When I was researching my biography, Will Eisner, A Spirited Life, one of the biggest surprises for me was learning that two extremely successful daily cartoonists, Ray Billingsley of “Curtis,” and Patrick McDonnell of “Mutts,” were once students of Eisner’s at the New York School of Visual Arts.
Eisner spoke highly of both men, and he developed an ongoing mentor-style relationship with Billingsley, who was a very young man, just about 16, when he first took Eisner’s class.
Billingsley’s strip, “Curtis,” currently appears in more than 250 newspapers. It’s a steady performer recognized by the American Cancer Society for Curtis’ efforts to get his father to stop smoking. And Billingsley takes the detour from the usual story lines every December for an original Kwanzaa tale.
BOB ANDELMAN: Ray, welcome to Mr. Media.
RAY BILLINGSLEY: Thank you, thank you. How are you?
ANDELMAN: I’m good. Thank you. Ray, you and I have spoken a few times in the past, and I often get the sense that you don’t feel a lot of respect coming your way from your own industry. Is that true?
BILLINGSLEY: Yeah, actually, that is true. It’s been a very hard industry to maintain. I get the feeling that sometimes people of my color are pretty much ignored by the industry people. We never get nominated for Ruebens. Book deals rarely come our way. It seems that many of the opportunities that are afforded to our counterparts don’t come our way. It’s a hard road to travel, and basically what it means to me is I have to work a little bit harder just to maintain my stake within the newspapers.
ANDELMAN: Have you talked to other African-American cartoonists about this?
BILLINGSLEY: Yeah, I have actually spoken with Robb Armstrong of “Jump Start” and Stephen Bentley of “Herb & Jamaal,” and we sort of share similar stories. Things just don’t come our way that we see going to people who may be of similar talent or talent that is really not as good as ours.
ANDELMAN: Some people would jump in and say, well, what about “The Boondocks”? That seems to have done okay.
BILLINGSLEY: Well, yeah. “The Boondocks” was a product of its time, actually.
It was actually pushed because it was the angry black man. It’s almost stereotypical of what a lot of non-black people think we are about. We are not all like that. It was sort of revolutionary in its own right. And of course, for today’s times, it was just right, but just to give one person a voice isn’t really giving much of a voice at all. They need to really expand and let us all at least to have a chance to fail at what we were saying. Give everyone a chance to voice their own opinion.
ANDELMAN: Were you surprised when “The Boondocks” stopped that there wasn’t another strip like it that moved into its space? In most of the papers, I mean, I think, and I love “Lio,” I don’t want to complain about “Lio,” but “Lio” and “Get Fuzzy” and other strips seem to have filled that void as opposed to maybe another black strip.
BILLINGSLEY: Right, right. Well, I was actually more surprised that Aaron quit the job, sort of disappointed because I feel that we need as many voices as we can get that are different and diverse. But I’m not surprised that they didn’t go to replace him, because I had heard through the grapevine that a lot of people were scared of him and what he stood for. It was just sort of odd the way there was a love/hate relationship with most of the people I spoke to, a lot of editors, a lot of newspaper people. They were actually fearful of him, so “Get Fuzzy,” things like that – “Over the Hedge” is much safer. I could imagine that they would go along with something that they don’t have to worry about being controversial.
ANDELMAN: Are there white equivalents to “The Boondocks” and also to “Curtis”?
BILLINGSLEY: Well, actually, the number one I can think of is Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury.”
ANDELMAN: I wondered if you would say that. Yeah.
BILLINGSLEY: Yeah. He says all sorts of things political, gets away with it. I don’t know how much controversy he gets into, because I don’t hear about it, but I could imagine that he has in the past and he probably still does from time to time. But more often than not, it seems like he can just do whatever he wants.
ANDELMAN: And is there a white strip that’s a counterpart to “Curtis”?
BILLINGSLEY: Not really. Not really. I sort of made my strip to be the type where I could do just about anything I want. I can go from the absurd with Gunk, the character from Flyspeck Islands, and I can hit on very contemporary things. Gunther, my barber, he can speak on anything that’s relevant at the time, and he gets away with it, because that’s what happens in barber shops. They talk about what’s going on. And yet I have the innocence of Curtis and little brother Barry, so it was a strip where I could do just anything. Most of the strips don’t complement a lot of the stories that I can handle. Their characters aren’t suited for a lot of the things that I talk about.
ANDELMAN: How has the strip changed? You started doing it in what year?
BILLINGSLEY: It launched in 1988.
ANDELMAN: My goodness, you’re coming up on 20 years.
BILLINGSLEY: Yes, I am. Yes, I am.
ANDELMAN: How has it changed over the years?
BILLINGSLEY: I think actually the writing has become stronger. The character is much more rounded, and that’s what I feel is very important to the maturity of any comic strip, that the characters grow along with the times, especially in my case. Now, if you have something like “Wizard of Id” or “Broom Hilda,” of course, they can just stay in one time, and you know, it’s just gags, so whatever they do, it goes. But strips like mine need to progress, and that’s what’s happened. I’ve kept up with the happenings of the times. Instead of Barry listening in on Curtis’ little phone calls to Michelle, things like that had to drop, because now the kids are mostly into cell phones. Oh, and you know, one of my favorite things I used to do was an imaginary record shop that Curtis and Barry would visit, and it would always change its name and its location because it featured the hardest rap that you could find, and most parents when they found out about it they would burn it down. The thing of it is, that was when rap wasn’t really accepted. Now that it’s so mainstream, it was a theme that I had to drop. So yeah, the strip grows.
ANDELMAN: What would be the equivalent of rap in the strip today? I mean, one generation is pushing in something, and the older generation is fighting against it. If it isn’t rap, what is it?
BILLINGSLEY: Right. Well, right now, I still have Curtis dealing with rap, much to his father’s dismay. But I am not on it the way I used to be. There aren’t any rap stars right now that are really hitting the charts like Public Enemy used to do. Those guys, they’ve now retired, so it has sort of lessened its impact in the strip.
BILLINGSLEY: Yeah, they’ve gone on. As you see, right now, one of the hardest rappers that used to be out there, I think it’s Ice Cube?
BILLINGSLEY: He’s now doing family movies, Are We Done Yet? And this is a guy that people used to fear just seeing him. Now he’s doing family comedies. So time and age change everything.
ANDELMAN: I had asked you how the strip had changed in this almost 20 years, and one of the reasons I asked you that was to get into this other subject, there’s no way for someone who just started reading “Curtis” to know what the strip was like 20 years ago because it hasn’t been collected in how many years?
BILLINGSLEY: Well, actually, I started trying to get it collected in 1993, and I haven’t met with any success. I had two small pocket-sized books published by Ballantine back in like 1990 or ‘91, something like that, and I haven’t had any success since. Now, the popular books that are out there now, I have tried to get in with that company for eons, and time after time, they would just reject me. Sadly enough, my last rejection really turned me away from them. I spoke with a senior editor there, and she told me that she loved the material and this is what the company is about, and they would like to put the thing out. We were even talking covers and all. I had three books under consideration, and the last time I spoke to her, she said that the three books were on their way to Acquisitions. Now, to me, acquisition means they are going to buy it. So I sat back, and I was waiting and waiting. On December 27th, two days after Christmas, I get this large package back with all my work back in it with a rejection letter that said basically, “We’re not interested in this property now nor will we be in the future.” So basically they told me don’t even try any more.
ANDELMAN: I’m thinking there had to be an angry black man in Connecticut that day.
BILLINGSLEY: Oh yes. Actually, just very disappointed. It’s like the rug is being pulled out from under you, and that’s part of the thing I talk about, the not getting respect from the industry. Because they print everyone else, but for a person like me that keeps trying over and over and over again, they don’t do it. And of course, they offer no explanation why, and actually, I tried calling her back, and she wouldn’t even take my calls from that point.
ANDELMAN: What about the other strips you mentioned, “Herb & Jamaal” and “Jump Start”?
BILLINGSLEY: They don’t reprint them, either.
ANDELMAN: That’s what I wondered. And so, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but is this racism, or is it something else?
BILLINGSLEY: I think it’s just ignorance, actually.
BILLINGSLEY: Yeah. It’s a bit of racism, also, because I’ll tell you this: this is something that has eaten at me for years and years, but an editor once told me, and not from this book company, but
an editor once told me that it was thought that blacks don’t read and what white person would buy this for their kids?
And I mean, they said this right to me, so it’s just been a thing that I’ve been living with all these years. That’s why I try so hard to overcome it, because I think they’re wrong. I wonder sometimes if it’s a backlash of the whole rap industry where a lot of non-blacks think that we’re all like that. And that’s not the case. That’s why “The Boondocks” made it the way it did. It spoke of an angry revolutionary black man, and that’s been our stereotype. Most times when you see us in movies and all, we’re angry, we’re out of control, and they just feed into that sort of thing instead of doing something where the rest of us are basically family-type strips, and they just don’t want to deal with it. The bad part about that is that we’re not given the chance to fail. At least give us a chance to see whether or not it can go. Robb (Armstrong) has a great strip. They won’t give it to him. But it’s something that they have to be educated on, and I don’t think they want to be educated.
ANDELMAN: Does a black publisher need to step up and do this?
BILLINGSLEY: That might be the case, but also, it would have to be a black publisher who has connections with the bookstores more. You know how things go with bookshelf space and all that, and they would have to be strong enough to command a good spot. Right now, this other company that I don’t want to mention currently commands all the best spots.
ANDELMAN: Now, my sense of these things is that if a publisher or a TV network senses that there is money to be made, they tend not to see black or white, they see green.
ANDELMAN: Is it possible that they just don’t see a market here, or are they just ignorant of what the market is or how to reach that market?
BILLINGSLEY: I think they are ignorant, because there is plenty to be made in terms of bucks if they really want to sit down and put out a good product. Basically, that’s what I’m really dealing with. I want “Curtis” to be a good product, which is why I work on it so hard and why the stories are, in my opinion, very good. I try to be very original in things like that because I want people to see that we can put out a good product. All they have to do is work with us and sit down and do it. Now, one of the things for like TV, it would help if I did have some compilation books, because I could sit down with them, send them a book, and then discuss things with them. But without any sort of compilation, that work is hindered.
ANDELMAN: It is kind of surprising that BET or someone else hasn’t acquired the rights to “Curtis” to do, whether it be a cartoon or a sitcom of some kind. Has that ever come up?
BILLINGSLEY: The times have changed so much, especially with things like BET, where they would be more apt to take something like a “Boondocks” than “Curtis.” Curtis is a nice kid, and you know, he’s not really into, let’s say, Ebonics or anything like that, and I don’t know just how much they would welcome something like that.
ANDELMAN: Ray, do you need to “F” the poor kid up a little bit to get some attention?
BILLINGSLEY: Some times, I think so! (Laughs.) Many times when I try to stretch out too much, I might get censored, so you know, I try not to let that happen, because I really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or step on any toes or anything like that, not through my work, anyway.
ANDELMAN: Let me ask you a question. I am going to play devil’s advocate here for a minute for people who may hear this and go, it’s not racism, it’s whatever. I think this is the second time since I’ve done Mr. Media I’ve used this example, so stop me if I’m wrong, but the “Cathy” creator, Cathy Guisewhite, is successful, but she’s not always accepted as doing important enough work in certain circles, and she doesn’t get a lot of respect. But the strip runs and runs and runs. Is there any sense of that as what’s happening with you or with Robb Armstrong?
BILLINGSLEY: Oh, sure. Sure. Definitely that’s what’s happening. We’re appreciated, we’re just not respected. I guess Cathy is getting it because you know, being a woman does have, I don’t want to say it’s drawbacks, because there are a lot of very talented women cartoonists out there, but I don’t think they get a fair shake, either. There is Roz Chast from The New Yorker. I think she has a beautiful book that’s just come out, but she should have had it a long time ago. She’s been working at it for quite a while, and she’s just getting it now. Lynn Johnson, she was different. She proved to be a heavy hitter, and I think it was because of her beautiful artwork and her sensitive stories that really, really got her over. But in terms of respect, I don’t know how much she gets other than being a moneymaker. If the strip was floundering or something like that, I doubt if they would really pay much attention to her.
ANDELMAN: Let’s change gears a little bit. The recent death of King Features editor Jay Kennedy hit you pretty hard.
BILLINGSLEY: Oh, yes.
ANDELMAN: What can you tell us about your relationship with Jay?
BILLINGSLEY: Jay and I, we were very close. He would always warn me in case of what he thought I was doing that might be controversial.
He looked out for me a lot, and he was a good sounding board. When I first started doing controversial ideas, I would always go to Jay and ask him what he thought of it, and Jay would always say, “Well, Ray, we’ll take a chance. I think this is good, so we’ll take a chance.”
And more often than not, we had good response. Sometimes, even during the worst controversial ideas that I put out there, Jay was always on my side. He would tell me different ways of handling the media and all that, because, actually, I am a very sensitive person, and when people say that they don’t like my stuff, it bothers me. Jay would just calm me down and send me on the right path. So it was very unsettling when I heard it, but the really bad thing about it was, Jay had called me up to tell me about a recent controversy I was going through with the Boston Globe.
ANDELMAN: I was just going to ask you about that, yeah. That was the last time you spoke to him?
ANDELMAN: For folks who may not have seen it — I think it was a Sunday panel, wasn’t it?
© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman