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.
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.
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.
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.
© King Features Syndicate
“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.
NPR has a fine profile of Reuben Award-winning cartoonist Ray Billingsley.