December 2003

Tom Bernard

fiction

A Right to be Hostile by Aaron McGruder

Eight years on, and I still miss Calvin and Hobbes. Not a morning goes by when I don’t half-expect to see the strip back in its regular place on the comics page of my Boston Globe. Much as I want to see the spiky-haired dickens and his intrepid tiger chum brave one more sledding hill, take one more trip through the Transmogrifier or bedevil Susie Derkins one more time, I’m not just engaging in idle nostalgia. My yearning also reflects the fact that, not to put too fine a point on it, the comics page in today’s Boston Globe -- and, I’d wager, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and hundreds of small-town papers across the country -- sucks.

Granted, there are exceptions both subjective (Adam will never be considered a classic, but we overweight, overcaffeinated stay at home dads gotta stick together, you know?) and qualitative (Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse deserves credit for accomplishing what so few of her funnypage contemporaries even attempt: allowing her characters to age, grow and experience life. It can be melodramatic at times, but what family isn’t?), but by and large the comics I read are outnumbered by the ones I studiously ignore. The majority of comics page offerings reflect the same one-note mentality that plagues so much network television. Minor variations on the themes and situations of the workplace (Wacky coworkers! Incompetent bosses! Annoying customers!) or the family (Wacky neighbors! Incompetent fathers! Annoying kids!) don’t keep me Must See!-ing or TGIF-ing, and they won’t keep me from skipping straight to the crossword.

Author and filmmaker Michael Moore makes much the same point in his introduction to Aaron McGruder’s first Boondocks treasury. He notes that not only is the modern comics page boring, it’s also incredibly homogeneous. The faces and viewpoints, even when adjusted for comedic inflation or deflation, are overwhelmingly white and reflect an overwhelming desire to avoid giving offense. To put it another way: the idiot bosses of America may take umbrage at Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, but here’s the thing: the idiot bosses of America have idiot bosses of their own, meaning they can always find someone to embody the butt of Scott Adams note-perfect but toothless caricature.

Enter Aaron McGruder who is neither white, interested in not giving offense, nor toothless. With The Boondocks, he sets out to make barbecue of the sacred cows of race, class, politics, identity and even the pretensions of self-styled lone voices in the wilderness like himself.

For those of you whose papers may not carry the strip, a brief summary: Huey Freeman’s grandfather moves Huey and his brother Riley (a.k.a. Riley Escobar a.k.a. Riley Bin Laden a.k.a. Yosemite Sam a.k.a. Kevlar Moneyclips a.k.a. Louis Rich) from their home in Chicago to the white suburban enclave of Woodlawn. While Huey and his friend Michael Caesar (a transplant from Brooklyn) bring black power and identity politics to small town America, Riley settles in as the sole representative of the thug life on Timid Deer Lane. Huey bedevils teachers, neighbors, and classmates who embody the American mainstream’s mis- and pre-conceptions about the African American experience, and rails against such popular targets of ridicule as George W. Bush, the War on Terror and the BET network.

Not surprisingly, McGruder’s choice of subject matter gets his strip pulled. He’s not just doing one-note gags about lasagna, or neuroses of single women. He takes a stand. He gives offense. He presets controversial ideas. Less surprisingly, the strip changed dramatically after September 11, 2001. While the rest of the mainstream media rallied ‘round the president and the flag, Huey Freeman continued to buck the conventional wisdom. McGruder’s Thanksgiving, 2001 strip (reprinted in A Right to be Hostile) has Huey offering the following blessing over the turkey, “We are thankful that our leader isn’t the spoiled son of a powerful politician from a wealthy oil family who is supported by religious fundamentalists, operates through clandestine organizations, has no respect for the democratic electoral process, bombs innocents and uses war to deny people their civil liberties.” McGruder won’t win any awards for subtlety with such a broadside, but coming barely two months after the September 11 attacks, The Boondocks was all but alone in resisting the media’s rush to deify George W. Bush’s leadership. Other strips have featured Huey taking on the Patriot Act, the run up to the War in Iraq, and the comparatively benign horrors of Star Wars: Episode II. Then, there is the completely politically incorrect annual “Most Embarrassing Black People” awards ceremony.

Like any overtly political media, The Boondocks seems too entrenched in its point of view to change anyone’s mind. Almost by definition, Aaron McGruder is preaching to the choir, and his message seems unlikely to win him any converts. Fans of George W. Bush’s presidency aren’t likely to find sufficient cause to question their stance in Huey Freeman’s ranting. Similarly, those who share Huey’s perspective are merely going to find their biases reinforced – although often entertainingly – rather than challenged.

Setting aside Huey and McGruder’s geopolitical agenda for a moment, consider the strips that deal directly with the question of race in America. While McGruder’s insights are occasionally uncomfortable, it’s hard to see the supportive response going beyond, “Ha Ha Ha. You know, he’s right: thanks to my comparatively privileged position in life, I’m caught in a cycle of overt and unconscious racism that so informs my outlook as to largely invalidate my kneejerk understanding of civil rights, racial equality and equal opportunity. I suppose I’d better reconsider my assumptions.” The problem with such a response is that a willingness to reevaluate liberal assumptions presupposes that readers liberal assumptions to reevaluate.

Ultimately, The Boondocks plays better on the daily comics page than it does in collected form. A little Huey goes a long way. In three to four panel daily doses, his cynicism and insight are refreshing. Considered in book form, it verges on overkill. More to the point, A Right to be Hostile demonstrates how uneven McGruder’s writing can be. When he’s on, his writing represents first-rate political satire. When he’s not, Huey sounds like a broken record played on a turntable with a worn out needle attached to blown speakers by faulty wires. On the other hand, it’s probably possible to say the same thing about other meditations on our freedom, like, say, The Federalist Papers or Democracy in America.

A Right to be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury by Aaron McGruder
Three Rivers Press
ISBN: 1400048575