Ray Billingsley, the creator of Curtis, one of today's most important and poignant features on the comics pages.
Billingsley draws from real life, and the strip has the fresh quality of situational humor, mixed with melodrama, comedy and pathos. Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Curtis is read in more than 250 newspapers nationwide.
The strip depicts the urban existence of Greg and Diane Wilkins, a black family that lives in a weathered brownstone. Eleven-year-old Curtis and his younger brother, Barry, are emblematic of preteens in the big city, navigating their way through adolescence and its delights and dangers.
Other characters in the strip include Gunk, Curtis' friend from Flyspeck Island; and Chutney and Michelle, who create the love triangle in the boy's life. School friends Sheila and Verbena are also present to vex our protagonist, as are the flat-topped bullies Derrick and Onion.
Billingsley acknowledges that Wee Pals creator Morrie Turner, the first black cartoonist in national syndication, opened the door for Curtis and other strips. He also credits Will Eisner, creator of "The Spirit," for encouraging Billinskey to stretch out artistically. "He always told me to reach out and do more than I thought I could. I continually draw strength when I relive his teachings," said Billingsley.
Billingsley was born in Wake Forest, N.C., and raised there and in New York City's Harlem. When he was 12 years old, he worked as an artist for Kids magazine.
He credits sibling rivalry with sparking his initial fascination with cartooning. As a youngster, he learned to draw in order to emulate his older brother, who studied fine arts.
After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, he attended the School of Visual Arts there on a four-year scholarship. He began an internship at Walt Disney Studios in 1979.
Billingsley drew a nationally syndicated strip called Lookin' Fine from 1980 to '82.
By 1988, he was free-lancing in advertising and public relations; doing television commercials, posters and animation; and working for magazines such as Ebony. In October of that year, King Features Syndicate introduced Curtis.
The inspiration for Curtis came to Billingsley in the wee hours of the morning. "It was 3:30 or 4," Billingsley said. "I didn't even turn on a light. I just sketched a little boy, and the next morning, there he was: Curtis."
Curtis is a full-time job, and Billingsley is a perfectionist. He works from a spare room at home.
He encourages youngsters reading Curtis to try cartooning themselves, and spends a great deal of time answering his fan mail. He also advises young cartoonists to be prepared for the hard work necessary to create characters that are believable and for the day-to-day grind of meeting deadlines and other responsibilities that come with a comic strip.
Billingsley finds inspiration for the strip in his own childhood memories, conversations with friends and life at the local barbershop, where the folks talk everything from small-town gossip to big dreams and problems.
Educators and community leaders have praised Billingsley for his thought-provoking and honest handling of such serious social and health issues as smoking, drug abuse, crime and asthma. In recognition of his storylines in which Curtis tries to get his father to quit smoking, Billingsley has received numerous awards and recognition from the American Lung Association, including the President's Award in 2000 during the American Lung Association/Canadian Lung Association conference in Toronto, Canada. The President's Award, which was first given in 1983, was created to acknowledge an individual, or nonprofit or commercial organization, responsible for an outstanding contribution in an area of importance to the goals of the American Lung Association. In addition, Billingsley received the Humanitarian Award from the American Lung Association of Southeast Florida in 1999.
Billingsley, who is single, low-key and somewhat reclusive, enjoys simple things like scenic views and Trump's Mar Lago. His hobbies are reading, travelling, fighting with his siblings, and maintaining good relationships with people that allow him to be just Ray.
He also enjoys reading other newspaper comics.