Huey Freeman: American Hero
When the terrorist planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, McGruder was not thinking about the next turn in his career path; rather, he was doing what Huey and the other Boondocks kids do a lot of: watching television. "I watched five straight days of television. I was shocked by what happened. But I was also shocked by the simplistic nature of a lot of the commentary--this whole 'good' versus 'evil' analysis that sounded like something from fifth grade. And I started to recognize that this was going to be a defining moment in my career," recalls McGruder, who acknowledges that Huey tends to channel his most passionately held views. "I decided that I was going to risk throwing my career away. I absolutely thought that was the risk I was taking."
Why take the risk?
"The Boondocks is not an alternative weekly strip. This is not a website strip. This is in the Washington Post," he explains. "It just seemed like nobody else was going to say the things that needed to be said in the places where I had an opportunity to raise questions about the war--in newspapers that millions of people read every day."
McGruder is not the only cartoonist upholding the craft's honorable tradition of tweaking the powerful. Despite pressure from many editors to narrow the discourse--because, in the words of Soup to Nutz cartoonist and National Cartoonist Society spokesman Rick Stromoski, "sales and subscriptions are down, and papers are afraid of offending their communities and losing even more readers"--a number of editorial-page cartoonists have poked and prodded more than most mainstream journalists. Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Benson has created a tremendous stir in Phoenix, where his cartoons for the conservative Arizona Republic have attacked "war fever" and mocked superpatriots; angry readers have condemned Benson for what one described as "a vile tirade upon the people of the United States." Kentucky's Joel Pett has wondered aloud whether the antiterrorist cause might be better served by more food drops and fewer bombs. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Tony Auth, the Philadelphia Daily News's Signe Wilkinson and the Sacramento Bee's Rex Babin have savaged the Bush Administration's assaults on civil liberties and decision to rely on military tribunals. And, though far gentler than in his heyday, Trudeau has used his Doonesbury strip--which often appears on editorial pages--to address anti-Arab stereotyping, slack media coverage and the dubious alliances made between the United States and Afghan warlords.
Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki, whose cartoons frequently appear in labor-union publications, have dissected war profiteering by corporations. Ted Rall, who is published in alternative weeklies and a growing number of daily papers, has exposed the excesses of corporate America (one of his cartoons, titled "America's business leaders consider their role in the war," features an executive crowing, "I laid off thousands of people and scored a bailout"); in addition, Rall has filed some of the best war reporting from Afghanistan by an American journalist. And no one has skewered the mindless patriotism of the media better than Dan Perkins, whose Tom Tomorrow strip coined the phrase "We must dismantle our democracy in order to save it."
But while many editorial cartoons are syndicated, none reach the audience that The Boondocks does daily. Thus when Huey started raising a ruckus, a lot of people noticed. One night last fall, when the LA-based cartoonist was visiting his parents in Maryland, McGruder sat down with Mom and Dad to watch a segment on ABC's Nightline portray him as one of America's most controversial commentators. Despite his off-message message, offers keep coming McGruder's way from Hollywood; he's developing an animated version of The Boondocks that's expected to show up as a network series this fall, and he's writing movie scripts--including one about George W. Bush's theft of the 2000 election. "If we can get it made, it will be a miracle," jokes McGruder, who calls Bush "our almost-elected leader." Weighing the continued success of The Boondocks and his Hollywood options against the recent controversy, McGruder says, "I can't say I've suffered. A few papers pulled [the strip] but most of them haven't. And the publicity has just drawn attention to what I'm doing."
Indeed, McGruder wonders why so few successful artists speak out about race, class, war and Bush's court-ordered presidency. "I understand that in a capitalist society, anger at the system is a luxury. But some people are on top of the system. Why don't they speak out?" he asks. "The only time I really get upset is when I see someone like Oprah [Winfrey], who has the money, who has the power, and I think, 'What is holding you back from changing the world, from changing the world in a drastic way?'" Adds McGruder, who has frequently used The Boondocks to criticize African-American celebrities who take the cautious route, "Some of these people clearly decided, at some point, not to take any risks. I can't do that." So Huey Freeman refuses to shut up. "I'm going to stay cynical, resist this bandwagon war," the cartoon character told his pal Caesar in a recent strip. "Sure, my kind may be obsolete. But so what?"
Actually, McGruder says, he doesn't believe Huey's thinking--or his own--to be obsolete, or even all that radical. "I really think that what I am doing with The Boondocks is common sense. It's just that when no one in a position to be heard is speaking out, common sense seems radical," he says, sounding distinctly like Huey as he adds, "How's that for irony: We live in a time when common-sense statements seem radical."