Thrift Store Finds: Curtis

Today we’re looking at Curtis by Ray Billingsley, published in 1993 by Ballentine Books.

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Cover price was $3.99 back in ’93, I paid fifty cents for it.

Curtis is a long-running syndicated comic strip featuring the adventures of the title character, an 11 year old boy living in the city with his family. While not the first popularly syndicated comic strip to center on African Americans, it’s certainly one of the most prominent in the funny paper landscape today. Judging from the appearance of the strips in this collection, they were culled from early in the strip’s run.

I’ve always thought of Billingsley’s as one of the better cartoonists working in the “family life” milieu. His characters are appealingly fun to look at. Billingsley also excels at illustrating movement, something many modern comic strip artists shy away from given the space limitations of a comic strip in modern newspapers. While the norm is to have two characters staring at one another delivering lines a la Doonesbury, Billingsley has always thrown a little extra verve into Curtis. Check out this one to see Billingsley’s kinetic approach at work.

Curtis1

One of the things that’s very interesting to see in this book is how early Billingsley marked out certain recurring stories and gags. These gags are ones the cartoonist uses today, almost three decades after the debut of Curtis in the funny pages. Things like the pitched battle between father and son wherein Curtis tries to get his Dad to quit smoking.

Curtis2

These strips have always been very strong. It’s hard to argue that Curtis isn’t completely in the right to try and get his father to cut it out with the cigarettes… which is an interesting dynamic to play out in a comic strip centered on a kid. Usually kids pestering their parents in these types of storylines are panted as being annoying to a fault, but here, Curtis has a point and most of his protests come from a place of love rather than annoyance.

Billingsley had also paced out the complicated love triangle between Curtis, Michelle, and Chutney quite early in the strip’s run.¬†Again, we have an interesting dynamic rooted almost entirely in character and situation. Chutney likes Curtis…

Curtis4

but Curtis likes Michelle…

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and Michelle doesn’t give Curtis the time of day. It’s not rocket science but it’s yielded some good strips.

I will say, both as a young reader and an adult, I found the repetition of some of these stock story lines to be a bit much. There’s only so many times you can read the same type of gag where Curtis makes fun of the old ladies’ hats in Sunday mass. These are well constructed gag situations, but Billingsley has crutched on them almost entirely during my time reading the strip. I don’t know if you want to call that a criticism as ALL cartoonists do this… but there you go.

Before anyone asks, no… this collection does NOT include the famous/famously whacked out Kwanzaa strips Billingsley creates at the end of every year in honor of the African holiday. Those strips (scroll down for a couple of examples) have always left me scratching my head a bit as they’re so far removed from the regular Curtis strips. I get what Billingsley’s going for though. These Kwanzaa strips probably deserve a collection all their own, but I don’t think the artist was making them during the period from which this collection derives.

Which brings me to an interesting point. Looking through this paperback, I was left with a big question: Why aren’t there more Curtis collections out there in the world? It’s a long running, appealing comic but as far as I can tell, this paperback is the only one King Features ever had produced. My first thought is the setting could perhaps be pretty limiting as far as broad-based appeal goes. I like the fact that Curtis is so firmly entrenched in an urban environment, but when you think about the really big successes in comic strips of the last 30 years, most of them have a somewhat bucolic, or at least suburban setting. I’d hate to think the race of the characters limits the crossover success a comic strip like Curtis could have… but realistically, it must factor in somehow, I’m sure.

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(Aside: Why don’t cartoonists still take publicity photos like this anymore?)

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