April 26, 2004


THE RADICAL: Why do editors keep throwing “The Boondocks” off the funnies page? (BEN McGRATH, 2004-04-12, The New Yorker)

On the day of Saddam Hussein’s capture, last December, the left-leaning political weekly The Nation celebrated its hundred-and-thirty-eighth birthday. It was a Sunday night, and the weather was dreadful—forbiddingly cold and wet, heavy snow giving way to sleet—but three hundred people could not be deterred from dropping five hundred dollars a plate for roast chicken amid the marble-and-velvet splendor of the Metropolitan Club, on Fifth Avenue. Jean Stein, a veteran of the liberal party circuit and the mother of Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation’s editor, was there, as were E. L. Doctorow, John Waters, Charlie Rose, and even John McEnroe. Robert Byrd, the senior senator from West Virginia, was an honored guest; Amtrak had been advised of his itinerary, and, despite service delays all weekend, the train got him there on time. Joseph Wilson, the former Ambassador to Gabon, riding a wave of liberal good will since the politically motivated outing of his wife, the C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame, attended as well, by special invitation.

Byrd spoke first, and he delivered a generous helping of full-throated Southern oratory. Yes, it was good to see Saddam gone, Byrd said, but he was ever more convinced, what with a “swashbuckling, ‘High Noon’” kind of President in office, that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time. “Thank God for courageous institutions like this one,” he said, “which are willing to stand up to the tide of popular convention.” He recited the closing lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and then, finishing up, invoked “the spirit of Longfellow.” Standing ovation.

Toward the dessert (chocolate torte) portion of the evening, Uma Thurman rose to introduce a special guest: Aaron McGruder, the creator of the popular and subversive comic strip “The Boondocks,” who, as it happens, had travelled farther than anyone else to be there, all the way from Los Angeles. McGruder, one of only a few prominent African-American cartoonists, had been making waves in all the right ways, poking conspicuous fun at Trent Lott, the N.R.A., the war effort. An exhibition of his comic strips—characters with Afros and dreadlocks drawn in a style borrowing heavily from Japanese manga,with accentuatedforeheads and eyes—was on display in the Metropolitan Club’s Great Hall. It seemed to be, as a Nation contributor said later, “his coronation as our kind of guy.”

But what McGruder saw when he looked around at his approving audience was this: a lot of old, white faces. What followed was not quite a coronation. McGruder, who rarely prepares notes or speeches for events like this, began by thanking Thurman, “the most ass-kicking woman in America.” Then he lowered the boom. He was a twenty-nine-year-old black man, he said, who got invited to such functions all the time, so you could imagine how bored he was. He proceeded to ramble, at considerable length, and in a tone, as one listener put it, of “militant cynicism,” with a recurring theme: that the folks in the room (“courageous”? Please) were a sorry lot.

He told the guests that he’d called Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, a mass murderer to her face; what had they ever done? (The Rice exchange occurred in 2002, at the N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards, where McGruder was given the Chairman’s Award; Rice requested that he write her into his strip.) He recounted a lunch meeting with Fidel Castro. (He had been invited to Cuba by the California congresswoman Barbara Lee, who is one of the few politicians McGruder has praised in “The Boondocks.”) He said that noble failure was not acceptable. But the last straw came when he “dropped the N-word,” as one amused observer recalled. He said—bragged, even—that he’d voted for Nader in 2000. At that point, according to Hamilton Fish, the host of the party, “it got interactive.”

Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, was sitting in the back of the room, next to Joe Wilson, the Ambassador. He shouted out, “Thanks for Bush!” Exactly what happened next is unclear. Alterman recalls that McGruder responded by grabbing his crotch and saying, “Try these nuts.” Jack Newfield, the longtime Village Voice writer, says that McGruder simply dared Alterman to remove him from the podium. When asked about this incident later, McGruder said, “I ain’t no punk. I ain’t gonna let someone shout and not go back at him.”

Alterman walked out. “I turned to Joe and said, ‘I can’t listen to this crap anymore,’” he remembers. “I went out into the Metropolitan Club lobby—it’s a nice lobby—and I worked on my manuscript.”

Newfield joined in the heckling, as did Stephen Cohen, a historian and the husband of Katrina vanden Heuvel. “It was like watching LeRoi Jones try to Mau-Mau a guilty white liberal in the sixties,” Newfield says. “It was out of a time warp. Who is he to insult people who have been putting their careers and lives on the line for equal rights since before he was born?”

By the time McGruder had finished, and a tipsy Joe Wilson took the microphone to deliver his New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps half the guests had excused themselves to join Alterman in the lobby. A Nation contributor estimated that McGruder had offended eighty per cent of the audience. “Some people still haven’t recovered,” he said, sounding thrilled.

“At a certain point, I just got the uncomfortable feeling that this was a bunch of people who were feeling a little too good about themselves,” McGruder said afterward. “These are the big, rich white leftists who are going to carry the fight to George Bush, and the best they can do is blame Nader?”

It's as if Tom Wolfe wrote a screenplay for a Fellini movie...

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2004 7:38 AM

C-SPAN needs to get their cameras to New York events more often...

Posted by: John at April 26, 2004 9:32 AM

Damn! I missed it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 26, 2004 10:04 AM

I give even odds on McGruder being another Hitchens in ten years...

Posted by: mike earl at April 26, 2004 10:30 AM

I don't know if the Hitchens comparison works; Hitchens is now regarded as a distinguished intellectual while McGruder is more of a Michael Moore-style prankster. Aaron has a better chance of the "intellectual" tag in another medium: because of the brevity of comic strips, there's no room for rumination or discourse. Both FEIFFER and DOONESBURY handle the political thing better than McGruder, but neither is terribly deep - I know he's done it for a number of years, but McGruder still strikes me as a flavor of the month.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 26, 2004 10:50 AM

Not Uma! They got Uma Thurman? There is no justice in the world!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 26, 2004 10:55 AM


Her father is a Columbia professor.

Posted by: Brian (MN) at April 26, 2004 12:29 PM

BOONDOCKS is barely more tolerable than MALLARD FILLMORE.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 26, 2004 2:46 PM

Uma peaked in her first role as Valmonts victim in the John Malkovich/Michelle Pfiffer Dangerous Liassons.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 26, 2004 2:48 PM

She still looks good in a yellow jumpsuit.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 26, 2004 3:11 PM

John: I cringed when you mentioned Feiffer and Doonesbury in the same sentence. Though I didn't always agree with him, I think Feiffer was a much, much superior cartoonist and commentator. Doonesbury has been on a long slide into dated cranky irrelevance, and is becoming embarrassing like late '60s Li'l Abner strips, a comparison I got from this insightful piece:


Posted by: PapayaSF at April 26, 2004 8:53 PM

I didn't mean to imply that FEIFFER and DOONESBURY were on the same level quality-wise, only that both were better than BOONDOCKS - admittedly not a difficult thing to accomplish. A large number of the FEIFFER strips are genuinely funny, which hasn't been true of DOONESBURY for a while.

And yes, all these strips, BOONDOCKS included, are better than MALLARD FILLMORE - I have no idea how that strip has lasted five years.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 26, 2004 10:09 PM

Oh, and Feiffer is certainly more of an intellectual than Trudeau is, despite the latter's Yale degree and the former's high school education.

Posted by: John Barrett, Jr. at April 26, 2004 10:12 PM