Editor's Dispatch: A Conversation with Ray Billingsley, America's Leading Black Cartoonist.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Ray Billingsley, the creator of Curtis.
Curtis is the story of Curtis Wilkins, an eleven-year-old African-American boy who lives in the city with his mom, dad, and little brother, Barry. Curtis himself is a perfect balance of excitement and cynicism that rings as truly authentic to anyone who has ever been or known kids from a big city.
As one of only a very few syndicated comics by Black cartoonists and featuring Black characters, Curtis is singular-- and so is Ray’s storytelling. “Being a Black cartoonist,” Ray told me, “affects the way you tell stories. Sometimes that’s in my favor. People don’t really know what to expect from me, so I can tell stories about modern issues that other comics might stay away from. Curtis’ setting is also important. Because it clearly takes place in a city, I can talk about things like, for example, rent or landlords, that are unique to a more urban setting, and have the ability to tell original stories that no one else is telling.”
“The problem with doing something no one has done before,” Ray went on, “is that there’s no template. The Black cartoonists who came before didn’t really tell these kinds of stories, so while I have a free pass to explore a lot of things without any expectations from readers, I have to tiptoe carefully sometimes. My work is held to a different standard.”
That’s especially true when current events turn toward issues that affect the African-American community. Ray said, “I’m sometimes chastised for choosing to talk about-- or choosing not to talk about-- certain contemporary problems. But my goal is always to use humor to deflect negativity in whatever way I can.”
Ray believes it’s important for readers who aren’t Black to read about an ordinary Black family that defies the stereotypes we often see in media. “They’re an intact Black family with good morals,” he said. “That's very true to life but not something we get to see enough of in media. I hope what readers get out of reading Curtis is a sense of community.”
Ray makes a point of telling stories about important aspects of African-American experiences, focusing on events like Kwanzaa and Black History Month every year. His Kwanzaa stories attract particular attention: every year, Curtis leaves the Wilkins family behind and tells a short story in the spirit of the holiday, whether it’s a tale from Africa or one from right down the block.
“The way the Kwanzaa stories came about is interesting. Some Black organizations approached me to do a comic explaining what Kwanzaa was about,” Ray explained. “But I said, if all you want is information about the holiday, you can read a lot of books about that, so what about telling stories?"
Ray also experiments with different artistic styles and motifs for these stories, making them stand out from the usual Curtis strip. He says experimenting is an important part of keeping Curtis fresh and engaging. “One of the most valuable pieces of advice anyone has ever given me,” he said, “is that Charles Schulz told me to come up with something my own that no one else can touch. It’s hard to be original. It requires taking a chance and taking risks, but I believe artists should experiment. I know that if I didn’t, I’d get bored doing the same thing all the time.”
And it’s important for Curtis to evolve with the times. Since Curtis began in 1988, so many things about being an American preteen have changed. Ray tries to keep up actively not only with the changing tastes of readers, but also with technology and kids’ hobbies.
“It’s important to be topical,” Ray said. “Over the years, I’ve had a lot of jokes that were popular at one time but that wouldn’t work today. For example, Barry used to secretly listen in to Curtis’ phone calls. But now, kids have cell phones! And there used to be a record store that mainly sold rap albums. It always had a different location. This was back when rap wasn’t mainstream, and was often banned in places. Now, we don’t have record stores, and rap is solidly part of the mainstream."
Ray told me he watches plenty of television shows that are popular with kids Curtis’ age and keeps up with current trends in pop music, to make sure he’s writing Curtis, Barry, and their friends as authentically as possible.
Ray talked about how important authenticity is to telling stories and creating characters, and how that is one of the lessons he tries to impart to the younger cartoonists he’s mentors-- something he’s been doing for twenty years. “Cartooning is not an easy industry,” Ray said. “And I want to be able to answer the questions that I couldn’t ask when I was starting out."
His advice for beginners? “It’s important to learn to both write AND draw,” he said. “Learning to write different personalities and characters is the thing I try to teach the most. And I always push young cartoonists to create more than what they think they can do. When I was a young cartoonist, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of the old greats. I listened and tried to take what I could from what they taught. When I met Will Eisner, he wasn’t impressed. He asked me, ‘what ELSE can you do?’ And that challenged me to do better.”
Ray also gave some advice for young cartoonists looking to create more diversity in their work. “You can’t just ‘add diversity’ to a story. It’s hard to write diversity if you haven’t lived it. You don’t want to put out nontruths. It takes a lot of work to develop characters who are not like you. If it’s not your life, you might not know what to do, and your character won’t seem fully-developed."
“If you’re trying to be diverse, make sure you’re good at it. Be well read, and don’t trust television. What people see on TV doesn’t always apply in real life; it’s entertainment that depends a lot on stereotypes. You need to avoid stereotypes.”
As for readers who want to see more diversity in their comics, “Write to your favorite cartoonists,” Ray said. “Tell them what you’d like to see. A lot of cartoonists will be open to your suggestions.”
Ray also says that he has hope for a new generation of cartoonists in this regard. “I think young people today understand this more,” he said. “They’re more integrated. The internet exposes them to a lot more points of view, and it becomes more natural for them to write diversity in their stories.”