Ray Billingsley wins NCS Reuben Award for Cartoonist of The Year
October 16, 2021
Congratulations to Ray Billingsley, the recipient of the 2020 NCS Cartoonist Of The Year at the 75th Annual NCS Reuben Awards!
OCT. 16, 2021
The recipient of the cartooning profession’s highest honor, the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, is chosen by a secret ballot of the members of the National Cartoonists Society. The NCS is pleased to announce this year’s winner is the creator of the popular newspaper comic strip “Curtis”, American cartoonist, Ray Billingsley.
The coveted award was presented to Mr Billingsley online Saturday evening, October 16th at the finale of NCSFEST 2021, the virtual cartooning festival hosted by the National Cartoonists Society and the NCS Foundation. In graciously accepting the award, Billingsley said “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe this has happened. I’d like to thank everyone who made this moment come true, thank everyone from the deepest part of my heart. I never thought I’d see this day.”
In an emotional moment, Billingsley expressed “This has been a huge step for me. And also a monumental step for the NCS, because I’m the first black guy to win the prestigious Reuben Award, and for that, I am very grateful.” adding, “I wish creators like Morrie Turner and Ted Shearer, and Brumsic Brandon Jr. were here to see this.”
The cartoonist also acknowledged the importance of his fans and fellow cartooning professionals, saying “My colleagues and my readers have always been my family, and that means I come from a pretty big family. I’m very lucky and very blessed”
Billingsley began his cartooning career at the very young age of twelve when he was discovered by “KIDS Magazine,” and hired as a staff artist. After graduating from The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, he attended The School of Visual Arts on a full four-year scholarship. Upon graduation in 1979 he began an internship at The Walt Disney Studios but quickly landed his first nationally syndicated comic strip, “Lookin’ Fine,” which ran from 1980 to 1982 under United Features Syndicate. He spent the next few years working on various projects in the fields of animation, advertising, greeting cards, clothing design, and magazine cartooning, until 1988 when King Features Syndicate introduced the “Curtis” strip.
Educators and community leaders have praised Billingsley for his thought-provoking and honest handling of such serious social and health issues as smoking, drug abuse, crime and asthma. In recognition of his storylines in which Curtis tries to get his father to quit smoking, Billingsley has received numerous awards and recognition from the American Lung Association, including the President’s Award in 2000 during the American Lung Association/Canadian Lung Association conference in Toronto, Canada. The President’s Award, which was first given in 1983, was created to acknowledge an individual, nonprofit, or commercial organization, responsible for an outstanding contribution in an area of importance to the goals of the American Lung Association. Previously, Billingsley received the Humanitarian Award from the American Lung Association of Southeast Florida in 1999.
NCS President Jason Chatfield commented, “Ray is such a talented cartoonist, and we’re thrilled to be able to honor him with our biggest award. We wish we could be celebrating in person, but we’re happy to be able to share our award-winners virtually with the world.
Here is Ray’s acceptance speech:
ABOUT RAY BILLINGSLEY:
If you ask one hundred cartoonists how they got their start you’ll get one hundred different answers. This one is mine…..
I was born the fourth child of Henry and Laura Billingsley-well, I’m the third and youngest because the one a couple of years before me didn’t make it. That made somewhat of a divide between my older brother and sister and me. My parents were both Southerners, my dad from Alabama my mom from North Carolina. Because of the lack of employment for any Blacks during that time they decided to raise their children in New York City. To be more specific, Harlem, the mecca for Blacks at the time. Dad worked mostly labor, once a riveter on ships and mom was a stay-at-home mother. Baby-sitters were not allowed and we kids had no Godparents. Dad was extremely strict and we were often afraid of him.
When he came home from work it was all the air was sucked out of the apartment and we kids stayed in our rooms. Birthdays weren’t a big deal at my house and we barely celebrated most holidays. We were basically cut off in a crowded city. My brother and I shared a room where he pulled all kinds of rotten things an older brother would do. My sister is extremely smart. My brother liked to draw but it was portraits and landscapes. He was very good and began to get neighborhood notice. Being the little brother I wanted to emulate him but my drawings were not up to his talent.
Some laughed at them so I decided on drawing little cartoons mainly of the Saturday morning animated programs. Since I was alone in my room a lot I started to get better at it. I spent many hours doing it for myself and began drawing on my homework. It was in the third grade that my teacher, Mrs Nelson, told my parents I had the beginning of talent and they should encourage me. Well, my mother anyway. My teacher entered some of my drawings in a district-wide art contest. And I won. I was eight and received a certificate and a book on animals as first prize. And I started getting noticed. My brother short of fell off of drawing for his real interest, cars and girls.
As usual, I drew most of my day. There was a park across the street and I could at least go there but only for limited times. Then I was back, drawing. I drew on everything and began to carry a small pad everywhere just in case the mood hit me. My mother said I was easy to get Christmas gifts for because all I wanted was drawing supplies.
Fast forward to 1969. I was in the seventh grade and my art class was involved in a public recycling project. We were to construct a twelve foot-tall aluminium Christmas tree outside of a hospital. There was some media there. I was bored and slipped off by myself. I brought out my pad and pen and began to draw cartoons. I was approached by a tall woman (at that age everyone was tall) who noticed and asked to see what I was drawing. Then she asked if she could keep the drawings to which I agreed. She asked for my name and telephone number and I gave it to her and thought nothing more of it. I’m pretty sure that was on a Wednesday. That Monday I get a phone call from her at my house. It turned out that she was the Editor of a national magazine called KIDS magazine, obviously geared towards kids. She asked if I could come downtown to the office. My mother, of course, took me there on the train. When we arrived I was spellbound. It was the first time I was in an office. She told us she really liked the art and wanted me to draw a quick piece to go along with a little story. I whiffed it out plus a couple more and she liked them so much she bought them for five dollars apiece. That was a lot to me, considering my father never gave us a dime. He said we kids should work for our spending money.
A few days later I got another call from her. They wanted to hire me as a staff artist. It meant more money so I agreed and so did my mother. So it started. I was twelve years old. I worked every day and some hours on Saturdays. It was part-time during the week and every day they sent a car to pick me up from school and take me to the office. Did not go well with some students and faculty, especially my art teachers some of who were trying unsuccessfully to get published. I worked all week and did my homework and studied mainly on the weekends. Thus began a divide between me and others especially in my neighborhood. No one understood what I was being exposed to. Thus I stopped telling people and became quieter. My mother told me that talking about it was pride and pride was a sin, you know what I mean. But it meant money and I kept doing it. I remember the editor brought in her Sheepdog every now and then so I could play in the office with him.
As I grew I learned a lot about the industry and I knew that one day I wouldn’t be known as a “kid artist” and would have to concentrate on drawing better. In those days New York was a mecca for artwork and all the major magazines were there. I was a teenager and began making regular rounds to each. And began to land freelance jobs. Mom said I looked cute, a kid with a portfolio going to interviews. All I knew was I was making good money, probably more than my father at this point. He wasn’t supportive at all and in fact, tried to discourage me from doing art. Mind you I was selling regularly at this point. I was eighteen when I retire from KIDS magazine as an associate editor.
By this time I was an old veteran in the industry being pretty successful especially for someone my age. I was selling greeting cards with a company named Intercontinental Greetings which sold well overseas. I got a regular gig with CRAZY magazine, which was for artists who wanted to be in MAD but wasn’t good enough. This was important because it was the first place where I finally wrote my own material. I also became a regular gag artist in EBONY magazine, which lasted decades.
I attended the High School of Music & Art. The principal knew of me and he actually kept me out of gym class so I wouldn’t hurt my hands. For the period I worked in the Art Office. I drew a weekly strip for the school and did special events, all the while still being published outside. I still barely spoke to anyone outside about my progress. I think I was sixteen when I discovered the Cartoon Museum in Connecticut, run by Mort Walker creator of Beetle Bailey. We struck a friendship. He was the first professional syndicated cartoonist I met and adopted as my dad. My father and my relationship got even more divided and I wound up moving into my own place at seventeen. Then I began really going after projects. I worked on comic strip proposals. I wrote 365 ideas before I went to ink. All were rejected but each was a learning experience. After high school, I was fortunate enough to get a four-year scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. I would not be able to afford it otherwise.
It was there that I met Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, who knew of me but wasn’t impressed. He was a no-nonsense instructor and although he had heard of me he wasn’t impressed. he challenged me to do more than I thought I could. He pushed me to draw outside of my comfort zone.
One day we students heard of Disney coming to the school to recruit new talents. I was in an animation class, for the credits mainly, and didn’t really want to be an animator. A friend of mine, who wanted to be an animator was interested in going to the interviews but was nervous. There were morning interviews and afternoon interviews. I said I’d take the morning one and he go in the afternoon and I could tell him what to expect. I had it and found him in the school lounge. Then he said he wasn’t going through with it. I didn’t think any more about it. Some weeks later another friend told me my name was on a paper as one of the students chosen to go to Disney. Still, I wanted to be syndicated but I knew this experience would look good on my resume.
Disney was gruelling. Monday through Friday I drew all day long, then directly after there was a mandatory art class. Then when I went home I worked on freelance projects and ideas for new strips. It was hard work but luckily I was used to hard work. I was there only a few months when I landed a contract with United Features Syndicate for LOOKIN’ FINE, a strip about Black young adults. I left Disney to concentrate fully. I was 22.
From the start, it was a struggle. Editors were narrow-minded and stupid. they did not understand anything Black. Some were afraid and branded the strip controversial before it even started. It was 1980 when it launched. The people were instructive but didn’t know what I was going for, and things became stressful. I knew they didn’t get me when they suggested that I add a White character. They suggested that the Black family adopt a White kid and let him sleep in the guest room to which I replied that Blacks don’t have spare guest rooms unless you count the room with the bathtub in it. I wound up walking away from it and returned to freelancing. It was normal for me to look for a project while working on a project while waiting to get paid for a prior project. I worked all the time. Mort Walker gave me my first opportunity to speak to audiences at his cartoon museum. I was also even more distanced from normal life. I was literally growing up in the art world. I grew up on a deadline.
It was 1986 and I was living in a cheap building in a really rough part of New York. I had a dream about this little boy and his brother. Without turning on the lights I got my pad, which I kept next to the bed, and made a sketch. The next morning I had a rough drawing of these characters and thought they might be good to develop. I gave the main character my own middle name and Curtis was born. I was in such a bad neighbourhood that one night I heard some guys actually plotting to break into my apartment but they noticed I didn’t go to a nine-to-five. I worked even harder and came up with a submission. It was accepted at King Features. I didn’t think I would get a second chance in syndication and worked my ass off to improve on it. I signed a contract and it was under development for a year, Then in October of 1988, Curtis made its debut. To everyone’s surprise, it was a hit, starting in over one hundred papers. Mort Walker suggested I move to Connecticut where it was much calmer and I did exactly that. New York was in my rear-view mirror.
My family and everyone in the neighborhood was reading it and it became popular in New York. To all but one, still my father. He never told me I did well or he was proud. No pat on the back. We were as distant as ever. Curtis got bigger and I was sent all over the country, doing interviews, magazines and tv. It became a second career. Then my father got sick. He was hospitalized with leukemia. Each of us sat with him every day there. One day I was alone with him watching the tv, he was asleep. Then I felt something on my hand. He was reaching out to hold my hand. He had never touched me before, except maybe to whack me a few times. It took me by surprise. He passed within three weeks. None of us kids were really affected. he had been so hard on us all. Badly enough I always went into my world of art for support and acceptance. Doing art was where I went for comfort and acceptance. We were going through his belonging, as everyone does after death, and my mother and I found a big box in the back of his closet. We opened it and found clips from every interview, every strip (for years), and everything public I had done. All that time he had kept up with everything though he never told me. Men during his time never expressed emotions, especially towards their sons. He was aware and proud of my accomplishments the whole time.
NCS membership is open to all creative professionals who earn a substantial part of their income working in the fields of cartooning, illustration, animation and graphic storytelling. We are an organization of esteemed peers and we welcome new members!