Ray Billingsley’s ‘Curtis’ comic has depicted Black family life for decades : NPR


Curtis creator Ray Billingsley works in his house studio in Stamford, Conn.

Ray Billingsley


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Ray Billingsley


Curtis creator Ray Billingsley works in his house studio in Stamford, Conn.

Ray Billingsley

Ray Billingsley’s story is certainly one of nice tenacity and fervour. A veteran cartoonist and comedian artist, Billingsley is greatest referred to as the creator of the strip Curtis.

Debuting in 1988, Curtis was one of many first nationally syndicated comedian strips to characteristic a principally Black forged. Right now, the strip is extensively learn in print and digital platforms. Nonetheless, as a younger Black cartoonist, Billingsley struggled to get the prospect to painting his individuals by way of his work.

Curtis, 1/16/2017

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Curtis, 1/16/2017

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Billingsley obtained his begin cartooning professionally in 1969 when he was solely 12 years previous, becoming a member of an business that featured a number of the greats.

“Charles Schulz and Mort Walker, Peter Bailey, Jules Feiffer. I took one thing from everyone. All of them impressed me in numerous methods,” he says.

However he traces the roots of his characters even additional again, by way of household ties. Rising up in Harlem, his older brother was an artist who drew landscapes and portraits. Billingsley tried to imitate him — typical of youthful siblings — however turned to cartoons since he was “no good” in comparison with his brother.

“I wasn’t doing something that the fellows would do at my age round my neighborhood,” Billingsley says. “I actually began my work at 8 years previous. I used to be already drawing on the whole lot and my third-grade instructor, Mrs. Nelson, was the primary one to really see that I had any expertise.”

Curtis 2/3/16

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Curtis 2/3/16

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Billingsley caught the eye of an editor for Youngsters Journal whereas taking part in a seventh grade artwork mission in New York Metropolis. At simply 12 years previous, he was employed as a workers artist for the journal and commenced cartooning professionally. Monday by way of Friday, they’d ship a automobile to drive him to the journal’s workplace downtown. His life instantly began to alter.

“That did not sit nicely amongst different seventh-graders,” Billingsley says, chuckling. “I used to be rising, studying the enterprise and getting profitable, but in addition turning into extra remoted.”

At first, cartooning grew to become a method for him to legally earn cash as a teen within the metropolis, however not too lengthy after, it grew to become one thing he lived, breathed and slept. “It was type of escapism for me,” Billingsley says.

Black cartooning pioneers

In 1969, Black illustration in comics, particularly syndicated comedian strips, was uncommon, although not fully unseen. Solely three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Franklin, the primary Black character within the extensively learn Peanuts comedian by Charles Schulz, was launched. Three years earlier than that, Morrie Turner’s Wee Buddies grew to become the primary nationally syndicated sketch by a Black cartoonist and featured an built-in group of characters.

This wasn’t Turner’s first try at diversifying syndicated comics. In 1959, his earlier work Dinky Fellas was picked up by the Chicago Defender, a serious Black newspaper. The strip was conceived with an all Black forged, although by the top of its run, Turner had launched a number of white characters, remodeling it into Wee Buddies, a strip embracing numerous cultural backgrounds.

On his personal solution to the cartooning world, Billingsley earned a full scholarship to the College of Visible Arts, the place he studied below Will Eisner. Whereas there, his freelance work drew consideration and supported him whereas he was dwelling within the metropolis. “I used to be all the time working. In these days, New York was an actual mecca for publishing. … It helped construct my expertise,” he says.

Attempting to make ends meet, he designed for magazines, merchandise and greeting playing cards. He’d all the time wished to attract comics and ever since he was 16 years previous, he would draw one sketch yearly to pitch to publishers. Six months after touchdown an internship with Walt Disney Animations, he stop to launch his first strip, Lookin’ Nice. The strip debuted in 1980 below United Characteristic Syndicate.

Lookin’ Nice featured an all Black forged of their 20s, however Billingsley says he did not have a lot freedom with the strip and was prevented from doing it the best way he knew it ought to’ve been performed. Billingsley says he left inside two years after it was instructed the strip’s household ought to undertake a white baby.

“I’ve to symbolize. I’ve to attract our individuals,” Billingsley says.

Billingsley started to get acquainted with the artists he appeared as much as. He reminisces concerning the time in his 20s when he met Morrie Turner and the sentiment the second held.

“An individual rotated and it was Morrie,” he says. “He checked out me, I checked out him and we each simply smiled and we hugged. He began crying — Morrie was actual delicate. He was telling me, ‘You do not know what you are in for.’ ”

“He gave me the recommendation, he mentioned, ‘For those who actually wish to make it on this subject with no downside, draw white youngsters or draw animals.’ “

Creating Curtis

Billingsley describes himself as on the lookout for longevity quite than simpler, short-term success in an business the place some did not see the significance of drawing Black individuals and telling Black tales.

“In the course of the early days, I additionally needed to take care of little prejudices right here and there, and consider me, in publishing, they’d inform you flat out: ‘Oh, nicely, we do not assume you may achieve this good as a result of Blacks cannot learn.’ All these adverse issues really made me work more durable.”

In 1988, Curtis debuted below King Options Syndicate, that includes a principally Black forged. The strip particulars the lifetime of a close-knit, modern Black household dwelling within the interior metropolis. It facilities on the 11-year-old hilariously relatable title character Curtis and his little brother, Barry.

The every day adventures are each acquainted and comforting, whereas additionally highlighting real-deal points and the nuances of a much bigger, shared Black expertise — which was one thing not usually seen in newspaper comics.

Curtis 9/24/2020

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Curtis 9/24/2020

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Over greater than three a long time, Curtis has received over the hearts of hundreds of thousands of readers and continues to evolve with its viewers.

Curtis 2/7/2022

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

Curtis 2/7/2022

Ray Billingsley/King Options Syndicate

After dwelling most of his life on a deadline, Billingsley was awarded the Reuben Award for Excellent Cartoonist of the 12 months in 2021, turning into its first Black recipient. Annually, the award is chosen by a secret poll of the Nationwide Cartoonists Society. Amongst its notable recipients are Charles Schulz, Mort Walker and Jim Davis.

Billingsley is disillusioned that it took so lengthy for the award to go to a Black cartoonist. “It has been 75 years because the Reuben was out and right here I’m. The very first,” he says.

Although the acknowledgment of his work took time, his motivation has by no means revolved round recognition. “I wished extra individuals to get into it,” he says. “That is what I’ve all the time wished.”

Ashley Pointer is an NPR Music intern.