On his MySpace site, Aaron McGruder can claim some 34,000 friends. He lists dozens of favorite musicians, dozens of movies, and a roster of TV shows starting with his own Cartoon Network late-night favorite The Boondocks.
Under "Heroes," he's got nothin'.
This would seem the place to label McGruder, who stops here for a lecture on Sat., Feb. 17, an iconoclast. But the 32-year-old McGruder is more complicated than that.
True, Boondocks began as a daily newspaper comic strip that inspired such controversies as to give Mary Worth nightmares. Its protagonist, Huey Freeman, was a 10-year-old militant leftist black intellectual exiled with his gangster-wannabe younger brother, Riley, from inner-city Chicago to live with their cantankerous grandfather in the leafy suburbs. With its satiric attacks on racism and black popular culture (BET was a favorite target), and post-9/11 whacks at U.S. foreign policy and the Bush White House, the strip was pulled from circulation by several rags; once, the New York Daily News dropped it for a month-and-a-half.
Still, Boondocks was syndicated in about 300 papers when it went on hiatus, in March 2006, a few months after the animated series debuted. In a cable landscape colonized by South Park, The Boondocks couldn't explode like it did on the staid, white comics pages. But season one was controversial enough. One episode imagined Martin Luther King waking from a coma and counseling post-9/11 America to turn the other cheek; for his trouble, he's branded a traitor. Then, after launching a new political party, King publicly excoriates contemporary blacks as "trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing niggers." Critics including the Rev. Al Sharpton decried this portrait of King by McGruder (who writes or co-writes all the show's episodes).
But while McGruder is a provocateur, to say he's irresponsible about it is to prove you're not paying attention. For if Boondocks is funny as hell, season-one episodes (still airing and now out on DVD) tackled a catalog of relevant issues: the destructive fakery of gangsta-rap poseurs; Christmas mythology (with Huey mounting a grade-school holiday production titled "The Adventures of Black Jesus"); reality-TV narcissism; and the health risks of soul food (in "The Itis," an episode that wove in lightning jabs at urban-renewal scams).
Indeed, while Boondocks episodes typically conclude on bitter or ironic notes, McGruder, far from cynical, shows the hallmarks of a reformer. The fantasy King episode even ends with a rousing vision of societal revolution.
So if McGruder embraces controversy -- cheerfully saying "nigger" on Nightline; telling Salon, in December 2001, "We have, essentially, a worthless democracy" -- he's driven more by outrage than by mere iconoclasm. McGruder might not list any heroes (though he did name Huey for Black Panther Huey P. Newton). But he does have a new batch of Boondocks premiering this spring.
An Evening with Aaron McGruder 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 17. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $20-64. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org
- Boondock-ter Aaron McGruder