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Bye Bye Boondocks

Philip Burrowes

It’s easy to blame the current order on international situations. Any socially conscious institution based in this nation cannot turn a blind eye to the state’s coming and goings. Discourse everywhere has simultaneously experienced an increase in its geographic scope and a narrowing of thematic focus. The root cause, however, lies not without on an international axis, but within the machinations of an internal Caesar. Yes, the seeds of The Boondocks were sown not in Iraqi soil, but reaped from the Brooklyn zoo.

At its syndicated inception, Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks was a biting racial satire that, unlike the middle-class Jump Start or anachronistic Curtis, was not afraid to “air dirty laundry.” Unlike your everyday editorial cartoon, however, it had a consistent premise, plots, and recurring characters (however one-dimensional). These characters, moreover, interacted with each other. Each had his or her faults, and McGruder needed them to play off one another to show this. Otherwise the strip might degenerate into unabashed support of Huey’s cynicism, constant mocking of Jazmine’s confusion, a total Tom-ing of Tom, etc.

Enter Caesar, a character so lacking in personality that he makes Cindy seemed nuanced in relation. In fact, they’re both so perpetually cheerful that they’d probably make a good couple. Caesar is, in essence, the Franklin to Huey’s Charlie Brown. McGruder need only put the two in a random location and let Caesar provide comedic commentary to mitigate however depressing Huey’s statements are. Gone are the the story arcs like and Grandpa’s Census employment or Huey’s plea to Tom concerning Jazmine’s lack of Negritude. Why would Caesar even be talking to any other characters, let alone engage in any entertaining repartee; who besides Riley would prove a confrontational enough foil?

Longtime readers, especially those that can remember McGruder’s brief stint in The Source or on Hitlist, might consider this a false syllogism. Caesar, after all, preexists The Boondocks’ national run. How could he singularly be to blame for a series’ supposed change, especially when he was practically part of the cast from the beginning, as far as McGruder was concerned? There’s no denying, however, that the strip has evolved since it debuted under Universal Press Syndicate in 1999. McGruder has admitted to being downright ashamed of the relatively poor quality of his pre-UPS work. Unlike Gary Trudeau’s Yale-era Doonesbury, there existed no continuity between The Diamondback’s Boondocks’ and the Washington Post’s; 1999 saw a reboot for a new audience. It was into this different incarnation of The Boondocks that McGruder thrust Caesar.

The fact of the matter is that, thanks to Caesar, Huey is done acclimating to the suburbs, and thus the basic question of the strip is rendered moot. He has no subconscious need to unlock the hidden militant in Jazmine, and he attempts to reform his younger brother less and less, because he’s managed to find a compatriot elsewhere. Conflict no longer exists between the Freemans and their neighborhood. Similarly, Caesar’s transition period amounted to little more than shouting “Brooklyn!” in class and his family has yet to figure into the papers. Rather, the story has degraded from a collection of dialogues into a string of simplistic monological vignettes, starring various manifestations of “The Man” (Homeland Security/intel, various news media, whoever creates Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicles, etc.).

McGruder claims that he seeks to say those things that nobody does, but as controversial as he’s been for most of the strip’s history, he’s not alone. Everyone knows lots of people are opposed to “the war,” even if there are debates around how many people that is or how right they are or what, exactly, they’re opposed to. It was in the dialectic between various conceptions (or lack thereof) of race that his writing stood out. Where else in popular culture had anyone sought to examine the role of the “urban” in the “suburban,” (Malibu’s Most Wanted does not count!) or the “racial” with the “biracial”?

For all the above acrimony, there’s no doubting that the strip is still funny. (That “white girls” Sunday strip from a month back was -- pardon my Freedom -- bloomin’ hilarious. It would do Cambridge’s own Mighty Casey proud.) McGruder thus has little reason to change. We may never see Hiro, may never learn the fate of Huey and Riley’s parents (or Caesar’s for that matter). A strip can’t be all things to all people, but in the case of The Boondocks, it nevertheless had the capability to be so much more than it is.