Beyond Family Circus


National Journal

by William Powers

Awhile back, newspapers noticed they were losing readers, so they came up with a brilliant solution: be "reader-friendly." The idea was that papers should act more like politicians: tell the public what it wants to hear, strive not to alienate, live by polls and market research. And the readers would come stampeding back.

Of course, no one said it quite this way, but everyone knew this was the game. It was all very modern and Dick Morris. It was also not very smart. America took a look at all those stories about You and Your Concerns taking over their local papers and said, in effect: Spare me. The reader-friendly schtick has been a massive failure and circulations have continued to drift south.

Apparently, it never occurred to newspaper publishers and editors that readers might want their newspapers to be less friendly: that one of the most appealing things about newspapers is how infuriating and pugnacious they can be, that a good paper makes at least as many enemies as friends and is proudest of the former. "All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose," H.L. Mencken wrote 80 years ago. It's a simple idea, well supported by history, but it got lost somewhere on the road to the needy, fearful, bland, hypercareful, "service"-obsessed newspapers we have today.

In recent months, however, there have been signs of a small countertrend. It's happening at many of the same newspapers that adopted the nice-nice credo, and in the most unlikely location: the comics page. The Boondocks, a comic strip by a 25-year-old named Aaron McGruder, which debuted in April, is doing on a daily basis what it seemed newspapers had almost forgotten how to do: It's making trouble. Real trouble. The strip is all about race, the subject that newspapers fear the most and cover with the least honesty.

The strip is frank and opinionated, and it uses children to discuss difficult grownup ideas, all of which is making a lot of readers uncomfortable. Yet The Boondocks had the largest launch, in terms of the number of newspapers that picked it up, in the history of Universal Press Syndicate, which was founded in 1970 and has launched such popular strips as Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse. McGruder's work is now carried in nearly 200 papers. That isn't large in comparison with Garfield (2,700 papers) or Doonesbury (1,400), but it's gigantic for a new strip. And though the content of the strip is tame by the standards of pop culture, for the comics page it's revolutionary. "I think newspapers in general are living in the darkest of the dark ages when it comes to risque or avant-garde content, and certainly the comics are the dungeon of the dark ages," says Ted Rail, a 35-year-old New York editorial cartoonist whose work is also syndicated by United Press and appears in 140 papers. "This is the venue that moved Doonesbury to the editorial pages."

The Boondocks' storyline revolves around two black boys who have moved with their grandfather from urban Chicago to a mostly white suburb in another part of the country. In one storyline, Huey, the older of the brothers and a self-styled blackpower intellectual, taunts a sweet girl named Jazmine, who lives across the street with her black father and white mother. "I once saw a yellow flower right in the middle of a bunch of red roses," says Jazmine. "That's what it's like being biracial. I'm different from everyone else. My Mom and Dad say that makes me special. But I just think it's lonely." Huey replies coldly: "You're BLACK. Get over it."

Lots of readers find the strip racist and the furthest thing from funny. Lots of others think it's wise and hilarious. Both sorts have been writing passionate letters and emails to newspapers all over the country, debating the merits of the strip.

"Why would a newspaper carry such an ugly and disrespectful strip?" wrote a reader of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "My children find it very racist as well. In this day and age, why would you want to encourage people's bigotry and anger? It is insulting to white Americans and African-Americans."

Wrote one reader of the Chicago Tribune. "I find it refreshingly honest. It is nice to see a strip where the characters are thinking, and getting the readers to think, not just cracking one-liners. The world's flavor is not only vanilla."

The debate has raised the profile of the strip and landed McGruder in the pages of People. He's been the subject of feature-section profiles in some of the larger papers that run his strip. A few smaller papers have already dropped the strip in response to reader complaints, but most have stayed with it, despite its provocative storylines.

Most provocative is Huey's–and McGruder's–approval of the "one drop rule," which says anyone with a drop of black blood is, by definition, black. Shortly after the Columbine High massacre, Huey bought a Star Wars toy light-sabre and was disappointed when it didn't injure Jazmine. He recently started a neighborhood "Klanwatch," and accused Jazmine's mother of secret KKK affiliation.

It would appear that McGruder is consciously, even gleefully, playing troublemaker in the formerly trouble-free zone that is the comics page. Not quite, he says. "I set out to have a black character who would be totally and thoroughly independent and would not conform and would speak his mind," he told me. "Some would say that's synonymous with starting trouble. No, I don't believe in controversy for its own sake."

Rather, McGruder, who majored in African-American studies at the University of Maryland, is using satire to explore a subject–black middle-class life–that he cares about because he's lived it. And, having grown up on Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes, he doesn't believe everything on the comics page has to be light or easy.

His opponents disagree. An online journal called The Multi-Racial Activist, based in Alexandria, Va., has called on newspapers "to discontinue running the racist strip," mainly because of the way Huey demeans Jazmine's confusion and apparent dislike of her own racial status. James Landrith, publisher of the journal, said in an interview that while he can understand the value of a provocative new voice in the newspaper, "I can also see the point of view of a 10-year-old mixed-race child who reads this comic strip and thinks, `Is this what black people think of me?'"

McGruder makes no apologies: "Jazmine is very much supposed to hate herself. Black people have self-hate. Self-hate is a part of our consciousness that has evolved in this country. America has made us hate ourselves from the moment we were brought here…. I'm not saying all black people suffer from it, but when you're black and you grow up in the suburbs, you struggle against it in yourself. If you grow up submerged in white people and white standards of beauty, you wonder why you're different. You wonder why you have to be different. Sometimes you feel alienated and ostracized and you blame your blackness for your alienation. That's a big part of what the strip is about."

Replying to a message from an online discussion board frequented by opponents of his strip, McGruder recently wrote a letter that began, "People in this country run from complexity in their fiction as though it were the plague."

People also don't necessarily want difficult sociopolitical commentary on the comics page. "In The Boondocks, they've called each other `negro,'" observes Tom Heintjes, editor and publisher of Hogan's Alley, a journal about cartoon art. "They've invoked the Klan. They've toyed with carjacking a Lexus. For some people, that's just intolerable to read over their breakfast cereal."

But Heintjes, a Boondocks fan, notes that McGruder is just the latest in a line of 20th-century cartoonists, some very distinguished, who used their strips to convey controversial ideas. Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray "went after FDR with everything he had in his comic strip. It really almost verged on obsession." And Walt Kelly's Pogo skewered all kinds of political figures, most notably Joseph McCarthy.

Those days seem very distant, given that newspapers are often thought of–and even think of themselves–as quasi-governmental institutions that must avoid any signs of political leanings, other than on the editorial pages (and sometimes even there). Imagine a new comic strip obsessed with attacking Bill Clinton or Trent Lott. Would our major dailies, most of them hugging the muted middle ground, even consider running it alongside Family Circus?

The Boondocks broke through the barrier for obvious reasons. In hopes of reversing the readership decline and keeping itself relevant, the newspaper industry has been struggling to win a larger minority audience, and to appeal to younger readers. As a young black man with obvious talent, McGruder was almost irresistible to editors.

"Aaron McGruder is working in an industry that is largely as white as Antarctica," says Heintjes, who notes that there are only a few other syndicated comic strips that deal with black life, and they don't have the edge editors believe younger readers look for.

"We saw the early versions and we recognized right away that it was very different from anything else that we had," says Gerould Kern, deputy managing editor/features of the Chicago Tribune. "It was funny and engaging, and it kind of puts you back on your heels …. We're looking to appeal to diverse audiences and diverse points of view. This is a rare commodity, this strip."

In other words, this throwback to a more rollicking newspaper culture, this exception to the reader-friendly policy that bled the life out of so many papers, is a direct product of that same policy. Thanks to ethnic and generational demographics, the definition of "friendly" is becoming more complex, and newspapers are making themselves play it dangerous again, albeit in very limited ways.

And when they do, the subject often is race. The New York Times Magazine, that paper's leading edge of edginess, recently ran a riveting cover story titled "What Cops Talk About When They Talk About Race." Reporter Jeffrey Goldberg rode along with cops in various cities as they patrolled the streets and highways, and got white and black cops alike to discuss why they use "racial profiling" in deciding which cars to pull over. The story was startling not so much for what it revealed–cops of both races are more prone to pull over blacks–as for the fact that it revealed it, and very directly for a medium that's grown fearful of directness about race.

When the Washington City Paper ran a cover story some weeks back about a group of white Capitol Hill residents who had organized against a black scam artist known as Stephanie, the paper was deluged with angry letters and e-mail from readers who thought the story offensive to blacks or whites or both. And this is an alternative weekly, in which riskier material is expected.

"Information is so excessively managed, not just by politicians but by the media outlets themselves, that the truth itself is transgressive," says the paper's editor, David Carr. "You can get in a lot of trouble for telling the truth. There's a lot of calls that come in here that begin with, `You can't say that.'… It isn't that we told a lie, it's that we told the truth."

The Boondocks isn't pretending to tell the absolute truth about race, but instead McGruder is trying to create characters whose experiences, thoughts, and feelings on race somehow ring true. That they're not ringing true with all readers, or perhaps ringing a little too true, is by design. "I guess it's not touching people by accident," says McGruder. "that's part of the goal, to hit people kind of hard."

"Most people are struck by it," says The Washington Post's Juan Williams, who writes often about race. "I think the white community doesn't know what to make of it. The black community is uncomfortable with it. But everybody's reading it."

Certainly a lot of people who wouldn't normally bother with the comics page are drawn to The Boondocks, which suddenly is one of the few parts of the paper that flash DANGER every single day. And in the news business, danger is always on thin ice. "If I go too far, I'm going to lose papers," McGruder says. "I don't want to lose Chicago, quite frankly, and I think I've come close a few times. That's a lot of people, that's hundreds of thousands of people every day."

And those people mean more exposure and income for McGruder, and his syndicate, which has advised him to alternate risky storylines with less risky ones, as a way of keeping the more squeamish readers on board. The numbers mean something else, too. In the top-50 U.S. media markets, about 59 percent of whites and 52 percent of blacks say they read a daily newspaper, according to the most-recent figures gathered by Scarborough Research, a New York City firm that does market studies for companies that own newspapers. Those numbers are down from previous decades, and threaten to drop below the 50 percent mark unless publishers and editors figure out what people really want from their newspapers.

Aaron McGruder worries about losing Chicago, but he may not realize that, judging from letters to the editor and all the other Boondocks noise, right now he's winning Chicago and Boston and San Francisco and Washington and a lot of other places. And he's doing it by making enemies.

COPYRIGHT 1999 National Journal Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group

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