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For decades, cartoonist Ray Billingsley has depicted Black family life in 'Curtis'

<em>Curtis</em> creator Ray Billingsley works in his home studio in Stamford, Conn.
Ray Billingsley
Curtis creator Ray Billingsley works in his home studio in Stamford, Conn.

Ray Billingsley's story is one of great tenacity and passion. A veteran cartoonist and comic artist, Billingsley is best known as the creator of the strip Curtis.

Debuting in 1988, Curtis was one of the first nationally syndicated comic strips to feature a mostly Black cast. Today, the strip is widely read in print and digital platforms. However, as a young Black cartoonist, Billingsley struggled to get the chance to portray his people through his work.

/ Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate
Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate

Billingsley got his start cartooning professionally in 1969 when he was only 12 years old, joining an industry that featured some of the greats.

"Charles Schulz and Mort Walker, Peter Bailey, Jules Feiffer. I took something from everybody. They all inspired me in different ways," he says.

But he traces the roots of his characters even further back, through family ties. Growing up in Harlem, his older brother was an artist who drew landscapes and portraits. Billingsley tried to mimic him — typical of younger siblings — but turned to cartoons since he was "no good" compared to his brother.

"I wasn't doing anything that the guys would do at my age around my neighborhood," Billingsley says. "I really started my work at 8 years old. I was already drawing on everything and my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Nelson, was the first one to actually see that I had any talent."

/ Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate
Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate

Billingsley caught the attention of an editor for Kids Magazine while participating in a seventh grade art project in New York City. At just 12 years old, he was hired as a staff artist for the magazine and began cartooning professionally. Monday through Friday, they would send a car to drive him to the magazine's office downtown. His life immediately started to change.

"That didn't sit well among other seventh-graders," Billingsley says, chuckling. "I was growing, learning the business and getting successful, but also becoming more isolated."

At first, cartooning became a way for him to legally earn money as a youngster in the city, but not too long after, it became something he lived, breathed and slept. "It was sort of escapism for me," Billingsley says.

Black cartooning pioneers

In 1969, Black representation in comics, especially syndicated comic strips, was rare, though not completely unseen. Only three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Franklin, the first Black character in the widely read Peanuts comic by Charles Schulz, was introduced. Three years before that, Morrie Turner's Wee Pals became the first nationally syndicated comic strip by a Black cartoonist and featured an integrated group of characters.

This wasn't Turner's first attempt at diversifying syndicated comics. In 1959, his earlier work Dinky Fellas was picked up by the Chicago Defender, a major Black newspaper. The strip was conceived with an all Black cast, though by the end of its run, Turner had introduced several white characters, transforming it into Wee Pals, a strip embracing diverse cultural backgrounds.

On his own way to the cartooning world, Billingsley earned a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts, where he studied under Will Eisner. While there, his freelance work drew attention and supported him while he was living in the city. "I was always working. In those days, New York was a real mecca for publishing. ... It helped build my experience," he says.

Trying to make ends meet, he designed for magazines, merchandise and greeting cards. He'd always wanted to draw comics and ever since he was 16 years old, he would draw one comic strip every year to pitch to publishers. Six months after landing an internship with Walt Disney Animations, he quit to launch his first strip, Lookin' Fine. The strip debuted in 1980 under United Feature Syndicate.

Lookin' Fine featured an all Black cast in their 20s, but Billingsley says he didn't have much freedom with the strip and was prevented from doing it the way he knew it should've been done. Billingsley says he left within two years after it was suggested the strip's family should adopt a white child.

"I have to represent. I have to draw our people," Billingsley says.

Billingsley began to get acquainted with the artists he looked up to. He reminisces about the time in his 20s when he met Morrie Turner and the sentiment the moment held.

"A person turned around and it was Morrie," he says. "He looked at me, I looked at him and we both just smiled and we hugged. He started crying — Morrie was real sensitive. He was telling me, 'You don't know what you're in for.' "

"He gave me the advice, he said, 'If you really want to make it in this field with no problem, draw white kids or draw animals.' "

Creating Curtis

Billingsley describes himself as looking for longevity rather than easier, short-term success in an industry where some didn't see the importance of drawing Black people and telling Black stories.

"During the early days, I also had to deal with little prejudices here and there, and believe me, in publishing, they would tell you flat out: 'Oh, well, we don't think you'll do so good because Blacks can't read.' All those negative things actually made me work harder."

In 1988, Curtis debuted under King Features Syndicate, featuring a mostly Black cast. The strip details the life of a close-knit, contemporary Black family living in the inner city. It centers on the 11-year-old hilariously relatable title character Curtis and his little brother, Barry.

The daily adventures are both familiar and comforting, while also highlighting real-deal issues and the nuances of a bigger, shared Black experience — which was something not typically seen in newspaper comics.

/ Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate
Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate

Over more than three decades, Curtis has won over the hearts of millions of readers and continues to evolve with its audience.

/ Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate
Ray Billingsley/King Features Syndicate

After living most of his life on a deadline, Billingsley was awarded the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 2021, becoming its first Black recipient. Each year, the award is chosen by a secret ballot of the National Cartoonists Society. Among its notable recipients are Charles Schulz, Mort Walker and Jim Davis.

Billingsley is disappointed that it took so long for the award to go to a Black cartoonist. "It's been 75 years since the Reuben was out and here I am. The very first," he says.

Though the acknowledgment of his work took time, his motivation has never revolved around recognition. "I wanted more people to get into it," he says. "That's what I've always wanted."

Ashley Pointer is an NPR Music intern.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Pointer
Ashley Pointer is a news assistant for NPR Music.