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How 'Curtis' Tackled the Coronavirus in a Newspaper Comic

How ‘Curtis’ Tackled the Coronavirus in a Newspaper Comic

In the closing weeks of March, comics pages in daily newspapers were oblivious. People were still making plans. There were parties. When animals talked, as animals in comics do, they said nothing about quarantines.

One of the first voices to speak of the new normal belonged to Barry Taylor Wilkins, the younger of two brothers in Ray Billingsley’s long-running strip “Curtis.” It was on Monday, March 30, and we see Barry and Curtis’ mother, Diane Wilkins, squeezing hand sanitizer on her boys’ hands.

“Why do I have to put this stuff on my hands, Mommy?” asks Barry.

In “Curtis,” it is common for such questions to have both simple and complex answers. Since debuting the strip in 1988, Billingsley has mixed lighthearted gags with occasionally stark portrayals of the Wilkins, a middle-class African-American family, and their larger community of family, friends, barbers, and teachers. In “Curtis,” realism sneaks up on you: the family’s third-floor apartment can feel cramped; the father, Greg Wilkins, is uninspired by his job; and young brothers Barry and Curtis have real stresses, like fear of guns in school.

On this day, Curtis tells his brother the sanitizer is to clean his fingers before picking his nose. But we know the real reason. So does Diane. The boys don’t. But that will change.

At four panels a day, time moves slowly in a daily comic, even when events in other newspaper pages move alarmingly fast. As March finally gave way to April, the Wilkins family were seen adapting to their little corner of the pandemic. There are jokes about home-schooling and cabin fever. Greg tries to cheer his sons up with a theatrical display of pancake-making, flipping them with a juggler’s flare. “I try my best to shield my boys,” Greg will say to Diane. “And that is why I love you always,” thinks Diane.

Then, in the middle of breakfast, the Wilkins’ lives change again. Curtis receives a phone call. He walks back into the kitchen, dazed. His stack of pancakes is still waiting for him, untouched.

“It’s our teacher, Mrs. Nelson,” Curtis says. “She tested positive for coronavirus.” 

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