Bon voyage, Boondocks

It’s over for “The Boondocks” comic strip, at least for now. After six years — a remarkably short run for a strip that found its way into 300-plus newspapers, including The Washington Post — Universal Press Syndicate told subscribers yesterday they should start looking for someone to replace political/social satirist Aaron McGruder.

McGruder, a Columbia native who in his twenties became the Garry Trudeau of the hip-hop generation, took a sabbatical six months ago to recharge. The syndicate kept checking with him, reminding him that its newspaper clients needed several weeks in order to prepare for his return or his departure.

Apparently, the mind behind young black radicals Huey and Riley Freeman has gone Hollywood, or at least has further hopes of doing so, and has decided he can’t devote himself to the grind of a daily strip. His late-night animated show, “The Boondocks,” on the Cartoon Network was recently renewed for another season, the first-season DVD is out, and a film is reportedly in the works.

Perhaps for McGruder, whose broad and sometimes outrageous characterizations forced readers to confront racial stereotypes and caused cartoon editors to blanch, the future of the funny papers is in pixels rather than picas.

Story here. I can tell you from personal experience, this comic strip racket is indeed a grind. And I’m on a much more human schedule, doing only one a week — though the the very fact that I only have one spot a week means that I spend a hell of a lot of time researching and writing and obsessing over each cartoon, hoping to hit that moment of perfect pitch that resonates so well that the cartoon takes on a life of its own. A cartoon that works, especially when you’re trying to do work that’s about more than just delivering a joke, is a delicate balance of words, images, timing and information, and you can beat your head bloody against the wall trying to get there. It takes time, even if you’ve got somebody else drawing it for you, as MacGruder reportedly did. And every time you finish, you’ve got another deadline staring you down. It’s an endless exhausting cycle, and I don’t know how somebody does it on a daily basis, especially if they’re working on television and movie projects. And at least those projects have some recuperative time factored in, unlike the comic strip grind. At your job, whatever you do, chances are you get time off for holidays, vacations, and so on. The work load probably eases, or someone else picks up the slack for you, or else there’s just a tacit understanding that the work will wait until you get back. Newspaper cartoonists don’t have that luxury. If a cartoonist wants to do something crazy like, say, spend a week with the family at Christmastime, he or she has to do an extra week’s work beforehand to cover the week off. And if they get sick, well, that gets pretty complicated too. And this is just how it always goes. To a certain extent, I have an astonishing degree of autonomy — I don’t have to be at work at nine a.m. sharp every morning (though as it turns out, I usually am), and if my work is done for the week, I can take a day off if I want (though in reality that rarely happens). But I am also destined to go through life chained to the reality of relentless deadlines. (And as for taking a break, giving the muse a chance to rest and regenerate, forget about it. You want to know what happens to an altweekly cartoonist who takes six months off? He gets replaced.)

Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t many jobs I’d rather have, or would be better suited for. And I’m well aware that I’ve got a job that plenty of people would like to have. But burnout is nonetheless an occupational hazard, constantly hovering at the edge of awareness. I have nothing but sympathy for MacGruder. I can imagine all too well the sense of dread he must have felt as the end of his sabbatical drew near.

(Edited — I thought the Post made a mistake about Bill Watterson’s sabbatical, but as it turns out, the error was mine.)