: I liked The Phantom Menace more than you did. I liked it enough to recommend it, but I think your criticisms are valid, especially when I hear Lucas talking about what he wants to do for the special edition of The Phantom Menace in 20 years.
AM: That's when you know his mind is not in the right place. A lack of effects was certainly not a problem with this one the way it was, I can say arguably, with the original Star Wars. I can see why he would want to go back and make some changes. I don't agree with the changes he made, but I can understand. The issue with The Phantom Menace is the acting, the story, and all that type of stuff. I think about a good half-hour of it was good. I like the stuff on Coruscant. I liked the battle sequence at the end. I think the pod race could have been good if it didn't have those annoying announcers that robbed the scene of any intensity.
O: That was really strange.
AM: It wasn't strange. He made a movie totally without any type of threat or sense of danger, except when Darth Maul gets on the scene. But other than that, the movie has no antagonism. It has no bad guy. They're just sort of wandering around. Even, for example, when the Trade Federation comes in and takes over Naboo, you don't actually see anyone being tortured. You don't actually feel like this is a dangerous situation. It's really a movie without a villain until Maul comes on for all of two minutes. That's a problem. Even in the pod race, where you could have had some suspense or some tension where Anakin might crash and die, anywhere it might build intensity, it's robbed by these ridiculous announcers, who are not only silly, but who remove the fantasy element of it, like you're watching ABC's Wide World Of Sports.
O: In the other movies, there was never that elbow in the shoulder saying, "Hey, it's just like Earth. They've got announcers here, too."
AM: Honestly, that was the case in Return Of The Jedi.
O: There was that awful moment where Chewbacca lets out a Tarzan yell.
AM: Yeah, the Tarzan yell, and I believe there was some contemporary lingo. But this one was way over-the-top with it.
O: Did you see any good movies this summer?
AM: [Pauses.] I want to say yes. I like Mystery Men. I thought it was a cute story, and I'm a big fan of Ben Stiller. South Park was good. I liked what they did in terms of taking it way over the top with the profanity but still having the message there, which I think was a pretty solid message about the hypocrisy of some people. I thought American Pie had its moments.
O: Were you afraid when you dissed LL Cool J in the one strip that it was going to lead to a Canibus-style feud with him?
AM: No one feuds with me. I'm nobody. Nobody cares about what I say. People don't even read the strip.
O: That's not true.
AM: I don't worry about that at all. What is he going to do? I don't even know how one would respond to that type of thing.
O: He could make a song.
AM: He could make a song saying, "I hate The Boondocks." Great. Then people might know what The Boondocks is. Please. There is no such thing as bad press. If LL wants to dedicate a whole album to me, that would be fantastic.
O: Do you not like LL? Was that just for the sake of a gag?
AM: I liked LL back in the day. I think he's kind of stiff and corny now. I never thought he should act.
O: Well, he's not very good.
AM: It's just like Ice Cube. He was good in Friday, but I don't really need to see Ice Cube in a movie.
O: I have a friend who claims to be tired of rap music, that it's all the same, but the one song he's latched on to is the Deep Blue Sea theme, which is just lame.
AM: It's really bad. I think that's actually what made me do that strip, when I saw that video.
O: Did you see the movie?
O: He spends half the movie talking to a parrot. It's very strange.
AM: I saw him in the last Halloween movie, and that was enough for me. That was one of the worst movies I've ever seen.
O: You got a Dolemite reference into daily newspapers, and I have to congratulate you on that, but are you afraid things like that will fly over readers' heads?
AM: I'm pretty confident that they'll fly over a lot of their heads, but it needs to be done. I put a Mobb Deep reference in there. There's a White Shadow reference in recently. I don't do it so often that the strip is incomprehensible to the average reader. I just do it every now and then.
O: Do you feel that most strips dumb it down for their audiences? I know Ernie Bushmiller [Nancy] used to tell his employees to dumb stuff down to reach the broadest possible audience.
AM: Well, that's up to the creator if they want to go that route. This industry is just a big shoulder-shrug. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what the hell's going on. They tell you that if you're too controversial you're not going to sell, but I think controversy really sold this strip. There are all these papers, and, like, one person, who's not even a powerful person, picks on a whim which strips get to go and which strips don't. And it's really just each of those individuals' personal choice. I don't think there's really any rhyme or reason or pattern to it. I don't think you can really sit back and say, "Okay, this is the direction I need to take the strip in order to sell more papers." I don't think it's possible. It's really a crapshoot, so I don't worry about it.
O: Your strip is the first time in a long time that I've been excited about a comic strip. Is there anything out there that you like?
AM: Um, no. Honestly, this is really bad: I don't read the newspaper. I should. There aren't a lot of entertaining things going on anywhere. Newspapers, television, movies. Most of it's all really bad. My cynicism quotient just went way up after Star Wars. I have no faith in popular culture. No, I take that back. Sifl And Olly on MTV was absolutely brilliant. It's canceled now.
O: Where do you look to find entertainment?
AM: I've been trying to work. I work, so I don't look for entertainment. I don't watch television. I go to very few movies. The comic strips I read… I generally just go back and read Calvin And Hobbes or something that's already been out. There are very few places to go. Even music sucks. The only CDs I'm buying are old CDs, and the only music I'm listening to is stuff that was out five to ten years ago.
O: What have you been listening to?
AM: I'm still hoping beyond hope that hip hop corrects itself. But I doubt it. When I listen to hip hop, I listen to old hip hop. Hip hop sucks. Most R&B sucks. It's tough right now to find music that I actually like.
O: What do you think is wrong with hip hop?
AM: That's a whole other discussion. There's certainly a lack of creativity. The problem isn't just content, but an artlessness that has actually become profitable, so there is lots of it. It's just bad and getting worse. A friend of mine was saying that the problem with hip hop is not necessarily Puffy and Master P and all that stuff; it's that there isn't a balance to it. That's all you get. And there needs to be a balance. It needs to open up a bit. Other people need to start getting some exposure and some rotation on MTV and on the radio. We are looking at a very narrow type of rap music that's dominated the industry and turned people off.
O: There's kind of a strangeness at the other end of things, too. When Lauryn Hill got all those Grammy nominations—and I like that album a lot—there was kind of a strange attitude in the media where, "Now hip hop is legitimate because there's a best-selling album."
AM: Well, that's always been the case. Black art always needs validation of some type. That's nothing new. But, yeah, okay, now it's on Time, so now it's official that hip hop has taken over music. Hip hop took over music a long time ago. That's some stuff that the intelligent among us learned not to pay attention to a long, long time ago.