For decades, cartoonist Ray Billingsley portrayed black family life in ‘Curtis’
Ray Billingsley’s story is one of great tenacity and passion. A veteran cartoonist and cartoonist, Billingsley is best known as the creator of the comic curtis.
Launched in 1988, curtis was one of the first nationally released comics to feature a majority black cast. Today, the strip is widely read on print and digital platforms. However, as a young black cartoonist, Billingsley struggled to get the chance to represent his people through his work.
Billingsley began drawing professionally in 1969 when he was just 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 everyone. They all inspired me in different ways,” he says.
But he traces the roots of his characters even further, through family ties. Growing up in Harlem, her older brother was an artist who drew landscapes and portraits. Billingsley tried to emulate him – typical of younger siblings – but turned to cartoons as he was “no good” compared to his brother.
“I wasn’t doing anything that guys would do at my age in my neighborhood,” Billingsley said. “I really started my work at 8 years old. I was already drawing on everything and my third-grade teacher, Ms. Nelson, was the first to see that I had talent.”
Billingsley came to the attention of an editor for Magazine for children while participating in a seventh-grade art project in New York. At just 12, he was hired as an artist for the magazine and began drawing professionally. Monday through Friday, they would send a car to drive him to the magazine’s office downtown. Her life immediately began to change.
“It didn’t sit well with the other seventh graders,” Billingsley laughs. “I was growing up, learning the trade and succeeding, but I was also becoming more isolated.”
At first, cartooning became a way for him to legally earn money as a youngster in the city, but soon after it became something he lived, breathed and slept with. “It was kind of an escape for me,” Billingsley says.
Pioneers of Black Comics
In 1969, the depiction of black people in comics, especially syndicated comics, was rare, but not completely invisible. Just 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 ago, Morrie Turner’s Boyfriends became the first nationally released comic strip by a black cartoonist and featured an integrated cast of characters.
This wasn’t Turner’s first attempt to branch out into syndicated comics. In 1959, his first works little guys was taken over by the Chicago Defender, a large black newspaper. The strip was conceived with an all-black cast, although late in its run Turner introduced several white characters, turning it into Boyfriends, a band embracing diverse cultural backgrounds.
On his own path to the world of cartooning, Billingsley earned a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts, where he studied with Will Eisner. There, his freelance work caught the eye and sustained him while he lived in the city. “I was working all the time. At that time, New York was a veritable publishing mecca. … It helped me build my experience,” he says.
Trying to make ends meet, he designed for magazines, merchandise and greeting cards. He had always wanted to draw comics and since he was 16 he drew a comic every year to present to publishers. Six months after landing an internship at Walt Disney Animations, he resigned to launch his first strip, It looks good. The band debuted in 1980 under United Feature Syndicate.
It looks good featured an all-black cast in their 20s, but Billingsley says he didn’t have much freedom with the band and was restrained from doing it as he knew it should have been. Billingsley says he left within two years of it being suggested that the band family adopt a white child.
“I have to represent. I have to attract our people,” Billingsley says.
Billingsley began to familiarize himself with the artists he admired. He remembers the time in his twenties when he met Morrie Turner and the feeling that moment evoked.
“One person turned around and it was Morrie,” he said. “He looked at me, I looked at him and we both smiled and hugged. He started to cry – Morrie was very sensitive. He was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re into. ”
“He gave me the advice, he said, ‘If you really want to do well in this field, draw white children or draw animals.’ “
Billingsley describes himself as seeking longevity rather than easier short-term success in an industry where some did not see the importance of drawing black people and telling black stories.
“In the beginning, I also had to deal with a little bit of bias here and there, and believe me, in editing, they would tell you outright, ‘Oh, well, we don’t think you’ll do that well because that black people can’t read.’ All those negative things made me work harder.”
In 1988, curtis debuted under King Features Syndicate, with 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 hilarious 11-year-old main character Curtis and his little brother, Barry.
The daily adventures are both familiar and heartwarming, while highlighting real issues and nuances of a larger, shared black experience — something not typically seen in newspaper comics.
For more than three decades, curtis has captured the hearts of millions of readers and continues to evolve with its audience.
After living most of his life with a deadline, Billingsley received the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 2021, becoming his first black recipient. Each year, the award is chosen by secret ballot of the National Cartoonists Society. Among its notable recipients are Charles Schulz, Mort Walker and Jim Davis.
Billingsley is disappointed it took so long for the award to go to a black cartoonist. “It’s been 75 years since the Reuben came out and here I am. The very first,” he says.
If the recognition of his work took time, his motivation never revolved around recognition. “I wanted more people to get into it,” he says. “It’s what I always wanted.”
Ashley Pointer is an NPR Music intern.