The inter-webs — and my crew — are all a-chatter about how the fourth and current season of Adult Swim’s The Boondocks signals the demise of a once great animated property. With the series creator Aaron McGruder no longer involved, people are arguing that the magic is gone. While his presence and involvement during the last two seasons is debatable, having it publicly confirmed that McGruder is no longer associated with his creation seemed like the proper invitation for folks to start shitting on the show. The shitting should have happened a long time ago as the demise of this property started when it first jumped from strip to screen.
Before we get into everything wrong with the show (that’s for tomorrow), let’s first look back at what was right with the strips.
I remember receiving (in 1996) photocopies of some of the original strips that were published in The Diamondback, the student newspaper of the University of Maryland at College Park. I was stunned. It felt like the most honest extension of a hip-hop sensibility that I had encountered. While hip-hop had always had a comic book sensibility, seeing a hip-hop influenced comic strip — a space that is arguably whiter than the Marina District of San Francisco — was nothing short of “hell yeah!”
And when it started showing up in newspapers through the magic of syndication — let me just tell you that I was just as excited about The Boondocks going national as I was about De La Soul releasing Stakes is High in 1996. For its entire seven-year nationally syndicated run, The ‘Docks rarely missed. Fine, there were some jokes that went on a little too long, i.e. Crazy Star Wars Guy, and some that came across as mean-spirited (but on point), i.e. the Whoopi awards — the strip was usually on fire. It was like one of those hip-hop albums where you listened to all the tracks — no need to excise the wack joints.
Despite my having most of the strips clipped out of the newspaper and posted around the house, I bought every single collection. Hell, I bought every collection more than once because I was giving them shits out for birthday and Christmas gifts. The strip captured and expressed that deep pop-culture obsession that so many hip-hop heads (read this as black and male) could relate to. But what it did, even better than this, was to embody hip-hop’s cultural spectrum, personified in Huey Freeman, Michael Caesar, and Huey’s hoodrat little brother, Riley Freeman.
Huey, the strip’s anchor was the hip-hop sage — the old soul who would have Poor Righteous Teachers, Lakim Shabazz, and King Sun on his playlist. He was the dawn of social and political consciousness — a moment when all things non- or anti-political or anti-revolutionary were moral affronts. His insights, no matter how utterly juvenile and self righteous they were, were never about malice but about trying to find the best tool through which to navigate a world that didn’t fit properly.
Riley is what Puffy wrought: ignorance, materialism, and a blatant disregard for the width and breadth of the history of hip-hop culture — save to use it for his nefarious purposes. The world really was “the game” and despite his being ill-equipped to play it, he damn sure tried. I have too many Riley Freemans in my hood: too-small man-children trying to get shine in the big boy’s arena.
Then we come to Caesar. Pure optimism. He sees hip-hop not as a tool for revolution or material gain, but as a way of being. He was the innocence and wonder that hip-hop seemed to not lose, but bury in the basement of some unnamed tenement. With his wide eyes, constant smile, and disposition towards discovery and play, the dreadlocked Caesar was the perfect balance between the Freeman brothers.
The ancillary characters were great as well, each occupying a space that most folks of McGruder’s generation (I’m including myself) had to contend with. The Freeman’s grandfather, Robert Jebediah Freeman, was that “straight off a punk’s ass, and you’re making me homesick” old-school man who put his time in and wanted nothing more to do than just chill. Drink a little, fornicate a little, and die a happy old man with no regrets.
The Dubois family, Tom and Sarah, were the almost too aggressively progressive interracial couple trying very hard not to screw up their sweet biracial daughter, Jazmine. There were quite a few jokes taken at Jazmine’s expense, usually addressing her “confusion” around being bi-racial — but she was an innocent (and much needed female) foil to the budding testosterone of Huey, Riley, and Caesar.
Within my circle, most of the strips that were talked about the most were those featuring the proto-Macklemore, Cindy McPhearson.
She tried so hard to be down — Riley set her up to take the hit for tagging up the town; she tried to sell Sean John shirts to raise money for Puffy’s legal fund — if the comedian Jamie Kennedy and Macklemore had a baby, it would be Cindy McPhearson. Yeah, you can tell I cannot stand Macklemore.
There are other characters in the strip. Some, — like the only AAPI character Hiro Otomo — only appeared in the Diamondback strips. It would have been great if he had appeared in the syndicated strips, as I would have loved to see how he and Caesar would have handled Huey.
I never intended this to be a roll call of ‘Docks characters from the comics, but I wanted to establish the setting and my love for the strip. Because on November 6, 2005, it all went kablooey.