This is mine.
My Initial Introduction to art was actually through my older brother Richard. He was really good at portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes. I watched him draw, heard the praises he received from family, school and the church, and one day picked up a pencil. I was seven years old.
It was in this Harlem neighborhood where my interest in the arts began. As if in some sort of competition with my brother, I practiced and practiced and practiced, and to my family’s surprise, I got better!
This is my report card from the second grade. If you noticed, my teachers name is Mrs. Nelson, the same as Curtis’ teacher! She was the direct inspiration for Curtis’ teacher and in many ways, mirrors what I remember her to be like. If you also notice at the bottom of the second page, the mention of my interest in drawing
Let’s zip ahead a few years.
Recycling was a big deal back in the day. My seventh grade art class was asked to participate in an ecology program. It was a very chilly day. Not like Winter Bone-Chillin’ chilly, but chilly. It was our task to construct an 18-foot Christmas tree entirely of recyclable cans in front of a hospital in upper Manhattan.
By this age, I would draw whenever I could and it had become common for me to carry a small notepad. I crept away from my classmates, sat nearby and began doodling. It must have been a slow news day because I noticed some news cameras. A woman approached me and asked to see my drawings. Then, she asked if she could keep a couple, one with my name and phone number on it. A few days later, she actually called me and my family at home. Turns out, she was an editor at KIDS Magazine, and she wanted me to visit the office to see if I could draw a picture to accompany a certain storyline. The office was located on the very busy east side of New York City and the streets were choked with activity. My mother and I must have looked very out of place, especially with me carrying a portfolio. I made my first sale that very day, and to my surprise, was offered a job as a staff artist. I had to show up every day after school, do sketches, read stories, and finalize drafts for a nationally-recognized magazine. This, along with keeping up my class assignments kept my days filled. I guess I was, more or less, “discovered”.
I stayed with KIDS Magazine from age 12, and retired as an Associate Editor at age 18. My father wasn’t too cool on giving me or my siblings allowances, so drawing became an effective way to make money. Legally, that is. The streets in my neighborhood offered a lot of way to make money- a lot of money. Luckily for me, a career was blossoming that I wasn’t even aware of.
Art jobs began to take up a lot of my time. In fact, most of it. It wasn’t uncommon for me to work on several projects at the same time, all highly different and commanding different styles. My mother says I used to draw “in the air”. Trying to have just a normal life, and do what my buddies did was becoming impossible. No one around was into art, as I was, and interested only in things that led to jail, or worse. Playing basketball, fathering children they had no intention of raising, and getting high was the rule. They thought I was weird because I was creative. I thought they were weird because they weren’t. Drawing had become second nature to me and was as easy as breathing. It was all I did. All I knew.
Time passed, and the projects kept coming. Fortunately.
I was accepted into The High School of Music and Art. It was the first time I was around other people my age who shared a desire to carve their own niche in some aspect of the Creative Visual World. It wasn’t always great when I ran up against an art teacher who was still trying to get published, and this lanky Black teenager was doing so regularly. For reasons such as this, and not being accepted by my neighborhood peers, lead to my being somewhat quiet when it comes to talking about my career. I’m still that way.
CRAZY Magazine provided me the opportunity to creatively write my own articles, and not only supply art to someone’s script .
I tried my hand at PlayBill’s for plays.
I came up with a series of graphic posters for The Path trains and transportation. They told me they had placed two thousand of these copies throughout their system, and at the end of a week, only 200 remained. It seems they were being stolen! I felt very flattered. Plus, I wrote and drew a full-color comic book on the Path system, following the adventures of four teenager riders. This was the first time I had to sustain storylines over several pages.
There were designs for packaging.
I supplied art for brochures
Even a line of designer drawers, which at the time was very popular, actually.
I did a line of Greeting Cards. They were popular in Europe.
This is the actual letter I received when I was awarded a full four-year scholarship to the School of Visual Arts, in New York’s Manhattan.
“Lookin’ Fine” ran from 1980 to “82, and appeared in 40 to 60 sixty papers. It was under United Features Syndicate, and above everything, I considered it to be a Great Learning Experience. The problem was I was prevented from doing the strip the way I knew it should be done. It was a strip about an African-American family and I was dealing with solely non-African-Americans. They didn’t have a clue. When it was suggested that to boost sales, this family adopt a White kid, I knew it was time to pack it up and walk away.
I returned to freelancing and continued doing wellAs long as I continued to be diverse, and able to adapt to whatever the job called for, I was still working
Not all of you people are even aware of it, but I sold my first national magazine cartoon spot to Ebony Magazine in 1978. I became, more or less, a regular contributor ‘til today.
Here, I appeared on the same page as Morrie Turner, creator of WEE PALS. It is the first feature ever fully populated by children of all races
Ask fifty artists how they got their start and you’ll get fifty different answers.
A young photo of me, doing a poster for what I think says something about a gala at the NY Hilton. I don’t know how old I am here, but it seems I hadn’t grown any facial hair and had an Afro.
As I grew, so did my portfolio. In tearsheets. Things that had been published. I was beginning to get the reputation around New York publications as “The Kid Artist”. I sometimes used my age to my advantage. I remember one interview I went to. The front office was filled with artists and their portfolios, all angling for the same job. I put on a messenger’s jacket and wore a cap, and put my portfolio in a large envelope. I told the receptionist that I had to give it to the editor personally, or get a signature. Some BS. like that. And it worked. When I got in front of that editor, I quickly pulled my portfolio from the envelope and went on to get the job!! By 16, I had become a seasoned pro with a diverse portfolio and steady clients.
I actually drew some designs for established characters, such as “ALF”.
It was here I met Will Eisner, creator of the comic visual masterpiece, “The Spirit”. He challenged me and pushed me and stayed on my back like a tick,
and I’m glad he did! He pushed me to do more and be more creative than I thought I could be. Our friendship continued long after my graduation until the time he departed.
Poster for Public Libraries
Oh sure, I’ve had my share of rejections and I didn’t get every gig I went after. The industry was always, like, 95% rejection, but I didn’t let the odds stop me from trying. Here are a few ideas that bit the dust.
This was a proposed ad for Levi’s.
This didn’t make the cut at Pan Am, either.
Unfortunately, too. They had told me to be totally creative in my approach. I think they found it too weird. It was the late seventies, early eighties, they weren’t as open as today.
This was a strip that was rejected. It’s titled, “MA’AM”, and was about a liquored-up foul-tempered highly eccentric “seasoned” actress.
“Off the Vine” was an early attempt at parody. It was a complete rewriting of the classic Tarzan stories with a modern day slant. I had drawn up thirty or so samples of this strip and put in on display at The School of Visual Arts Gallery, to get a feel for how the public liked it or not. They screamed with laughter. It didn’t go over well with the syndicate editors. They just screamed.
I dream frequently. Always have. As a young boy to this very day. Some are vivid nightmares, some were even inspiration for art or storylines. One late night I awoke with this idea of a sketch of a boy and his little brother. I didn’t even turn on the lights. I picked up a pad, that I kept nearby my bed. I made a couple of brief scribbles by moonlight and went back to sleep. That next morning, I awoke to meet my newest creation. I gave him my own middle name and began the Long Road of Development.
These are the first sketches of the character GUNK.
I began to develop it further with pen and ink, to figure what which style I was going to use for this feature.
After many experiments and changes, CURTIS made it’s debut on Oct. 3, 1988.
And has been a solid hit with a loyal fan base ever since with an estimated 30 million in daily readership. I have literally grown up in this industry, and have appreciated every moment of it. I have more friends than I could ever imagine, from all over the globe, and I feel blessed. I’m also thankful that I am now friends with many of the artists and people I have always admired.
“Blondie” artist/writer Dean Young invited cartoonists to be a part of Blondie’s Big Anniversary. Blondie has been a longtime favorite, so I came up with a special story.
On the day of their anniversary, Blondie had a special page depicting all their cartoon friends and neighbors. Can you spot CURTIS?
Curtis meets Nipper from “ Wee Pals”.
CURTIS appeared on The American Lung Association’s Kwanzaa Seals.
Here are a few publications that I have had the good fortune to be associated with-
Will Eisner, A Spirited Life
By Bob Andelman
African-Americans In The Visual Arts
By Steven Otfinoski
by Mort Walker
Cartoon Success Secrets
By Jud Hurd
Garfield at 25
By Jim Davis
The Great American Comic Strip
By Judith O’Sullivan
A Gallery of Rogues
The Ohio State University
Cartoon Research Library
100 Years of American Newspaper Comics
by Maurice Horn
Out of Sequence
by Duffy and Jennings
As long as I continued to be diverse and able to adapt to whatever style was needed for any project, I continued to land consistent freelance work. These two were just for fun. I like to stretch out artistically.
The day after graduation, I went to the Disney Studios in Orlando to begin an internship in animation. It was quite grueling. I would draw all day, had mandatory art classes after work, plus I was still working on my own stuff. It was a good thing that I was already used to such a schedule. I learned to draw “Disney-Style”.
However, as luck would have it, it wasn’t long before I landed my first syndicated strip named, “Lookin’ Fine”. The title wasn’t my idea. It was the first strip about twenty-something African-American young people. I left Disney to further pursue syndication. I signed the contract at age 21.