Articles: Just for Laughs. Jerry Craft’s passion for art was more than a passing fad
   
 



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Juanita Robinson


When most little boys were dreaming of becoming astronauts, policemen, doctors and firefighters, Jerry Craft was immersed in "Spiderman," "X-Men" and "Superman" imagining the day when he’d have his very own strip. Unlike many of his peers, however, Craft held tight to his dream and made it a reality with his popular "Mama's Boyz" comic strip. But he’s not stopping there; this New York City native has even bigger dreams to fulfill.

From the Beginning
Craft put his dream in motion early when he created his first comic book in the seventh grade.

"We made comic books out of regular Xerox paper folded in half," he explains. "We passed it around to the other kids. It got to the point where it was so popular that they were anxiously awaiting the next issue."

And, of course, as Craft got older, the comic books grew more elaborate.

Although Craft’s hard-working parents always encouraged his love for art, they wanted to make sure his feet were firmly planted in reality.

"They didn't tear it down, but they didn't understand that it could be lucrative," Craft says. "They thought I'd end up selling oil paintings on velvet out of my trunk."

As a result, when Craft was accepted to the Music & Arts High School in Harlem, they wouldn't let him go. However, when he graduated from his Bronx high school and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts (SVA), his family realized his passion for art wasn't a passing fad.

During his third year at SVA he took a liking to copywriting and stuck with it.

"I went to art school and ended up becoming a writer," Craft says with a chuckle.

When Craft graduated he worked for a small ad agency, where he stayed for seven years. Craft was responsible for print ads and small TV spots. And after a stint with a mid-sized ad agency, he got a job drawing comic books with a small syndicate.

"I worked with a female artist named Barbara Slate," Craft remembers. "That was my introduction into the big-time world of comic books."

Craft then landed a job at King Features, where he did corrections on well-known comic strips such as "Blondie" and "Beatle Bailey."

While Craft was at King Features he learned html and launched the "Mama's Boyz" Web site. Craft’s self-taught skill led to his current position as the senior-online producer of Sports Illustrated for Kids.

Mama’s Boyz
Craft pieced together his first strip, "The Outside View," in 1987 and pitched it to the Uptown Dispatch, a newspaper in his Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.

At the time, his strip featured teens from different nationalities, but it slowly morphed into "Mama's Boyz" three years later.

"When I was coming up it seemed like most of my friends lived with one parent and more often than not it was their mom," Craft explains. "I wanted to create something that was realistic."

While at King Features, he met Paul Hendricks, a black comic strip editor.

"He was the only person of color who had a job that directly affected the strips," Craft says.

Hendricks helped Craft flesh out his characters and make them three dimensional. His colleague’s advice forced Craft to think about things he had yet to consider.

"I didn't really know where dad was. I didn't want it to be like a sitcom with the deadbeat dad. And I didn't want the boys to be like Thelma and JJ, where they insulted each other constantly. I basically looked at the sitcoms and did the opposite."

After he got his strip running in the local paper, he went to the library and got a listing of black newspapers all over the country and sent out about 50 letters. His efforts got him 10 clients, including the San Antonio Informer. This marked the beginning of his self-syndication.

Eventually, a position became available in King Features’ weekly service, which reaches 1,500 newspapers around the world, including Africa, England, and the Bahamas. They picked up "Mama’s Boyz" in February 1995 and he's been with them ever since.

The Message
Although Craft never set out to use his strip to convey lessons or messages, that’s exactly what has happened.

"[But] not all of them have messages because I don't want to beat people over the head with it," Craft says. "I still want it to be perceived as a comic strip."

But there are consequences to voicing certain opinions—as Craft learned with his controversial strip about teen pregnancy. When the first strip in this series ran in Prince George's County Sentinel, Prince George's County, Md., a "reading specialist" sent the newspaper a letter of complaint and had others do the same. As a result, the newspaper decided to pull the strip. Although Craft asked them to look at the entire series before making a decision, the newspaper dropped the strip anyway.

Did this experience cause Craft to bury this taboo strip? Not even close. It has been featured on his Web site for two years now, and Craft says he’s gotten about 500 positive e-mails from parents, clergy and teachers. Parents have even used it to initiate conversations about the issue with their children.

Mama and the boys also speak on behalf the American Diabetes Association’s African-American program. Craft first became interested in the cause when an e-mail newsletter he received called "Black on Black Communications" was discussing how diabetes was running rampant through the black community. He immediately approached the American Diabetes Association with the idea of using the strip to get the word out. They were thrilled with the concept, and he soon incorporated the disease into the strip by answering the long-standing question, "Where’s dad?" He had died from diabetes-related complications.

His Inspiration
Craft finds his inspiration in the course of everyday life. Whether it’s while riding the Metroliner to work in the morning from his Norwalk, Conn., home, or strolling through the park with his wife and two sons.

"I hardly ever sit down and think, ‘I need to come up with a strip.’ I walk down the street and see a young brother with his pants hanging down and I wonder, what would happen if he needed to catch a bus? Could he run?"

Craft’s neighborhood movie theaters also served as inspiration. "These theaters were so old that it seemed like they hadn’t been aired out since they were built," Craft explains. This memory found its way into his strip by way of Stainkey Theater. The twist is that some of the letters had fallen off, resulting in "Stinky Theater." It's based on several theaters from his childhood that had their share of crazy patrons, foul smells and stale popcorn.

Craft never knows when inspiration will strike, so he carries a pad with him wherever he goes to jot down ideas and make quick sketches.

An average "Mama’s Boyz" strip takes about three hours to complete, with the black dip pen and jar of ink he prefers over the more commonly used felt tip or fountain pens. Some might consider this old-fashioned, but Craft says it gives him a nice, clean line and the ink lasts longer. Not to mention the fact that it also pays homage to the "old-school guys."

Other Projects
Craft’s creativity isn’t just confined to "Mama’s Boyz" either. He has several other projects to his credit, including putting a collection of his strips together in book form. It’s called "Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie," and was written up in "Great Books for African-American Children."

"That's interesting because when I first did it I didn't think of my audience as children," Craft says. "I’m an adult and I love comics, so I assumed other adults did as well." Then he started getting letters from parents about lessons he hadn't realized were there. "It turned out it was good I did it that way," he says. "If I consciously set out to do it with lessons in mind, it might have turned out preachy or condescending."

Craft has also created board games with African-American themes for GeeBee Marketing. One is called "My First Matching Game," the object of which is to match historical figures like Dorothy Dandridge, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Charles Drew. He’s also worked on the "Black Heritage Trivia Game" and "I Can Do Anything!"

Another project near and dear to his heart is an anthology of black cartoonists.

"I went to a convention for cartoonists last spring at Temple University, and I talked to a bunch of guys about putting an anthology together." It will include anywhere from 15 to 20 black cartoonists. "We’re trying to work out the logistics now, but I’d like to have that out by the summer." It’s main purpose is "to show people that we're out there," Craft says. "Individually we all have smaller markets. So we figured if we could pool our talents, resources, clients, etc., it would be a win-win situation."

The fact is, there are very few black syndicated cartoonists in this country—somewhere around eight at last count. Why? Because the syndicates get approximately 10,000 submissions every year and each only takes five or six—max.

"It's sort of like Tiger Woods," Craft explains. "Someone needs to make a big splash to show, yes, we can play golf." Or Serena and Venus Williams. They showed the world that our athletic talents go beyond basketball, football and the 400-meter dash. There hasn't been a star like that in comic strips. "I think Aaron McGruder, [creator of ‘The Boondocks’], has gotten more notoriety in the past two years than anyone in the last 20 years," Craft says. And that’s certainly a good start, but the bottom line is "the syndicates need to pick something that will sell to newspapers," he explains. And because a lot of the papers are geared toward middle America, "when they see a strip with a single black mom, they say they can't relate, but if I had made them Martians or cats and dogs, they wouldn't see it the same. How can you somehow relate to a Martian, but not a black family?" Unfortunately, a lot of people think that you have to be black to watch a black cartoon. But "Pokeman" seems to be the exception because the people watching this unbelievably successful cartoon aren't all Asian, right? "But the syndicates somehow think it’s different when the cartoon is about a black family," Craft says.

So, what is his ultimate goal for Mama and her boys? "I would like ‘Mama’s Boyz’ to end up on TV," Craft says. But not necessarily every Saturday morning. Special holiday shows spread throughout the year would be a nice start. And there’s no doubt that this will happen some day. Jerry Craft has come a long way since his days of folded copy paper and magic markers, so the little screen is certainly well within his reach.
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