On Thanksgiving Day 2001, with the United States in the midst of what polls identify as one of the most popular wars in history and with President Bush's approval ratings hovering around 90 percent, more than 20 million American households opened their daily newspapers to see a little black kid named Huey Freeman leading the pre-turkey prayer.
"Ahem," began the unsmiling youth. "In this time of war against Osama bin Laden and the oppressive Taliban regime, 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. Amen."
In the whole of American media that day, Huey's was certainly the most pointed and, no doubt, the most effective dissent from the patriotism that dare not speak its mind. And it was not the only day when the self-proclaimed "radical scholar" skewered George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Defense Department, dithering Democrats, frenzied flag-wavers and scaremongering television anchors in what since September 11 has been the most biting and consistent critique of the war and its discontents in the nation's mass media.
The creation of 27-year-old cartoonist Aaron McGruder, Huey Freeman appears daily in The Boondocks, a comic strip featured in 250 of America's largest newspapers, including the Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. "There are a lot of newspapers where Aaron's comic strip probably is the only consistent voice of dissent," says Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett, whose editorial-page cartoons for the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader have raised tough questions about the suffering of Afghan civilians and the role the United States has played in spreading terror. "I think that not only is he doing good stuff, the fact that he is on those comics pages makes it important in a way that none of the rest of us could accomplish. He's hooking a whole group of people. He's getting ideas out to people who don't always read the opinion pages. And he's influencing a lot of young people about how it's OK to question their government and the media. When you think about it, what he has done since September 11 has just been incredible."
In recent weeks, McGruder's Huey has grumbled about how it may no longer be legal in John Ashcroft's America to ask whether George W. Bush was actually elected; hiked atop a mountain to yell, "For goodness sake people, it's a recession! Save money this Christmas!"; and repeatedly expressed the view that "Dick Cheney is just plain creepy." And he has listened in disbelief to an "announcement" from the Attorney General that went: "I would like to reassure Congress that my proposed Turban Surveillance Act, which would allow the FBI to covertly plant listening devices in the headgear of suspected terrorists, is in no way meant to single out Arab or Muslim Americans."
At a time when most comedians are still pulling their punchlines, McGruder has gotten plenty of laughs at the expense of the Bush Administration and its policies. But not everyone has been amused. In early October the cartoonist had Huey call the FBI's antiterrorist hotline to report that he had the names of Americans who trained and financed Osama bin Laden. When the FBI agent said that, yes, he wanted the names, Huey began, "All right, let's see, the first one is Reagan. That's R-E-A-G..." This series of strips was pulled from the New York Daily News and Newsday and shuffled off comics pages at other papers. Editors were quick to deny they were censoring The Boondocks, claiming they simply thought McGruder had gotten a little too political. McGruder played the controversy into more laughs. He produced an inane new strip featuring talking patriotic symbols, launching it with a satirical editor's note: "Due to the inappropriate political content of this feature in recent weeks, it is being replaced by 'The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon,' which we hope will help children understand the complexities of current events. United we stand." Ribbon then declares, "Hey, Flagee, there's a lot of evil out there," to which his compatriot replies, "That's right, Ribbon. Good thing America kicks a lot of *@#!"
McGruder, whose cartoon began appearing nationally in April 1999, says he did not set out to make Huey the nation's No. 1 dissenter. Yes, The Boondocks--which recounts the experiences of Huey and his younger brother, Riley, inner-city youths who move with great trepidation to the suburbs--has always been controversial. Bitingly blunt in its examination of race and class issues, The Boondocks has made more waves more often than any nationally syndicated comic strip since Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury characters declared Nixon aides "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" in the Watergate era. "It even got pulled from the Buffalo paper for something involving Santa Claus," recalls McGruder, who grew up listening to rap artists Public Enemy and KRS-One, idolized Berkeley Breathed's politically pointed Bloom County comic strip, took an African-American studies degree from the University of Maryland and started drawing cartoons for the hip-hop magazine The Source.
But the cartoonist knew that the controversy he would stir in the weeks after September 11 would be different from any he had provoked before. What he did not know was that, unlike Trudeau in the Watergate era, he and his preteen characters would challenge a popular President and his policies with little cover from allies in the media or Congress. "Sometimes, I do look around and say to myself, 'Gee, I'm the only one saying some of these things.' That can make you a little paranoid. But I don't think that's a reflection on me so much as it is a reflection on how narrow the discussion has become in most of the media today. The media has become so conglomerated that there really are very few avenues left for people to express dissent," says McGruder. Well aware that he is a young cartoonist--as opposed to a senator or veteran television commentator--McGruder is the first to note, "I should not be the guy right now. I should not be the one who is standing out here saying, 'Hold it. This doesn't make any sense.'... There are a lot of people who do this so much better than I do. I just have the distribution and the opportunity."
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."