Posted by support01 on November 26th, 2012
Recently I sat down and had a chat with famed cartoonist Ray Billingsley, creator of the CURTIS comic strip. Some of you might be wondering what a comic about two sassy kids and their long-suffering parents has to do with horror, but Ray has a secret: he’s a huge horror fan! And on top of that, he’s also dedicated to advancing youth literacy and has recently partnered with the HWA to promote reading among the young adult crowd – where horror and dark fiction happen to be the most popular genres.
JGF: Ray, let me just say it’s an honor to have you here. Like the thirty-five million other people who read Curtis each day, I’m a big fan. I especially enjoy when Curtis drags his terrified little brother Barry to see double features with fantastic titles like “The Brain that Ate the City” or “Bug-Eyed Alien Squids from Mars.” How old were you when you first discovered you had a love of things creepy and scary?
RB: First of all, let me say what an honor and a pleasure it is to be here speaking to you all! Thank you so very much for the compliments about my strip CURTIS. I’m happy that so many readers like it! Your question is quite interesting. I can clearly remember my very first horror movie, which my mother, of all people introduced me to. It was VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, you know, the story with the cute li’l kids-who were all born at the same time, and could control the adults with their eyes, yadda yadda yadda. Yes, my mother took me there to see it. Not Bambi. Not Peter Pan or what have you. I remember that it caught my attention right away and held it until the last frame. I was cheering for the kids! I was less than ten years old, maybe six to eight years old. We had one TV in the house, which my older brother usually had control of; he basically made me watch THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. On late Saturday nights, he liked ‘CHILLER’ and things like that. So I was introduced to the genre at an early age.
JGF: Chiller! I remember that program. Great classic horror movies. Speaking of movies, rumor has it you have a pretty big movie collection. How many movies do you have, and what are some of your favorites?
RB: Hmm, I don’t have an actual count, but there are several hundred DVDs. Oh my goodness, I have so many favorites! THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, THE EXORCIST, THE FLY, SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE THING (John Carpenter’s version!), THE SKELETON KEY, any movie with Vincent Price, SALEM’S LOT, there are so many! On visitor, who was going through my DVD collection, happened to mention that it consisted mainly of horror films. I also enjoy Japanese horror, like Ju-Ch’s THE GRUDGE, also ONE MISSED CALL.
JGF: What type of horror do you enjoy the most? For example, psychological, suspense, supernatural creatures, classic monsters, gore-fests, etc.
RB: Most genres I like, with the exception of extreme gore. The films with characters like Michael Myers were creepy the first time, but with so many sequels they sort of lose their punch for me. Classic creatures are really campy fun, especially when you think of the poor actor who was trapped inside some badly designed rubber costume. Films that use special effects really effectively like, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Most types of horror I truly enjoy, with the exception of the mousse-hair characters who now today inhabit most of the vampire genre. Also, I think the ‘zombie’ genre is losing its punch because of overcrowding. THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was great by itself. The flood of predictable zombie films these past few recent years, not so much. Suspense is great when it only gives you a little and lets you use your own imagination, like Hill House. You walk those corridors along with Eleanor.
JGF: What do you think about the different trends we’ve been seeing in horror lately, such as movies that seem to focus on gore and violence or books or movies that have somber, emotional vampires and shape shifters?
RB: I’m not much of a fan of those, but they must have an audience because they keep on crankin’ ‘em out. I’ll never get used to the kid-like vampires and werewolves who pine for each other, emotionally and/or sexually. Aren’t they supposed to be the living undead?! Movies made just for ‘gore-appeal’, exceedingly bloody, are not my cup of tea either. I don’t really need to see someone’s head fly off to know he’s been decapitated. I like to have my imagination and mind’s-eye to paint the scene for my own entertainment.
JGF: CURTIS is a comic strip about two brothers growing up in a poor neighborhood. You have a brother, and you grew up in Harlem. How much of what we see in CURTIS is taken from your experiences growing up? And which brother are you more like, Curtis or Barry?
RB: CURTIS is very much the way my life was growing up in Harlem. I have an older brother, Richard, who was a lot like Curtis. He had a lot of schemes to get the things he wanted, or to get out of things he didn’t want to do. I, like Barry, would tag along and just watch his plans blow up in his face. Of course, some of my own mischief creeps into the character of Curtis. As a youth, I had a crush on a girl much like Michelle, and she couldn’t stand me. There was also a girl like Chutney, who liked me, whom I didn’t like much. Gunther, the barber, is modeled right after my own barber from years ago. The family situation with Curtis’ mom and dad is almost autobiographical. Mom is no-nonsense; the true backbone of the family and dad was a real workaholic.
JGF: You were something of a prodigy, getting your first paid job as a cartoonist at the age of twelve, and your first syndicated comic strip when you were only a couple of years out of college. In the horror biz, that’s like getting your first novel published while your friends are still watching cartoons and then going on to be a best seller while those same friends are trying to get their first jobs. How did early success affect your life?
RB: Since I did start so very young, it sort of separated me from others my age in my neighborhood. I wasn’t into the things that they were. They did drugs and drank and many things that would eventually either kill them, put them in jail, or just hold them back in life, and I didn’t have time for that. I was pretty much an outcast. But it gave me more time to work. I was pretty used to being a loner anyway. My family was very close-knit, so they were my company. When most kids were outside playing after school, I was working on cartooning for magazines and other professional jobs. It was kind of a tradeoff.
JGF: Writing – any artistic endeavor, really – can be a lonely business. We don’t go to an office, we only see associates at conferences, and we struggle to stay objective about our work. For authors, one thing that’s important is having beta readers to look over our work before we send it in to a publisher for consideration. Who do cartoonists use when they need an extra set of eyes or someone to bounce ideas off?
RB: I can’t say about the other ‘toonists because they really haven’t told me, but for myself, I work alone! No other voices to bounce ideas off of, no extra eyes. From the very beginning, I’ve worked alone, and that’s the way I really like it. I’ve been in this industry over forty years now (!) and I’ve done it by myself. In that way I am sort of bohemian. I have no set rules for creating, nor a set time. At times it just hits, ideas coming faster than I can write them down, other times I sit and really think about a certain storyline to make it the best I feel it can be. I do tend to immerse myself in music when I’m creating.
JGF: How far in advance do you plot out your story arcs?
RB: Syndicated cartoonists are to stay at least six weeks ahead of ‘print-date’. That is, whatever you read in today’s newspaper was written and drawn at least six weeks ago. It’s kind of strange when I’m working on some topic that concerns any holiday. I’ll draw a storyline or strips, say about Christmas, six weeks before time. Then in six weeks the holiday really arrives and it feels like I’ve already lived it once. Newspaper déjà-vu, I call it.
JGF: When you’re writing a multi-week story arc, do you outline the entire thing or work from a rough outline and flesh things out as you go along?
RB: I try to work out the entire storyline, but when it lasts for several days or weeks, I do make changes as it goes along. I’m my own editor and can be pretty tough on myself. The outline comes to me early and many times it’s almost completely written out, but it’s always rough. Some days I write all I can, then get up and go do something else. I come back later to the ideas and find they need a lot of shaping. I think that’s why I don’t work with an assistant. I guess I’m sort of eccentric in that way.
JGF: What would you say is the most frightening book you’ve read? How about the most frightening movie you’ve seen?
RB: This will sound silly, but when I was much younger I read A Christmas Carol, and I thought it was the scariest thing I’ve ever read! The thought of three spirits coming to visit scared me to death. As I’ve grown, there are too many to count. I’m an avid reader and I get something from every book I’ve read. The Exorcist, The Haunting of Hill House, and THE SKELETON KEY are some of my scary favorites I can name right now. THE THING remake was scary! I liked some of the Freddy movies-not all, but a couple of them. For me the idea that something could come after you as you slept was horror! You have to sleep! How can you avoid this terror?!
JGF: In the past, CURTIS has had a few story arcs that dealt with serious political or social issues, and then that seemed to stop. But this year you did a hysterical arc where Curtis and Barry save an old woman (and are frightened to death because they think they’re trapped in an apartment with a dead lady!) and then both Obama and Romney show up to use his heroism for their own political agendas and they end up brawling until Curtis’s mother grabs a broom and shoos them out the door. Do you see the strip taking on more issues in the future, or will they remain only occasional story lines?
RB: They will remain only occasional. You see, CURTIS is a type of strip that I can approach ANY idea I like. Sometimes I get the political feel but only when it’s a good storyline. I’m surprised that it’s so accepted by my readers. Usually gag strips are only gag strips, political strips are only political, I’m able to do any idea I feel.
JGF: And there have been some horror-sci/fi ones as well.
RB: Yes, I’ve even done some “horror” in the strip, like the time where Curtis and his best friend Gunk (a character from a place called Flyspeck Island) had to fight off genetically-mutated plants!
JGF: : One of the programs the HWA has is a mentoring program, where established writers provide one-on-one help for those who are just starting out. Your online bio mentions that you have a couple of dozen art students you regularly advise. Does this desire to give back to the industry stem in part from the mentoring you received from well-known cartoonists and artists when you were in school? And, as a corollary to that, have you ever considered teaching an art course at a local school?
RB: I did receive some mentoring from the older well-known cartoonists who took me under their wings. But they also teased me a lot! They called me The Kid because I was so young when we met. But they also challenged me and pushed me to do better, more than I thought I could. I think, on my part, that I do enjoy giving advice to younger hopefuls. Maybe I can help them avoid some of the things I had to find out by practicing. I worked all the time and lost a lot of my childhood because of it. I missed out on doing a lot of things for my art. My hopes are to help young hopefuls achieve their goals a little faster and maybe, just maybe, in less time. I don’t think I could teach a course, where I have to actually show up at some building of learning. I am so unstructured and bohemian. I just know I wouldn’t fit into any set curriculum.
JGF: If you could go back in time, what horror writer or moviemaker would you most like to spend a day with?
RB: Ooh tough question!! I’m sure I’d like to meet Washington Irving, Shirley Jackson; of course H.P. Lovecraft, even Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock! Richard Matheson would be on my list as well as Poe, Robert Bloch, William Blatty, Barker, and King! Like I’ve said, there would be so many. I like to be around writers. They are so very different!
JGF: Who’s your favorite monster?
RB: I think in John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING, that he really came up with a thing!! There was no telling what its definite shape ever was! I like creatures where there is no explanation of where it came from, or if there are any more of them. It was suspenseful and scary!!
JGF: Now that Curtis is reading horror books besides seeing scary movies, do you see more horror story lines in his future? And will this give him even more of an opportunity to scare the pants off his little brother?
RB: Yes, Curtis will be reading more horror stories! And he’ll still visit the movie theatres to see them on the screen. Sometimes you have to feel for little Barry. He’s never ready for the films Curtis likes to see!
JGF: In addition to literacy, you’re very involved in anti-smoking campaigns. Where does that stem from?
RB: Here’s the story-it all came to me at the first STAR WARS film back in the ‘70’s. A friend of mine and I went to a favorite theatre and got pretty good seats-right towards the middle. Of course this during the time before they made it illegal to smoke in public areas. As the film progressed, a cloud of smoke-cigarette and otherwise-began filling the area. At one point, we were straining to see the movie through a heavy cloud of smoke. I began thinking of how much I wanted to kick those cigarettes out of their hands! Mind you, I don’t care what you do to your own body. I just don’t like it when I am forced to breathe in what you’re doing. It was a perfect vehicle for Curtis. When CURTIS made its debut, there were quite a few strips that featured major characters smoking. I sort of broke the mold with Curtis’ thinking towards his father’s smoking.
RB: Yes, I just loved it! This was one of those times when the design, with the colors and everything, just sprang into my mind. I knew exactly what it would look like from its inception. That happens rarely but in this case, it just felt right!
JGF: What is your idea of the perfect Saturday night?
RB: Wow! Actually?? Well, hmm, I’m a little boring. Just a single night with nothing at all to do. Just sit back, chill out, play with my Basset hound, watch a film (of course), a little quiet reading, music from my iPod, staring from the window at my studio. I don’t have many nights where I just do nothing! I’m not around so many people, but I do enjoy the movies, theatre, and dining at this great little greasy-spoon I know of. Bad décor, really good food, man!
JGF: Ray, thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to talk to us, and also for working with the HWA to show kids how much fun reading can be.
RB: And let me thank YOU, Greg, for giving me this time to share with you all. I’m glad to have this opportunity to open up and I hope I’ve answered these questions well for you. I really look forward to working along with the HWA. It’s one of the greatest groups in the world, filled with the most creative minds I’ve ever known. Thanks to you all!
Ray Billingsley draws the nationally syndicated comic strip CURTIS, which runs in more than 250 newspapers. He graduated from the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. After completing an internship at Walt Disney Studios, he pursued a career in art that included freelancing for magazines, newspapers, advertising companies, and greeting card companies before he created CURTIS in 1988. You can find out more about Ray at his website, www.billingsleyart.com and follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ray.billingsley.
By JG Faherty