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Posted at 3:20 PM ET, 10/27/2009

Do You Like Living With 'Curtis'? Time to Defend That 'Toon

By Michael Cavna

On Monday night at the Kennedy Center, as a procession of performers spoke in tribute to Bill Cosby, they enumerated the reasons why "The Cosby Show" was every bit as groundbreaking as Cosby's "I Spy" was two decades earlier. Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld to Sinbad -- and of course to Phylicia Ayers Rashad to Malcolm Jamal Warner -- entertainers made reference to the '80s cultural landmark. And then Cosby himself strode onstage and waxed on about some of the challenges he faced trying to get "Cosby" on the air -- decades after working as a "Negro comic" (Dick Gregory's telling term Monday night) in Greenwich Village, after succeeding on Jack Paar's show and impressing Carl Reiner and winning over America as comic storyteller and TV star.

As Cosby accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the audience was reminded how much "The Cosby Show" helped pave the way for a new generation of standup comics turned TV stars, from Seinfeld to Roseanne to Tim Allen to Ellen DeGeneres, among others. What naturally went unspoken, though, was how much "The Cosby Show" had an impact on some comic strips.

The machinery of mainstream comic syndication was slow to fully embrace comics featuring black main characters. In the '60s, Morrie Turner (one of my personal cartooning heroes), launched the fully integrated "Wee Pals" at about the same time that "I Spy" was breaking barriers. But newspaper editors were reluctant to buy it -- early on, only five newspapers carried it -- until the late '60s, when it began to pick up steam amid a shifting social climate.

The reason I mention the relatively glacial social change in American comics -- the rare Walt Kelly notwithstanding -- is because arguably no current comic strip benefited from "The Cosby Show's" massive success more, and more quickly, than "CURTIS." Syndicated in 1988, during the peak of "Cosby's" powers, the strip marked many newspaper editors' realization that there was a need -- if not a financial incentive (no small impetus, that) -- for a strip featuring an African American nuclear family.

As one artist's take on a slice of African American life, Ray Billingsley's "Curtis" would be followed in mainstream syndication the next year by Robb Armstrong's "Jump Start" -- both a decade and comic "generation" before such strips as "Herb and Jamaal" and "The Boondocks," which was billed as the first comic for a hip-hop generation. Now, some two decades later, Curtis seems to still evoke a certain '80s sensibility and feel -- which at its best could have spawned a retro-set show like "Everybody Hates Chris." (Although the strip did venture to the Obama inauguration this year, ostensibly indicating that Curtis, Barry, Michelle and the rest of the cast live in Washington, D.C.)

"The Cosby Show" went off the air in 1992, and Cosby himself has only grown more outspoken since in his critiques of African American, and sometimes simply American, life. "Curtis," by contrast, remains fairly unvarying strip in tone and approach, relying on many sharp retorts and rebukes between and among the kids and the authority figures.

So what do you think of "Curtis"? If you're not a fan, feel free to Impugn That Toon. Otherwise it's time to Defend. That. Toon.

By Michael Cavna  | October 27, 2009; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  Defend That 'Toon, The Comic Strip  
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As an early reader, I liked the cartoony style of Curtis, I liked the characters, I liked the humor. But after X number of years, I can only handle recycling the same conflicts and story lines so often. I have nostalgic affection for Curtis, but I don't think it currently brings much to the table and I wouldn't be sad to see it replaced by another strip.

Posted by: ishkabibbleA | October 27, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I think Curtis is a fine strip for kids. Perhaps it should be put on the kids page instead of Frazz.

Posted by: LionelMandrake | October 27, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

As a devoted second-generation comics reader, Curtis is actually one of my favorite strips. The characters, esp. Curtis, are well-developed and even a little well-rounded. We may know that Curtis blasts his rap, inhales junk food, torments his brother (and vice versa), but we also know that he's a good, smart kid who loves to read. It was not a surprise, but merely layering, when he helped Mr. Coleman during Volunteer Week. Also, for all that some of the behaviors are repetitive, we do see actual storylines and development.

Posted by: andrea13 | October 27, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

"Curtis" is tedious and predictable. It's a strip that has about as many stock situations and stale gags as "Hagar the Horrible". Sure, it owes a huge debt to the Cosby show, but it's a debt that will never be repaid - it's Cosby without the humor. If you have read it for a while, then there's little point in continuing to read it, since it will just be more of the same old same-old. I have no real problem with the Post's keeping it, but it's a strip that I usually skip over. If WaPo goes through another comics contraction soon, though, I would put it on the "drop" list.

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 27, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Gee, it turns out that there's a wide spread of opinion about one of my favorite strips.
I think it would be wrong to call in air strikes against those posters here who fail to appreciate _Curtis_, also wrong to kidnap & torture them or even simply to stuff them in garbage cans and roll them down long flights of stairs. But then, I'm such a liberal.

Posted by: halwomack | October 28, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

Curtis is a perfectly "normal" comic strip - not the funniest on the page, but also not anywhere near the bottom of the barrel. Actually, one of the things I like about it is that the humor and the issues that appear in Curtis are just that: normal. The family happens to be black, but that's normal, too. That's what I liked (long ago) about "Wee Pals": color just doesn't matter.

This is in strong contrast with two very odious cartoons: in "Herb & Jamaal", nothing ever appears that is not a "black" issue, and in "Baldo", there is never anything included that is not "hispanic". Neither of these strips ever lends a feel for inclusion, because they are permanently trumpeting their own "race" issues.

Posted by: kilby | October 28, 2009 1:59 AM | Report abuse

Curtis is kind of predictable and "recycly", but it's still better than about two thirds of the other strips out there. If you insist upon slotting it into the "black cartoon" category, think of it as the black Sally Forth---equally bland and predictable but still not the worst toon you've got. Your two other major strips featuring black characters (Watch Your Head and Candorville) are far funnier, but then again they're also far funnier than nearly every other syndicated cartoon.

And the person who suggested putting Curtis on the Kids Post page may have been onto something, since it's far more of a "kids" strip than Frazz, which is about as understandable to the average "kid" as Pogo or Zippy. (Well, maybe if the average kid was Caulfield...)

Posted by: andym108 | October 28, 2009 6:45 AM | Report abuse

Has anyone noticed that Frazz has not been in the paper?

Posted by: oldgal49er | October 28, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

i agree with andym ... though i get confused by watch your head quite a bit

Posted by: greasypores | October 28, 2009 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Curtis is one of my must reads every day. Curtis, along with FBOFW, Stone Soup and Calvin&Hobbs...with The Barn and The Duplex....well, I am a comic reader. Agnes and Heart of the City are in the favorites too, but Jump Start I just can't get into. Keep Curtis!

Posted by: ZeldaJane | October 28, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

>> andym108:

You raise a point that often is part and parcel with such discussions: Syndicates and some newspapers historically HAVE insisted on "slotting" comic strips as such, at least from a sales perspective. Over the years, several syndicate executives have acknowledged this to me directly, saying strips are often sold by how they're "themed" -- so a strip such as "Curtis" would be sold as a "black strip" and as a "family strip." Sometimes, some editors have said, features have also been "slotted" by such details as the race or sex or relative age of the creator, among other factors.

Also, we note: In February of 2008, more than a half-dozen cartoonists -- including Darrin Bell ("Candorville"), Cory Thomas ("Watch Your Head") and Keith Knight ("Knight Life" et al.) -- visually protested being lumped together in such a way, by all rendering the same joke on a single day. The cartoonists said they were reacting to "black strips" being viewed as interchangeable -- so that whenever a strip featuring black characters was picked up by a newspaper, it was at the expense of another "black" or "minority" strip that was dropped.


Posted by: comicriffscavna | October 28, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

although i do love reading "Curtis" i think it is about time he grew up and was tall enough to handle his nemesis's Onion & Derrick. And also to wake up to the fact that Michelle hates his guts and she will get nowhere with that snotty attitude.

Posted by: mjgavaghan1 | October 28, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Keep Curtis. He and his family present real issues in an entertaining way, w/ mixed frustration and affection. You can understand everyone's viewpoint. Okay, so themes repeat. They do in life, too.
Bring back Frazz, and not just in Kids' Post.
If you want to know what to discard, let me suggest:
-- Get Fuzzy. Rob Wilco is always passive. He needs to get a life that includes more than sitting at the kitchen table while unpleasant housepets bully him and each other. Getting outdoors would be a good change. So would adding some reference to a job, a job search, or at least other human beings. The strip needs something to change the dynamics.
-- Watch Your Head. All the characters wear identical sneers and just-too-cool ironic lifted eyebrows. Tiresome.
-- Family Circus. It's more appropriate for a Christian-oriented publication than a general one. The Christian themes and references occur often enough that I (a non-Christian) feel they're stuffed down my throat.

Posted by: goldwags | October 28, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

"Herb & Jamaal" is a "black issue" comic? I admit I'm not a regular reader, but it appears to be mostly mother-in-law jokes and puns.

Posted by: marshlc | October 28, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Curtis is not just another "Black Comic" it presents life in the city in a (sometimes) humorous way, but other times.... Like when Curtis's pregnant mother was mugged and lost the baby. Or when neighbors lose jobs and have to move, or when they die. I feel it presents a down to earth slice of a life many of us never experienced, life on the streets is surely different than life in the 'burbs,
and so we are richer for having witnessed it.

Posted by: 2old2readcomics | October 28, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Curtis is great. Please do not drop it, like you did Frazz.

Posted by: TinMD | October 28, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

CURTIS is a waste of newsprint and ink - can't believe WaPo runs this mess daily.

We here in Wilmington, Delaware, inexplicably are stuck with CURTIS only on Sunday's in Gannett's woeful Wilmington News-Journal (the paper without a staff). Full color CURTIS is no better than line art. Just the constantly smoking Dad is enough reason to dump CURTIS.

Posted by: gvanderlek | October 28, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Put a stake through its heart, a silver bullet in the noggin, and cement galoshes on its feet and send it to the deep sleep. Or the Kids Post. Hard to state what is most annoying. The Curtis/Michelle/whatshername triangle, ANY visit from Flyspeck Island, or cloying tales.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 29, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Curtis certainly isn't at the top of my favorites list (Get Fuzzy!!), but it's a lot better than some of the bottom-dwellers, including Tank, Fastrack, and JUDGE PARKER. "Comics" need to have at least a minimal "funny" component.

Posted by: capsfan77 | October 29, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I read Curtis on my DailyInk subscription. It's not the funniest comic out there (Pickles is, for my taste), but I enjoy reading it. I agree with other readers that it's time for Curtis to wake up to Michelle's nastiness and move on to another obsession. And, now that you mention it, I see that there is an awful lot of reusing the same old situations.

Posted by: Gael1227 | October 30, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

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