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Drawing on experience: Local cartoonist breaks barriers

 
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Staff Writer

February 24, 2003

NORWALK -- Every day, Jerry Craft boards the 8:49 a.m. Metro-North Railroad train to Grand Central Terminal in New York City and settles down in one of its plastic seats, pressed between bleary-eyed commuters.

As riders gulp cups of coffee or skim the morning headlines, Craft reaches into his backpack and pulls out a sketch pad.

As the train rattles along the tracks, Craft's pen scratches out the arched eyebrows, comely smile and elegant coif of short black hair that belong to Ma Porter, one of the characters in his syndicated cartoon strip "Mama's Boyz."

It takes him minutes to sketch out the rest of his cartoon family. By the time he steps off the train and heads onto the streets to his job at a magazine, his draft of the panel is complete.

"Right now, I know the characters so well that a lot of times the jokes will write themselves," Craft, 40, said as he sat at his cluttered drafting table in the basement of his Norwalk home, copying the strip he etched on the train.

For 13 years, Craft has rendered the antics of the Porters, a black family coping with life in a big city. In the strip, Ma Porter runs a bookstore while raising her teenage sons, Yusuf and Tyrell.

Craft is one of eight black syndicated cartoonists in the country. His comic strip, distributed by King Features Syndicate Weekly Service since 1995, is sent to about 1,250 newspapers in the United States. Between his full-time job at Sports Illustrated for Kids and illustrating Mama's Boyz, Craft has been hard at work drafting a new comic about a suburban black family -- one he hopes will get picked up as a daily strip.

Craft pieced together his first strip, "The Outside View," in 1987 to the Uptown Dispatch, a newspaper in his native Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. At the time, it featured teens from different nationalities. It morphed into "Mama's Boyz" three years later.

"When I first crafted the strip, I didn't explain who dad was," Craft said. "I didn't want it to be like a black sitcom with a deadbeat dad who went out for cigarettes 10 years ago and hasn't been seen since."

After learning about the devastating impact of diabetes on the black community, Craft put into the storyline that Yusef and Tyrell's father died of the disease.

Today, Ma Porter, her two sons and the rest of the Porter clan are "spokescharacters" for the American Diabetes Association's African-American program.

The characters in his strip are bold and larger than life, but Craft is quiet and unassuming, a slender man with long fingers and almond-shaped eyes.

His cozy brick home near Norwalk Center looks like any comfortable suburban residence. Halls lined with framed autographed strips from such comics as "Beetle Bailey," "Hagar the Horrible" and "Flash Gordon" give away that it is the household of a cartoon aficionado.

When he gets home from his job as senior online producer for Sports Illustrated for Kids, he spends about a half-hour playing and reading with his two sons, Jaylen, 5, and Aren, 3, before they go to bed. After a quick dinner, he heads downstairs, ready to settle down with his other family -- the Porters -- for the evening.

His small basement studio is crammed with filing cabinets bursting with his collection of Marvel comics, "Mama's Boyz" memorabilia such as mugs and mousepads and copies of his 1997 comic strip collection, "Mama's Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie."

He typically spends two or three nights a week crouched in front of his drafting table, working sometimes until 1 a.m. True to the craft of the old-school cartoonists, he uses a special black "dip" pen that helps him create many types of lines in his sketches.

Attracted to cartoons from the time he was a boy growing up in the mainly black neighborhood of Washington Heights, Craft devoured the romantic and daring characters of comic books such as the "Fantastic Four" and "Daredevil."

He dreamed of becoming a comic book artist. His father, who worked for the post office, and his mother, a New York City employee, encouraged his love of drawing.

Every month, he would spend $4 of his allowance on the latest Marvel titles. By the time he was in high school, he had created his own amateur but professionally bound comic book.

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 1984, Craft spent several years as a copywriter in advertising. Eventually, he found his way to a job in the comic arts department at King Features Syndicate, one of the countries' biggest cartoon and column distributors.

"Flash Gordon" comic strip creator Jim Keefe, who worked with Craft at King Features, thought Craft would be able to break into the highly competitive world of comic syndicates.

"He is one of those people who show what can happen when talent and perseverance are put together," Keefe said.

When Craft's early versions of "Mama's Boyz" were not accepted by any of the major syndicates in the early 1990s, Keefe said, Craft did not let it stop him. Craft went to the library, got a list of every black newspaper in the country and sent 50 of them copies of his comic strip.

Soon, 10 newspapers picked up "Mama's Boyz" and Craft became his own syndicate.

King Features took him on as one of their weekly cartoonists in 1995.

"It is an African-American strip with real strong family values. We are in a fairly middle American market that likes traditional values," said David Cohea, general manager of King Features Weekly Syndicate. "It has an urban appeal but it is also gentle, so it has broad appeal."

Craft is not afraid to tackle controversial issues such as teen pregnancy, AIDS and diabetes. He also addresses everyday topics such as the latest fashions, family disputes and the tribulations of dating.

He likes to think of himself as an equal-opportunity cartoonist.

"It is not one of those things that the kids are knuckleheads and the mom is always right. I don't side with one person or one generation," Craft said.

On a typical day, he has several cartoon strips floating in his head, getting inspiration from events in his life, he said. He watches for fashion trends on the streets of New York City.

Cartoonists such as Craft are few and far between, said Steve McGarry, president of the National Cartoonists Society.

"It seems to be sort of pudgy, middle-age white guys like me drawing comic strips, so I'm delighted when I see guys like Jerry and Aaron McGruder (of the "Boondocks" strip) having some success," McGarry said.

Craft is spearheading a project to create an anthology of black cartoonists. One of the artists that will be featured in the book is Barbara Brandon-Croft, author and illustrator of the comic strip "Where I'm Coming From" and one of his close friends.

They met at a National Cartoon Society event years ago, Brandon-Croft said, and have been close friends since.

"When we get together, we do a lot of laughing and commiserating because there are not that many of us in the same boat," she said. "We can both understand what it is to try to maintain the strip when you're coming up against walls all the time."

After 13 years of delving into every nuance of his "Mama's Boyz" characters, Craft said he hopes to break new ground with his latest project.

"The new strip is a challenge because it's a different outlook and a different voice," said Craft, glancing at a sketch of one of the preliminary characters -- a little boy with a cap on his head.

He thinks the strip will resonate with many readers.

"It will be a good outlet for the stuff I experience here -- riding Metro-North, shoveling snow with neighbors and mowing the lawn. You see Blondie and Dagwood, but you never see that from the black perspective."

*

Jerry Craft will hold a cartoon workshop for kids at Norwalk Public Library on March 5.

Copyright � 2003, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.


 
 
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