Cartoonist Ray Billingsley once stated that he's felt he's lived his entire life on a deadline. Born the youngest of three, this descendant of southern lineage was raised in New York’s Harlem at a time when life was tough, gritty and most of the citizens were plagued by drugs, high drop-out rates and poverty. His family, which consisted of both mother and father and an older brother and sister, was extremely close. His father was hard-working and his mother kept the children in line. Billingsley’s mother taught each of her kids to read and write before they entered kindergarten and encouraged their interests. There were general rules to be followed and chores expected to be faithfully kept.
Art played a role early in life. Older brother Richard took to art first and fast became very good at portraits and landscapes. He and younger brother Ray shared a bedroom, so paper and art supplies were always available to Ray. Older sister Maxine got very good grades and attended dance class. Learning played a most important role in the Billingsley household. Every Christmas, gifts of books and drawing material were always a staple. Richard became so good at drawing that he began gathering accolades from the school, church and neighborhood. It was what inspired young Ray to pick up a pencil and try his hand at drawing. Billingsley's mother once noted that Ray drew in the oddest way-people from the feet up! And, she would always catch him drawing in the air on some invisible pad. Ray was only 5 when he began drawing. By age 8, he won his first award in school for drawing. His third grade teacher, Mrs. Nelson, noticed and advised his parents to encourage his budding interest. Although not every teacher found it as good, Ray made a habit of drawing on tests and homework papers. Drawing became the way for young Ray, who was somewhat quiet, to express himself.
Daddy Billingsley was a Southern gent from the “old school” who didn't believe in allowances. Money was not owed to children, but earned only through hard work—and that fact he drilled into his three children. Any money to be made came from doing extra chores and maybe a little extra for good grades. The streets of Harlem offered many ways for a kid to make money, but most led to jail or worse. At the time, heroin, alcohol and cocaine were swallowing up the youth and destroying entire families. Ray and his siblings stayed away from these negative influences due to respect and general fear of their parents-especially their father. They lived in a sort of fear of him.
In the seventh grade, a 12-year-old Ray was working with his class on a recycling project outside a hospital during the holidays. The project was for the class to construct an 18-foot-tall Christmas tree, made entirely of aluminum cans. There was some media coverage from a local news program and a few reporters and cameras were present to record their efforts. Young Ray had slipped away not far from the class and began to scribble in a little pad he carried. Carrying a pad was a habit he had developed earlier. As Ray drew, he was approached by a woman who asked to see his drawings, which he did. Then, she asked if she could have the drawing and wanted his name and phone number. Ray gave her the information, she left the scene and he returned to his classmates. That was on a Friday. That very next Monday, this same woman called Ray and his family at home. She was the editor for Kids Magazine, a national magazine that catered to, well, kids! She asked Ray to come downtown to the office to try his hand at drawing a picture to accompany a short story they were planning to publish. Escorted by Mother Billingsley, Ray arrived at the Kids Magazine office downtown after school. He drew a few pictures and one was accepted and bought, for the price of $5. Back then, $5 was a big deal to a 12-year-old. A few days afterward, Ray was hired as a staff artist. From then on, every day when school ended for the day, they sent a car to take Ray to the Kids Magazine office to draw and work on submitted stories. It became a way for Ray to make money, legally.
As he grew, “pounding the pavement” was the cartooning norm and Ray was not exempt from the practice. His days became school work, office work, then submitting his work to various magazines and ad companies in New York. He began selling regularly and as a teenager became known in the industry as “The Kid Artist.” Ray once disguised himself as a messenger with a package to get past the receptionist to see the art director—and he actually landed the freelance job! He continued to freelance steadily, with each new job furthering his knowledge of commercial art.
Ray was accepted at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. He got a job in the art department where he could study other aspects of art that piqued his interest. He received encouragement from the principal, Richard Klein, and the college advisor, Eugene Wexler. It was a great school where everyone who attended had talent and he felt accepted. Ray retired from Kids Magazine as Associate Editor, at age 18. His neighborhood experience was completely different. Most of the young were experimenting with hard drugs and things Ray was not a part of. This led to pretty much an isolated life, but Ray could further develop his art and cartooning. During this time, he began to fully focus on comic strips. It was his practice to think up 365 gags before actually drawing any strips. He would submit many strips to the syndicates and they were all rejected. But in every rejection, there was something new that he learned and those lessons would be put toward the next project. At 16, he met Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, and they formed a friendship that still lasts today.
After graduating high school, Ray won a full four-year scholarship to The School of Visual Arts in New York City. There he met Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, his cartooning instructor, who would challenge him to do more than he thought he could. Through his tough tutelage, Ray’s style would develop to new levels. Three years of playwriting class would also teach him how to develop characters and plausible situations. The day after graduating from SVA, Ray showed up for work at the Disney Studios, where he would train to be an assistant animator. Art was a constant, with training all day and then mandatory art classes after work. When he got home, he would work on freelance jobs and comic strips. Cartooning became as natural as breathing for him.
Only a few months into the training, Ray was offered a contract by United Features Syndicate for his first strip, Lookin’ Fine. He left Disney to take on the gig. Lookin’ Fine was a strip about an African-American family and centered on a group of twenty-something friends. It seemed natural because Ray himself was 22 when he signed on. The strip lasted only two years before being canceled, but it was a great learning experience for Ray. He learned about doing newspaper strips and how to deal with the people who sold and bought them. Returning to freelancing, Ray took just about every sort of job that was offered in those days and his style varied from job to job. He became an expert in many different styles to fit any job he took. Greeting cards, t-shirt design, advertising, covers, posters, animation for commercials, graphic design, illustration, catalogues, spot cartoons, gag-writing, monthly humor magazines like Crazy, and he was a regular in Ebony magazine's “Strictly-for-Laughs” section from 1978 to 2009. All the while, he studied and worked on developing comic strips.
It was about 3 or 3:30 a.m. late one morning when Ray woke up with an idea of a little boy who wore his hat backward and his little brother. Without turning on a light, he reached to a pad that he always kept nearby and drew a sketch in the dark. With the idea now out of his head, he returned to slumber. That morning when he awoke, he found the sketch and gave the character his middle name. And Curtis was born. The rest, as they say is history. Since its debut in 1988, Curtis shows no sign of flagging and has become a staple in the newspapers in which it appears daily.
So far, Ray has had a career that spans more than 40 years. Life itself has had its ups and downs and hasn't always been so kind, with many obstacles that slowed down some of his advances, but art has always been in his blood and has helped him survive the hard knocks with dignity: Quite an accomplishment for a quiet boy with a southern background.