Usually, a newspaper’s comic page isn’t my go-to place for stories about religion but there was a fascinating storyline last week in Ray Billingsley‘s “Curtis,” a strip about an African-American family.
The premise was that the “most religious woman in the world” was coming to babysit Curtis and his little brother Barry (you can see the full storyline here — a couple of the strips are below):
I’m not used to seeing (even fundamentalist) religion mocked with such ease in a comic strip, and I was especially surprised to see it happening in a strip revolving around a black family where church is usually as much a part of the culture as anything else.
I was really curious what led to this storyline and whether Billingsley got any negative pushback from readers. He was kind enough to respond to my questions via email.
On how the story developed:
The sitter, Ms. Claibourne, is based on a woman I knew in my neighborhood growing up. Whatever the topic I noticed she would turn it into something about God and his vision or his will or whatever. She was doggedly stubborn about anything that didn’t meet with her interpretation of the scriptures. I remember getting quite annoyed at times just listening to her. I’m not really a talker, I don’t have the gift of gab, but I do listen to what others have to say and sometimes it fits within the strip.
On the feedback from readers:
There were a few comments from readers on The Comics Kingdom site. It’s a site where readers can check out their favorite King Features strips daily and make their thoughts known. Mine happens to be one where they write everyday, so I find out rather quickly where their minds are at. Usually they’re funny, silly little notes so I figure they’re having a little fun. Sometimes they disagree with each other. At times they worry about a character, almost as if they are real people. I find it all interesting and I’m glad that they care.
On the strip’s reflection of the black church:
Growing up within the Black church — and sometimes working behind the scenes — I have discovered the hypocrisy that [lingers] therein. Some were the worst people to know. Some were actually nice people. I do like to poke fun at times, especially with the hats the ladies wear. If anything I would say that these sort of strips speak on the absurdity of Man within their faith(s). I know I’m telling the truth because no one has ever told me otherwise. I write only what I know about or have experienced first-hand. They say that the church is a place where everyone is accepted and I’ve found out that isn’t always true. I’ve heard people speak vicious gossip about others and if a person didn’t fit exactly into their view they were ostracized. It’s always been a place of double standards.
Curtis feels all this can be unnecessary and overblown. He gets exasperated by her actions but he puts up with it. He can be vocal about his feelings but at most times his is overlooked or downright ignored. I think my strips resonate with a lot of people because they see a truth I am getting at that other strips cannot delve into.
That’s some heavy stuff to put in a daily comic strip, but Billingsley found a way to do it without being offensive and while still keeping a smile on readers’ faces. Very impressive.