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Strip Mining

The Boondocks' Aaron McGruder and Liberty Meadows' Frank Cho Take the Funny Pages in New Directions

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Liberty Meadows' Frank Cho
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Aaron McGruder draws The Boondocks

By Tom Scocca and Vincent Williams | Posted 2/9/2000

There's a common truism, not entirely accurate, that time does not exist on the daily comics pages. Things do stay the same, mostly, and that sameness is a large part of the comics' appeal. Dagwood burst out the door this morning, late for work, as on a thousand other mornings; Hagar the Horrible is drinking again. The 22nd Phantom leaves the mark of his skull-ring on the chins of Third World villains, just like his daddy and his granddaddy did before him. We read them years ago on our parents' living-room rugs with a glass of milk. And, God willing, we will read them tomorrow morning on our own rugs, with a cup of coffee. *

But time impinges, as time must. New strips appear and old ones drop off, artists tinker with their styles, gags about gas shortages or the Macarena run their course. And now--now, not next month or last July--this: In December, Charles Schulz, diagnosed with cancer, stopped drawing Peanuts. Syndicated cartoonists work four weeks in advance on their weekday strips and seven weeks ahead for Sundays. So Schulz's backlog of dailies ran out last month, and this Sunday, Feb. 13, the final installment of Peanuts appears.

Peanuts, perhaps above all other strips, has defined and existed in that eternal present tense we expect from the comics page. It has had one author, working alone, for its entire history. The characters have aged and changed, but almost imperceptibly--in 49 years, Linus Van Pelt has advanced from crawling infancy only into grade school.

It was this timelessness that newspapers were counting on when they decided to replace Peanuts with Peanuts reruns, old strips from 1974. It's not a seamless transition: The willful Rerun Van Pelt, the source of most of the strip's energy in 1999, is suddenly a frightened toddler again, clinging to his mother's bike. And the drawings themselves are reduced--the old strips were done in a wider format than the recent ones, so they have to be radically shrunk to fit today's comics page.

The tiny, old Peanuts reminds us that the peaceful constancy of the funny pages is an illusion. What looks, at first, like two bountiful pages of cartoons in The Sun is really the tattered remains of at least three different comics sections, winnowed and shrunken and crammed together into the city's only surviving daily paper. Dagwood and Hagar are refugees from the News-American; Peanuts ran in The Evening Sun.

Still, amid the shrinkage and mortality, there are a few new artists taking up the pen. Two of the most prominent are Maryland-bred: Aaron McGruder and Frank Cho. McGruder, 25, is the creator of The Boondocks, which debuted last April in one of the biggest comic-strip launches ever: more than 150 papers, including The Sun and The Washington Post. Cho, 28, is the author of the 3-year-old Liberty Meadows, which appears in the Post and 40-odd other papers.

Both McGruder and Cho developed versions of their strips in The Diamondback, the student-run daily paper at the University of Maryland, College Park. Both are comic-book fans; both are particularly fond of the late Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County. But their strips take very different approaches.

Like Peanuts, The Boondocks is self-contained, verbal, and character-driven. Unlike Peanuts, it's overtly political, telling the story of two African-American brothers who move with their grandfather from the city to the suburbs. (McGruder himself grew up in Columbia.) Militant, Afro-ed Huey Freeman and his gangsta-wannabe little brother Riley clash with each other, and with the people around them, over issues from lawn-mowing to pop music to racial identity.

The strip has already won McGruder fame and notoriety; he's been written up in People and publicly berated by Robert L. Johnson, chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, for Huey's anti-BET comments. Late last year, McGruder moved from his parents' house in Columbia to an apartment in Los Angeles, where he is working on an animation deal.

Liberty Meadows comes from a different, more parodic tradition, one influenced by the Mad magazine of the '50s. It's set in a sanctuary for troubled animals--there is a drinking, chain-smoking pig; a hypochondriac frog; a former circus bear--presided over by a nebbishy veterinarian named Frank and a buxom animal psychologist named Brandy, who is rendered in throbbing pinup style. Much of the humor is slapstick and self-referential--characters crash through panel walls, figures from other comic strips put in cameos, and the cartoonist himself shows up, in the guise of a chimp.

Cho was raised on comic books (the only daily strips he read growing up, he says, were "the big three": Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side). He started doing strips in high school in Beltsville, then continued through Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. While earning his bachelor's degree in nursing, he drove to College Park on weekends to deliver Liberty Meadows' immediate ancestor, University2, to The Diamondback. In 1994 he was chosen the best college cartoonist of the year by the media company Scripps-Howard.

On the occasion of Peanuts' demise, we talked with the two up-and-comers--about Charles Schulz's influence; their inspirations, likes, and dislikes; and bringing politics, sexuality, and racial issues into the black-and-(mostly)-white world of the funnies. Aaron McGruder was interviewed by Vincent Williams; Frank Cho was interviewed by Tom Scocca.

City Paper: So, what were your influences?

Aaron McGruder: Anime, Bloom County . . . I'm a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes. Of course, Peanuts.

CP: Did you get anything in particular from each strip?

AM: Well, just the sense of humor from Bloom County, and Calvin and Hobbes is just the best comic strip ever. And Peanuts--Peanuts transcends the form. My first exposure, as a small child, to comics was through the Peanuts cartoons.

CP: What do you think about Charles Schulz's retirement? How are you handling that?

AM: Whew . . . it's deep, you know? When I first found out I was going to be syndicated, one of the things that really hit me was that I was going to be in the comic pages with Peanuts. Even if Boondocks only ran for one day, I wanted to say, "We ran with Peanuts." The first time I saw the Sunday Washington Post with Boondocks on the same page as Peanuts, it was like a dream come true. With him gone . . . it's like the end of an era.

CP: True, true--and Peanuts isn't the only one. I just saw in The Comics Journal that Lynn Johnston is talking about wrapping up For Better or For Worse.

AM: Yeah, I know. It's not going to be for a couple of years, but still. First it was Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, then it was The Far Side. Now Peanuts and Lynn Johnston. And I wonder how long Doonesbury is going to last.

CP: I've seen Boondocks compared to Doonesbury a couple of times. Do you think that's an accurate parallel?

AM: Not at all. I don't think that's fair to Garry Trudeau. I'm just starting out. You can't compare someone who's been doing this for 30 years with someone who's been doing it for eight months.

CP: Do you think the comics page is dying?

AM: I don't know. We're losing talent faster than we're replacing it. That's not good. I don't know if the form will survive, honestly.

CP: Why do you think the talent pool is shrinking?

AM: A couple of reasons. This is a strange job. The combination of talents that you need to be a daily cartoonist is weird. And we are weirdos. Charles Schultz has this really dark streak that comes out in Peanuts. In that [Comics Journal] article, Lynn Johnston talks about dealing with depression. [Calvin and Hobbes creator] Bill Watterson is up in a cabin somewhere. And I have my own head stuff. Doing this day in and day out is hard.

CP: And it seems like you're getting more and more cookie-cutter stuff. One of the things that makes Boondocks so good is it's so original. What do you think the comics page needs?

AM: I can't really answer that. I don't know what they need because I don't know what the syndicate gets.

CP: What's it like working for a syndicate?

AM: It's cool. It's immediate exposure. I'm satisfied with the equity I have. I'm happy.

CP: So how did you get hooked up with United Press Syndicate?

AM: It wasn't on purpose. It was a gig. I was doing [the strip] for The Diamondback and I just submitted it. And it just kind of went from there.

CP: What made you want to do a comic strip in the first place?

AM: Because they don't give out television shows. I just want to tell stories, and this is what I'm using to tell them. Strips are great, but cartoons are limiting. I'm not necessarily married to the medium.

CP: Are you looking to eventually leave the strip aspect?

AM: Not at all. Don't get me wrong; I love the strip. You can say things here that you can't say in other venues. There's a level of subversion innate in comic strips that you can't get other places.

CP: Yeah, there's something twisted about seeing [hip-hop group] Black Moon and Majestic 12 [conspiracy-theory] references on the same page as Cathy.

AM: Right! It's fun doing all those gratuitous references in there.

CP: Do you ever have any problem with your editor?

AM: Well, I never really talk to editors. The papers get the completed cartoon and they either run it or not. I go through the syndicate, and so far they trust me.

CP: Have you ever had a strip dropped?

AM: Well, I hear some papers didn't like the strips about Santa Claus. [A holiday series of strips cast Santa as part of a vast conspiracy involving the Trilateral Commission, Majestic 12, and George Bush.]

CP: I guess some people are sensitive about linking St. Nick with a Trilateral Commission-level conspiracy.

AM: Go figure.

CP: Is it fair to say that some stuff gets under the radar because maybe the syndicate doesn't know what you're talking about? Specifically, I'm wondering if they would know about "CP time" ["colored-people time"] or some references to Black Moon.

AM: Yeah, well, you know, they trust me on stuff like that. I'll say, "Don't worry, this is funny," and they let me roll with it. In fact, the worst thing that has happened is that I'll put something in and my editor will say, "Aaron, if you put this, X number of papers will drop you."

CP: Does that affect what appears in the strip?

AM: No, because I'm in more papers than I was in the beginning. For every paper that may drop the strip, others will pick it up. And I have to be true to the strip.

CP: OK, switching gears, we're interviewing Frank Cho too. What do you think of Liberty Meadows?

AM: I keep tabs on it. I don't read it every day. It's a good strip. Frank's a hell of an artist. I do wonder how much his syndicate inhibits him, though.

CP: What do you read?

AM: I read [books of] old Calvin and Hobbes and old Bloom County strips. I like Zits. It has really good art. I catch Doonesbury when I can. I still don't get it sometimes, though. Non Sequitur is cool.

CP: Why do you think people get so worked up over Boondocks?

AM: I don't think people were ready to read the type of things I'm writing on the comics page. I'm coming from black America. I'm not here to do comics for comics' sake. I'm not a big-time illustrator. I use the space for a new type of humor and for black people.

Huey and Jazmine [a mixed-race schoolmate of Huey's], are the heart of the strip. Their discussions on what it means to be black in America drives Boondocks. The two of them coming to grips with identity and defining themselves is the core.

CP: Ironically, some of your biggest critics come from the African-American community.

AM: Yeah . . . I know. I think the biggest problem is that, as a people, we can't decide on how we want to be depicted, so people have a problem with any depiction.

CP: It's the "dirty laundry" argument.

AM: Right. But what people don't understand is that there is no dirty laundry. People are like, "You shouldn't say that in front of white people," but there's no venue where white people wouldn't hear it. They watch BET, they read The Source. Black people act like there's somewhere that only we would see; that doesn't exist.

Look, I love black people, but I'm not out to over-romanticize them. I don't know how long I'll be able to talk to 50 million people every day, so I'm going to say what I want to say. People who are down should stand up and say something about the negativity in our culture.

CP: Some of your critics say that your strip buys into a lot of the stereotypes that you're talking about, specifically in the case of the character Riley.

AM: The problem is that a lot of us don't have much experience with satire and irony because we've been inundated with simplistic entertainment from every angle. I created Riley specifically to comment on the whole wannabe-gangsta, materialistic culture. A lot of people, period, don't understand. Critical thinkers understand what I'm trying to do with the Riley character. I can't do anything about it if people don't get it.

And then, there's a lot of hypocrisy with those critics too. People who hate Riley need to be talking about BET and the way black people are depicted on there. They need to be criticizing Tupac and DMX and the stuff they say in their music. They need to be calling 92.3 [WERQ-FM] and complaining about what they play. But they don't. Why does that stuff get a pass?

CP: Does it bother you that some black people don't like Boondocks?

AM: Again, there's nothing I can do about that. You know, Frances Cress Welsing [a prominent African-American psychologist who has theorized that blacks are genetically superior to whites because of their higher level of melanin, which produces skin pigmentation] sent me a card that said "You're One in a Million," and she told me to keep up the good work. Now, if I was doing something wrong and hurtful towards black people, do you think Dr. Welsing would have sent that? Man, when I got that card, I was like, "I'm the blackest person in America!" Smart people get it. Notice I said "smart," not "college-educated." Smart. I can't help anyone else.

City Paper: Who gave you the best college cartoonist award?

Frank Cho: Scripps-Howard. They gave me the Charles Schulz Plaque for college cartoonist of the year--which is kind of ironic. Charles Schulz almost ended my career before it even started. When I was a sophomore in college, I did a little parody strip of Charlie Brown getting stuck in a kite-eating tree. I had one of my characters help him down by chopping down the tree, and then the tree fell on Charlie Brown. It was kind of a crude joke. And then next thing I know, I received a letter from Charles Schulz's law firm saying that they would take legal action if I repeat it. I was like 19. Scared the crap out of me. I was debating whether or not to continue doing the strip. And then next thing I know, I won the award.

CP: So what do you make of the ending of Peanuts?

FC: Actually, I'm very impressed by his run. I mean, 50 years. And unlike a lot of the other cartoonists, who as soon as they hit it pretty big hire assistants and writers and artists and inkers and whatever, Charles Schulz did everything himself. I admire his drive and his longevity.

CP: Do you see yourself going at it for that long?

FC: Jesus, no. I signed a 15-year contract with Creators Syndicate. I'm, like, doing my third year. After the 15th year, I think that's it. To be honest with you, I'm not sure if I'll last 10 years. Doing a daily strip is just torture. You have a daily deadline, and there's no backup.

CP: Do you picture yourself ever hiring a factory staff?

FC: No. Doing the strip is very personal to me. Although it's pretty funny--as soon as I became syndicated, I started getting all these letters from professional gag writers. They send me batches of their jokes and their card. I don't know how they got hold of my address. And they're horrendous. It's really bad. This one guy was nothing but puns, really bad puns. He's been working as a professional gag writer for over 40 years.

CP: It seems that a lot of the other people who've tried to fly solo like Schulz have ended up burning out or taking a sabbatical--Bill Watterson, Garry Trudeau.

FC: There are a couple of syndicated cartoonists I know of who have reached that 50-year mark or close to it. That guy who does Mark Trail, he's been doing it for over 50 years. Lynn Johnston, For Better or For Worse--whose strip I absolutely adore--she's been doing it for 25, 30 years now, close to it.

CP: What is it about For Better or For Worse?

FC: The writing is just outstanding. I don't know how she does it. One day it's a comedy, and yet has kind of a serious tone to it. It kind of reminds me a lot of Family Ties. And Lynn Johnston's artwork is absolutely amazing too. She has a nice fluid line, and those details--enough details to tell a story, but not enough details to clutter it up. She is so consistent. I think she is the most underrated cartoonist.

CP: Are there any other cartoonists out there now . . .

FC: I read The Piranha Club by Bud Grace. His strip is just . . . what's the word? Ugly humor. All of his people are grotesque, and his humor is so zany. I read Mutts, which has a nice, quiet ring to it. Having a dog as a pet, you kind of relate to it. And people are surprised when I tell them I enjoy Blondie. I don't know what it is. I just like the strip. There's this one strip that I've just found on the Internet, 9 Chickweed Lane. He's not in too many papers that I know of. It's about three generations of women, the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter. It tells a story very well. And the artwork is just fantastic.

CP: So what out there don't you like?

FC: Actually, a majority of the strips out there--well, it's just I don't read it. [Cho leafs through a Washington Post comics section.] Every now and then I read this strip, Wiley's strip [Non Sequitur]. That's pretty funny. Doonesbury, I went back and reread a lot of his early stuff from the '70s, and those are just absolutely hilarious. I can't stand Cathy.

CP: Why's that?

FC: Everything that I believe in, basically. Bad art and bad writing. Sally Forth I like every now and then because, again, it's a little slice of life. I read Mark Trail for the wrong reasons.

CP: What's your reason?

FC: Because it's so mind-numbingly boring that it's funny.

CP: What do you think of The Boondocks?

FC: No comment. I was at [the University of] Maryland. When I graduated, I think he took over my spot. No comment.

CP: What's your feeling on the politics of the comics page, or the lack of politics?

FC: Two things I know that are pretty much a guarantee. The features editors, they really don't necessarily want good strips. They want a strip that will not offend anyone. They also have a herd mentality. If a strip is doing well and all these other newspapers are picking it up, they will pick it up without even looking at it. Like Dilbert. Overnight he gained hundreds of papers. He was the hot strip.

CP: On the Web, you have a list of censored strips. How often do you get in trouble?

FC: For quite a while, it was almost once a week. Right from the get-go, when I first turned in the first five weeks of the strip, right before the launch, most came back with little Post-It notes stuck to Brandy saying "reduce breasts," "reduce buttocks."

CP: So did you reduce the buttocks and breasts?

FC: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I had to, because it was the president of the syndicate who told me to "reduce breasts," "reduce buttocks." Back when I first started out, I was very timid. Now I argue with them, and they usually just leave me alone.

They've left me alone for about a month now, pretty much. They haven't censored anything major. Although, recently my features editor had a complaint about some of the artwork. Some of the women are looking a little bit too sexy for her tastes. Also, I found out most of the features editors are women, which explains why Cathy is in over 1,500 papers.

CP: It seems like you get accused of being a perv a lot.

FC: Name a cartoonist who isn't a pervert. Jeez, I don't know. My wife has no problems with it. I even get fan letters from women, saying how great Brandy looks. I haven't heard anything, except for one or two letters from a concerned parent. She said drawing Brandy like that is basically setting a goal that her daughter can't reach. So I thought that was kind of interesting. But she's saying, how are we supposed to raise our daughters to be confident individuals? If you read my strip, you'll see that Brandy is the leader of the pack and she always takes charge. She knows everything, she always solves problems.

Do you have any problems with the drawings?

CP: I think because I recognize the style from the old Mad magazines, it makes more sense to me. It is a little jarring at first, because you have what are basically cartoon animals and then all of a sudden you have huge, hyper-realistically rendered breasts.

FC: [Cho reaches for a book from a bookshelf.] This is Li'l Abner. . . . Look at this stuff. I mean, this is classic. And I'm not doing anything worse than this. One picture which kinda--when I first saw this, when I was a kid, it was better than Playboy. Here it is. Bending over--you know.

CP: But there's not a whole lot of sex on the comics page in general.

FC: Have you seen the way Blondie looks? She's got a rack on her. Didn't Beetle Bailey get in trouble, drawing the secretary? Making her too sexy?

CP: That does raise the question, how palatable for children should the comics page be?

FC: R.C. Harvey, the comics scholar and historian, I think he was paraphrasing someone else, but he said this: The daily strip in the weekday paper is for adults, for the working people, and the Sunday page is for the children. You see all these great comics printed large and using bright colors; those are for the kids. So that's the guideline I've been trying to use. The daily strip is usually a continuing storyline, with a lot of mature themes. For the Sunday strip, I like to create these self-contained, not-too-offensive comic strips. Also, pump up the visual.

CP: What do you think it is that makes the strips like Cathy and Garfield so successful?

FC: The most successful strips usually have a kid and a pet. Usually a dog or a cat. So those are two key ingredients. Also, it should revolve around family life. If you have those three ingredients--plus don't be offensive, make it as bland as possible. I'm serious. Look at the most successful strips. If you have a cute kid, a pet, and a family situation, I pretty much guarantee you will be in a lot of papers.

CP: Does your family like the strip?

FC: My family don't understand it. They're from the old country. My mom's still telling me to get a real job. They say, you've got a nursing degree, why don't you go and work in a hospital? And I go, I don't like sick people. I have a career, Ma. I'm drawing cartoons. They don't think a grown man sitting around the house drawing funny animals is an honest living. But God bless them. They support me but they really don't understand it. That's why I went to nursing school, to get my parents off my back. And also, you know, to meet women. And I look good in white.

CP: How important are the comics to the newspapers?

FC: If you read all the polls and statistics, it's always the same. They say, what do you read first in the newspaper? And the majority of them will say the sports page and the comics page. And so what do they do, the newspapers? They colorize the sports page, but the comics page they make smaller and smaller. That doesn't make sense.

The comic strip, when it was first created, was used to draw more readers, which still works. It seems like a lot of newspaper people seem to look down on the comics pages because they think it's beneath their journalistic integrity to have these cartoons, this children's crap sharing space with their columns and stuff like that. So I guess that's why the comic strips have suffered over the decades.

CP: How many people are there in their 20s and early 30s working in the syndicated business?

FC: I only know a couple of people around my age who are working in the syndicated field. See, the comic-strip market is a very weird market. It is the only field where no matter how bad you are, once you've built that name, they will never cancel you or drop you. In baseball, it doesn't matter if you're Babe Ruth--if you can't hit the ball, they will cut you. You're out of there. In the comic-strip field, that is not the case. It doesn't matter how bad you draw or how bad you write. If you were great once, you've got it made. That's one of the reasons why I don't think there are very many new talents coming in. There's no space.

CP: How much do you think what makes a good or a bad strip is a matter of taste, individually, and how much do you think is universal? Do you think a case can be made that Cathy is a good strip?

FC: It's all subjective. Cathy, in my opinion--I'm sure a lot of women would disagree--I think Cathy is one of the worst strips that I've ever come across. It's all a matter of taste. But I think there are certain strips that are universally appealing, such as Calvin and Hobbes. I think Calvin and Hobbes is maybe the greatest strip. One of the top three greatest strips of the century that are universally appealing.

CP: What are the other two?

FC:Pogo, and . . . um . . . probably Prince Valiant. Hal Foster's Prince Valiant, not the one John Cullen Murphy's doing, though he's doing a pretty good job, I think.

CP: Do you aim for that universal?

FC: I don't really aim for it. It's just that I've found out my sense of humor is so mainstream. What I think is funny, other people think is funny. Ninety percent of the population think it's funny. There's always that 10 percent, no matter what you do, they don't like it. And most of them work as features editors.

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