BLACK HISTORY MONTH SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW – RAY BILLINGSLEY

At what point in your life did you discover that you were destined to be a comic book artist?
I believe the entire concept of “destiny” to be questionable and open to debate. No one can tell what it is they were put on this earth for. We basically discover something we like, or at least mediocre to pro efficient and let our wanderings take us where it may. When I was a child, I knew that I liked to draw. I grew up under the rule of a very strict father (who did not see a Black kid doing a career as a cartoonist to be viable at all), so I was rather quiet and to myself and I picked up drawing in my room as a form of escapism. If there was truly destiny then we wouldn’t have to do anything. It would unfold as it’s supposed to. As I literally grew up in the industry I was wildly creative. When, at age 12, I discovered that others would pay money for my art I just kept at it. But as I drew, I studied writing, and panel construction and how to create strong well-developed characters with distinct personalities. It was when I signed the contract for my first syndicated strip, Lookin’ Fine, that I began to think I’d be doing this all my life. I was 21 and had been in the industry professionally for almost ten years.As a kid I actually thought I would do something in science, as it fascinates me and to this day still study it.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a comic book artist, and even more specifically a black comic book artist?
I find the most rewarding aspect of doing a Black comic is that it is revolutionary. There will never be an even-ground aspect to it and to make it survive in an almost lily-white profession, you have to be extra good. As a Black cartoonist there are a lot of topics that you may want to do or like to do but it is not accepted or appreciated. A lot of flights of fantasy are just not accepted, and a lot of expectations are not your expectation. I like to believe that my voice is unique and singular-apart from the others, At this point of my career it’s my mission to be the best I can and hopefully inspire some others to pick up the struggle where one day I will leave behind. It’s nice to have some look up to you or read you daily. You become a fond part of that person or that family. Just to find out sometimes just who has been reading your stuff is amazing. I am very lucky.
Who are some of your biggest comic book artist influences?
My art influences are vast. Most of them came as I was just growing into the industry. Some were mainstream, as the usual pick of Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Hank Ketcham but also those whose began in “alternative political papers like Jules Feiffer and Matt Groening. I also liked some cartoonists that were definitely off the grid, and working with no restrictions whatsoever and didn’t have to worry about offending or appeasing everyone. Most of my biggest influences were incredible artists with unique styles, others were at least very clever in their punchlines.
What inspires you to create and how do you strive to reach your readers within the black community by reflecting themselves in your work?
I’m not inspired to reach out to only the Black community. I want my work to be embraced by people of all races, ages and nationalities. What I offer is a glimpse into my world. If you like it, fine, if you don’t, that’s fine too. I only hope that other Black creators feel that if I could be successful and break some barriers that they could too. For the Black community any excursion into any visual art is a hard daunting one full of rejection by non-creatives or those who just can’t grasp the bigger picture, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
What does your creative schedule look like and how many hours a day do you create?
My creative schedule is loose and strict at the same time. I never say that I’m going to create at a certain time or place. Ideas can hit me anywhere that I’m at, and I either write them done for future editing, or if I have no paper handy, to just remember key words or sentences, There are times when I’m definitely a Night-Owl, working in solitude way into the night when It’s very quiet. Or I may wake up in the early am, before the sun is up, because I cannot shut my brain off. it takes work and dedication because there are some days, say a nice summer day, when I’d rather be outside and hanging at a friends, but I know I must meet my deadline. I have been on a deadline for the better part of my life so I have learned how to juggle everything and have the readers not know what I may be going through.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
There are a few difficult parts to my process. As life goes sometimes there are bad things that happen, like a death of a close family member. An accident that leaves someone close hospitalized. Maybe even I get hospitalized. The fact that I still have to create and not have time off at times pisses me off. But then I remember this is just a business and they are not my true friends. True friendships in this industry are slim to none. And when I’m told “no” to a project I worked my ass off on. I can work on a script for animation then work up storyboards, taking several months of extra work just to have one person say no and the whole project goes down the drain. Everyone likes to feel appreciated.
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?   
There are many ways I choose to recharge. Lying back and just doing nothing. Checking out classic Noir films or the rare movie at the theatre. I calm myself with cooking, which people tell me I’m good at. Reading science journals and nature, Music is a very big part of me and I never go a day without listening to music. But real music, not auto-tune or image-oriented and most people I like can actually play an instrument. So that gives you an idea of who I don’t listen to.
What have you found to be the most challenging thing about breaking into the comic book industry, especially as a black creator?
As a Black creator the most challenging aspect to this business is that there aren’t any Blacks in high positions like President, Vice-president or even Editors. You can’t expect anyone else to actually understand what it is you’re trying to do. Which is why there aren’t a slew of animated programs with diversity. I guess these things shouldn’t be exactly aimed at a certain group without leaving the other in a secondary role. But when you really look, that’s what is being done anyway. There are programs that go for several seasons with token diversity or none at all. It’s a challenge to even get others to even take your ideas seriously. They don’t come from where you do and have not lived the same experiences so I guess it cannot be expected for them to understand.
How and why is it important that black people are represented in this medium and how important is it that black creators work together to encourage, empower and educate the black community through their work?
As a Black creator I feel it’s very important to represent others that look like me and also a large part of the population. We don’t all look the same and I believe that should reflect in our works. Hopefully it does encourage those to work on their own visions, their own take on life, aside from what has always been slated as the norm. It empowers others to believe that they have a stake in the industry and their own vision to share. And in terms of education, that should come along with the work.
What upcoming project(s) are you working on, which you can share with the readers?
My upcoming projects are still the ones I’ve been trying to get for many years. I’m still working an animation scripts. Hopefully some producer out there with vision and an open mind will open a door. There are CURTIS miniatures figures in the works. And I’m to be in talks about a new series of books. And if haven’t learned anything about me from reading this article, you know it will have to be an original take. Fingers crossed!
Where can the readers continue to follow your career? Do you have a website or blog?
Readers can continue to follow CURTIS in papers, on the web, and on the King Features site called The Comics Kingdom. If you want to look up some personal things, you can always go my site http://www.billingsleyart.com. And yes, it needs a new design. I’ll get to it one day. And of course, there is always Facebook and Instagram.

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