Mary Worth Hugs Boondocks
Mary Worth was sunning herself by the pool at her condo complex when I arrived with my problem. The Rugrats were playing nearby with Sunny from Jumpstart and the kids from The Family Circus.
"Mrs. Worth," I began, "you are well known as the foremost busybody in the world of comics - I mean that in the most complimentary way, of course - and as someone who has a knack for smoothing out differences when people can't seem to get along."
"Thank you," she said. "And who are you?"
"Pardon me, Mrs. Worth. I'm the comics editor at The Commercial Appeal. But don't go thinking it's such a fun job," I said, perhaps a bit too sharply, because her eyes widened and a couple of exclamation points appeared above her head.
"Do go on," she said soothingly, and offered me a refreshment.
"You'd think," I continued, "that people wouldn't get so frothy over mere comics - uh, nothing personal." Mrs. Worth smiled indulgently.
"But some subscribers have gotten pretty upset over our newest strip. Personally, I think they must have even less of a life than Garfield's owner."
"Now, now," she remonstrated. "No need to be catty about the neighbors. Just tell me why they're concerned."
"Yes, well, as you know, the premise of The Boondocks is that an African-American family has just moved from the big city to the suburbs," I explained. "The hip-hop youngsters are at the center of the strip; their commentary forms the basis for the observation of the differences, the similarities and the blending of cultures in America."
"And some of your readers just aren't gettin' jiggy wit it?" she asked.
"Mrs. Worth!" I said, nonplussed. I noticed exclamation points hovering over my head.
"Young man," she said, "I do have some diversity in my neighborhood, you know. Those nice people in the Curtis strip are nearby and I've learned quite a lot from that phat young man. Although when he, Dennis the Menace and that Jason from Fox Trot get together, it becomes quite a handful."
"Then perhaps you understand my problem," I said. "This Boondocks strip has been with us barely a month and already people are calling and sending letters and E-mail making some strong accusations. Interestingly, most, although not all, are white, but they claim the comic is racist."
"My word," said Mrs. Worth. "Have they been reading the same comic strip the rest of us have? There is a world of difference between `racial' and `racist.' Gracious, these people must become apoplectic when they encounter programming on the UPN network."
"Now it is true," I said, "that the strip's creator, Aaron McGruder, intended to be provocative. He said he wants to improve racial discourse and expand the types of humor found in the comics."
"Well, he has succeeded in provoking, and the wit is quite contemporary," Mrs. Worth said. "But you must be very careful when dealing with reality in comic strips."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, if things get just a bit too real, then some people will be terribly offended. The Boondocks brings up issues that people deal with every day, and not all of the issues are pleasant, even when dealt with through humor."
"But Mrs. Worth," I protested, "there's plenty of offensive material in our comics already, yet we get no complaints. That Crankshaft, for example, is a mean old goat who maliciously destroys property in his role as - help us all - a school bus driver. Andy Capp is a drunken, unemployed wife beater. And poor Cathy does nothing but talk about that obsessive triangle of her love life, her weight and her clothes."
"Ah," Mrs. Worth said, "but people have gotten used to them. Over time, I think your readers will come to accept The Boondocks, even as it shows another culture long ignored in comic strips."
"Well," I said, "this is Memphis and we do spend a lot of time talking about race."
"Then your newest comic strip should be a natural for stimulating positive discussion," Mrs. Worth said. "I noticed that in the first week of The Boondocks there was mention of Bull Connor, Eyes on the Prize and the term `pet Negro.' In the second week, we met Jazmine, who has a white mother, a black father and incredibly large hair. This lovely child at one point asserts: `I resent racial categories!' "
"So you think we should give this comic a chance?" I asked. "And that it would be more productive for people to discuss the issues it raises instead of assuming that any mention of race is racist?"
"I would suggest that judging this comic too quickly and too simply might leave one like another of our neighbors."
"The Born Loser."
The Commercial Appeal, May 21, 1999