In this consumer-based industry, it can be easy to forget the years of hard work that the people in the business put in. Behind every panel, it takes a skilled writer, artist, inker and colorist to make the product complete. Hush Comics’ weekly article “Respect My Craft” will dive into the history of these comic book greats that will hopefully give a new perspective on how the men and women behind the pen (or stylus) contribute to the collective awesome-ness of comic books, or at least give you a reason to invest in their work.
Name: Aaron McGruder
Profession: Writer & Artist
Notable Work: The Boondocks
“When I pass, speak freely of my shortcomings and my flaws. Learn from them, for I’ll have no ego to injure.” – Aaron McGruder
Before he was the stone that the builder refused, Huey Freeman was just a figment of Aaron McGruder’s imagination. Similar to his characters in “The Boondocks,” McGruder hailed from the South Side of Chicago and moved to a predominantly white town as a young boy. His stay in Columbia, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, gave him a good look at race relationships in America. A young McGruder found his identity through Hip-Hop, Star Wars and comic strips, inspiring him to draw comics.
During his college career at the University of Maryland, McGruder was a cartoonist for a student-run newspaper called The Diamondback, which published the very first “Boondocks” strip in December 1996. Aaron was getting paid more than double what the other cartoonists were being compensated, a whopping $30/strip. The Boondocks began as a campus cartoon strip, and after only a couple issues, sky-rocketed to fame after it appeared in Hip-Hop based magazine, The Source. Soon after, the series was picked up by the Universal Press Syndicate, joining the company of such legendary comics as “Garfield” and “Calvin & Hobbes,” in December of 1998. It was a quick rise to fame, as McGruder was only in his mid-twenties, and a well-deserved one.
McGruder used the characters in “The Boondocks” to create a sort of yin-yang in Black culture: Huey Freeman, the Afro-centric philosopher and freedom fighter (named appropriately after revolutionary Black Panther Huey Newton), as well as Riley Freeman, the radical wannabe-thug, and Grand-dad Freeman, who represents the old-school mentality. With them, McGruder wrote an ensemble cast with various cultural and political backgrounds. Using different relatable social situations, “The Boondocks” painted a hyperbolic, yet accurate, picture of what it’s like for many minorities living in white communities.
McGruder began to publish trade-paperbacks of The Boondocks., the first of which was named Because I Know You Don’t Read the Newspaper. McGruder had begin to focus on writing, and hired artist Jennifer Seng to help with the art in 2003. The series became so popular that, by 2004, over 300 major newspapers nation-wide were publishing “The Boondocks”. One of the aspects that made the series so beloved was McGruder’s tendency to speak freely when it came to socio-political issues.
From 9/11 conspiracy theories that outwardly criticized President Bush to attacking BET (Black Entertainment Television), nobody was safe from being called out. And as “The Boondocks” garnered more and more attention, McGruder got more and more liberal with his messages. Not all agreed with McGruder’s approach to such touchy subjects, though, as many black and white critics felt that he was trying to provoke racial tension instead of commenting on it. It could be that those who were harsh against McGruder just couldn’t understand the satirical nature of his work, but whatever the issue, the controversy just kept getting louder and louder.
After almost a decade of written features, Aaron McGruder began to pitch the idea of an animated television sitcom of The Boondocks. However, the shocking subject material made it difficult for the series to be picked up by network television. Luckily for us, Cartoon Network picked it up in 2005 and put it in their Adult Swim time-slot. This would prove to be a match made in White Heaven, as it gave him the freedom he needed to tell even the most controversial of stories.
Throughout The Boondocks‘ initial three-season run from 2005-2010, McGruder wrote episodes that satirically ripped into everybody: R. Kelly, BET, and even Santa Claus weren’t safe from criticism. Taking up twenty plus minutes per show also allowed McGruder to include a much deeper cast, which consisted of some hilarious guest spots, and was bursting at the seams with social commentary. To boot, a lot of the show’s content was somewhat based off the strip, expanding on funny moments and making them funny episodes. The anime-inspired fight scenes were also amazing, as McGruder clearly had some Samurai Champloo inspiration. More over, what made the series so relatable is that it felt so natural. The character archetypes all interacted how you would expect, but was written so well that you never really knew what crazy thing would happen next.
What I really loved about how McGruder wrote The Boondocks is how it never felt like it had an agenda; it just asked really good questions that made readers/viewers think. We could laugh at the stereotypes or see the sad satire of American culture for what it was – it really depended on how the consumer absorbed the material. To this day, “The Boondocks” comic strip remains the only comic series picked up by the Universal Press Syndicate that has a black creator or a mostly black cast. It’s an award-winning and fan-favorite television show that serves as a cracked mirror for lack & American culture that we know we want to do better than what is portrayed.
For better or worse, after the run of nearly ten years, McGruder’s “Boondocks” has pointed out a lot of the flaws in how mainstream media portrays African-Americans, while criticizing African-Americans for exploiting those flaws. In the same way Dwayne McDuffie used Milestone Media to build up the positive black image, Aaron McGruder used “The Boondocks” to tear down the negative black image. Thus, I can define Aaron McGruder in three words: “Maaaaaan, F*** BET”
Checked out his bibliography and still want more? Check these books out:
BIG news here everybody; it looks as though The Boondocks will be returning for a fourth season, debuting April 21st, 2014, after an almost four-year hiatus.
Birth of A Nation is a graphic novel about what it would be like if East St. Louis (dubbed Blackland) were to secede from the nation. This is “All Black Everything” in it’s truest incarnation. McGruder co-wrote this book along with Reginald Hudlin (Who is the Black Panther? review coming soon!).
McGruder also was on writing duties for Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen. It was a little too Hollywood for my taste, but it’s worth a shot if you’re interested.
How Much Does Hush Comics Love Aaron McGruder?
Aaron McGruder has a special place in my heart. A big part of my late-teens were spent watching and reading The Boondocks. McGruder’s work did more than entertain me; it educated me. His rise to stardom was so quick, the gravity of his accomplishments may slip by casual fans. More importantly, he shared his message with no filter – from the return of Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr. to white privilege to fried chicken shortages, McGruder was never afraid to talk about the serious issues.
Written by Sherif Elkhatib