Ray Billingsley, Creator of Curtis

20 September 2002

    The telephone rang at the Billingsley home in New York City. It was a call from a magazine. No, it wasn’t one of those telesales agents. It was the editor of Kids Magazine, inviting the then 12-year-old Ray to draw dragon pictures to accompany the story she was writing. It just so happened that dragons were the young man’s favourite things to draw. He submitted his work and immediately became a published artist. But the success didn’t stop there… he was asked to be a staff artist!

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    The Kids Magazine editor who called Ray had been on an outing with a media group covering a junior high school recycling project in New York City, where aluminum cans were to be formed into an 18-foot outdoor Christmas tree for a hospital. Ray Billingsley was supposed to be participating, but “I thought the project was rather lame, so I slipped off to the back while all the other kids did all the work. I whipped out a pad and started to draw.” The editor approached him and liked his drawings. She took his drawings and telephone number back to her office. Without realizing it, Billingsley’s creative career had begun. *(1)

    “While the other kids got to play after school, I had to become an artist and go to work. That’s how I started, I was sort of discovered,” Billingsley wrote on a May 2001 Washingtonpost.com Live Online chat.

    Ray Billingsley was born in Wake Forest, North Carolina in 1957. The family later moved to Harlem in New York City. He has a big sister, Maxine, and one brother, Richard, who is eight years older than Ray. Ray was very competitive with his brother and envied the praise Richard received for his artistic talents – he could do landscapes, portraits and still-life drawings. Rather than earning admiration at age 8 for his work, Ray’s fine art was laughed at. He switched to cartooning.

    After graduating from the Manhattan-based High School of Music and Art, Billingsley studied on a four-year scholarship at the School of Visual Arts. Upon completion, he began an internship with Walt Disney Studios in Florida in 1979.

    “Lookin’ Fine” was the first comic strip developed by Billingsley, appearing in 1979 to 1982 with United Features. It seemed the world was not then ready for a strip about a black family, and it was not a success. The struggling cartoonist worked as a freelance artist “because I’ve done nothing else but art. I even did a line of novelty underwear, anything to pay the bills.” TV commercials, animation, magazine work and posters filled his work schedule.

    In 1986, an inspiration came in the form of a dream to Billingsley. He woke in the middle of the night, grabbed sketch paper from his bedside and quickly scribbled down the young character of his imagination. Next morning, he examined the hasty night time art to find his new feature cartoon character looking back at him. King Features Syndicate debuted Curtis in 1988 and the comic strip now appears in over 250 newspapers. It is one of a small but growing number of cartoons produced by non-white cartoonists, encompassing real life. Curtis, in particular, represents an African-American family in America with an emphasis on issues that affect all kids, all people. The comic strip has received approval from fans, community leaders and corporations for depicting tough modern problems.

    The American Lung Association presented the President’s Award to Ray Billingsley at a 2000 conference in Toronto, Ontario. “Mr. Billingsley has played an important role in improving lung health by informing the public about the dangers of cigarette smoking,” said the President of the American Lung Association, Earnest P. Franck. The comic strip “focussed on the dangers of smoking and also emphasized the difficulty of quitting.” In the cartoon, Curtis’s father is a determined smoker. Billingsley received the Humanitarian Award from the Southeast Florida chapter of the American Lung Association in 1999. *(2)

    The barbershop setting in the comic strip is no figment of the cartoonist’s vivid imagination. Ray Billingsley visits his local barbershop “where the folks talk everything from small-town gossip to big dreams and problems.” *(3) Better watch what you say in the barber’s chair. It might end up in a cartoon somewhere!

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*(1) Live Online at the Washington Post:
http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/01/comics_billingsley052401.htm

*(2) The American Lung Association award article:
http://www.lungusa.org/site/pp.aspx?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=41065&printmode=1

*(3) Have a look at the daily cartoon:
http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/curtis/about.htm

© Susanna McLeod 2002
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)