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Breaking New Ground

Ray Billingsley and Curtis are making history together!

On June 26, 1986, Ray Billingsley woke up at 3:30 a.m. He grabbed his sketch pad. In the dark, he drew a cartoon character he had been thinking about. When he was finished, he gave the character his own middle name, Curtis.

Ray didn't know it then, but Curtis would change his life and make him a pioneer. "Curtis" is the first African-American comic strip to hit the big time. Today, it's carried by about 250 daily newspapers in the United States.

But it hasn't been easy. Cartooning is a very difficult field to break into. There is stiff competition, and many publishers are wary of taking chances with new ideas. That makes Ray's success even more remarkable.

"Curtis" is about an 11-year-old African-American boy who lives in the big city. The strip focuses on friendship and family through the experiences of a black middle-class family.

Most of the material for "Curtis" comes from Ray's own life.

Ray grew up in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He later moved to the Harlem section of New York City. Curtis's mom is much like Ray's mom, whom he describes as SDTNS ("she don't take no stuff"). Curtis's dad, like Ray's, is the backbone of the family. Barry, Curtis's little brother, is much like Ray was with his older brother — a pest.

Ray also injects healthy doses of his experiences as an African-American in each strip. "There are things I can do with black characters that a white artist could not," Ray says.

Usually though, Curtis faces situations that are familiar to all. That, says Ray, is the key to Curtis's success. "My themes are universal," he says. "Everyone can relate to them."

Most of the time, Curtis gets into fights with Barry, his little brother, or he drives his parents crazy with rap — his favorite music.

Ray also likes "Curtis" to tackle real-life issues rarely seen in comics. Last summer, Curtis's younger brother found a crack baby abandoned in a dumpster by his 14-year-old mother. Curtis's father took the baby to the hospital and reminded his sons — and readers of the strip — about the horrors of drug use.

Ray wanted that strip to help change things. But his editors were nervous about addressing teen pregnancy and drug abuse in the comics. Ray insisted, "They thought I would lose papers, but instead people loved it," he says. "The strip's circulation grew because of the story."

A SLOW START

Like Curtis, Ray doesn't give up easily. When he was 8, Ray began drawing. He wanted to be like his older brother Richard. Richard's paintings and drawings won praise from family and friends.

But Ray's drawings weren't that good. "Everybody laughed at them," he says. Ray was determined. He tried drawing cartoons and discovered a special talent of his own.

When he was 12, Ray got his first big break. His class was building a Christmas tree out of aluminum cans. Ray volunteered to make drawings of the project. A visitor saw the drawings and was impressed. Ray didn't know it at the time, but the visitor was the editor of a magazine for young people.

"She asked me to come to see her," he says. "I drew something for her, and she hired me!"

By the time he turned 21, Ray published his first strip. Called "Looking Fine," the strip appeared in 50 newspapers. Ray became the youngest successful cartoonist in the country.

Unfortunately, the strip only lasted two years before it was canceled. Again, Ray didn't quit. "I vowed I would be back!" Ray says. Not long after, "Curtis" was born.

Ray likes to encourage young artists — especially minority artists — to try cartooning. There's room for more strips about minorities written and drawn by minorities, he says.

How can aspiring cartoonists succeed? Drawing and writing well helps. But discipline is key.

"Most of the time you draw alone," Ray says. "You have to sit quietly and explore for ideas. You must be willing to work hard."

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