February: Ray Billingsley

Ray Billingsley is the man behind Curtis, the daily comic strip that launched from King Features in 1988. Before that point the School of Visual Arts graduate had worked in animation, was a freelance illustrator, and had a short-lived syndicated strip in the early eighties. While in high school he worked for Kids magazine, which back in the 1970's was overseen by Jeanette Kahn before she went on to become President of DC Comics.

Curtis is a family strip for the most part. That's certainly not the only thing that the strip is, but I think I'm on safe ground as describing that as the typical strip. The story of Curtis, who is an eleven year old growing up dealing with a younger brother, two parents, and various strict teachers, bullies, girls who don't share his crushes, and various other friends, enemies and neighbors.

The strip remains primarily about family, and that is the center of the strip. Curtis' father was for many years a smoker, which was a running gag and source of frustration and education, until he finally quit. It does offer the sidestep into the fantastic from time to time. Curtis is a daydreamer and has his superhero fantasies. Additionally Curtis' best friend Gunk is from Flyspeck Island and his stories of what life is like or when the island's native creatures come to New York are much more surreal and fantastic than the ordinary life of the strip.

Billingsley has also made a point of using the strip as an educational tool, using the space to mark Kwanzaa each year by telling a fable in the tradition of old African folktales. He's used the strip to talk about the life and work of Dr. King, taking a look at influential or forgotten African-American figures. If seeing an African-American family on the comics pages isn't unusual enough, the ways that he tries to broaden the scope of the strip is even rarer.

It's clear that Billingsley designed a strip that would allow him to use his many creative muscles. After more than a quarter century, Curtis has become an institution on the comics page, but after years of reading the strip, it's clear that Billingsley is interested in more than just continuing to maintain his real estate on the comic pages. I don't know what he'll do in the years to come, and he may not either, but I'm sure he'll find a way to push against our expectations and experiment artistically.

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