by Cesca Janece Waterfield
With the release of his first book Mama’s Boyz: American as Sweet Potato Pie in 1997, comic artist Jerry Craft entered a market saturated with cynical comic strips and crude animated cartoons. His positive and family-appropriate humor continues to contrast with some national sitcoms. But with each book release, Jerry’s audience grows and he has recently been rewarded for standing by his values. His third book, Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture just won the title of Best Children’s Book at the Schaumberg Library in Harlem. Last year he was awarded Best Comic Strip at the African American Literary Awards. His comics have appeared in numerous publications including Urban Views Weekly, Village Voice, Ebony and New York Daily News. Jerry lives with his wife and two young sons, Jaylen and Aren, who are increasingly involved in dad’s creative process. He’s illustrated children’s books including Hillary’s Big Business Adventure by Lori Nelson and Looking to the Clouds for Daddy, written by Margo Candelario. www.mamasboyz.com. What follows are Jerry’s own words.
Learning with laughter: “I grew up in an era of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Schoolhouse Rock and all that. It seems like back in the day, they used any opportunity they could to teach kids something, [for example] on healthy snacks. I remember there was one on how to make fruit pops. No matter what it was, they were trying to teach something. Now I sit down with my kids. And some of the shows they would watch if I let them, not only do they not teach them, but it’s like they’re a waste. Teaching doesn’t have to hit kids over the head. I don’t know that when you watched Fat Albert you knew you were learning. It was like, ‘Learning’s cool!’ That’s what I like to do with my Mama’s Boyz comic strip.”
Values make the market: “I think that there was something that broke the mold just like in rap and hip hop. That started out very humorous, funny and there was a lot of meaning to it. Then something came along and broke the mold. [On one hand,] that’s good because that’s how new things happen. But then what happened with cartoons, something broke the mold and everybody wanted to copy it. Family Guy had a spinoff, and a knock-off and then before you know it, that’s the market. I think unless there’s actually an outcry or some kind of really sincere family humor, [negative cartoons dominate.] If Mama’s Boyz got picked up tomorrow and they made a TV show of it on Cartoon Network or put it on after the Simpsons and it made zillions of dollars, all of a sudden the networks would start wanting family cartoons. That’s just the way things work.”
Sending a message: “Years ago, I got an email newsletter and it talked about how diabetes is running rampant in the black and Latino communities. For some reason, I felt an obligation. So I called up the American Diabetes Association and said, if you would ever like for me to use my characters to promote a healthy lifestyle, don’t hesitate to give me a call. It was maybe the next day I get the call. It was pretty awesome. So when I created the comic strip, I made mom raising her two teenage sons. I never explained why there was no dad, but I knew that I did not want it to be like the black sitcoms where it was like, ‘Dad went out for cigarettes 20 years ago and we haven’t seen him since!’ I didn’t want them to be divorced. So when I started talking with the American Diabetes Association, that was a natural fit for my story. I said that dad passed away due to complications of diabetes.”
Props to moms: “When I created Mama’s Boyz, it was basically to honor these strong women. When I was growing up, most of my friends were raised by either their mom or their grandmother. I wanted to pay tribute to these women who were raising kids like my friends. I was one of the lucky ones who had a dad inside the house who was really a huge part of my life.
How the series happened: “My two boys are really avid readers. If they are into a series, they will let me know exactly when one is coming out. When I did the second Mama’s Boyz book, I had kids say, ‘When is the next one coming out?’ When I made the correlation between these kids looking for my next book the way that my kids are looking for these books they love, I realized I have it made, this is so cool! Now that I realize that, I feel like there’s obligation to always have some kind of new product. Ideally, I’ll have a new Mama’s Boyz book every year or year and a half and [in that time] illustrate a children’s book.”
Standing his ground: “I did a strip and it was one of ten. In it, I showed a teen girl who had a baby. There was somebody in Maryland and I get a call from the [paper.] They forwarded me the letter. I called the paper and said, I do these strips a month of ahead of time. Let me send it to you. It’s a positive message, I guarantee you. They were so scared by this one woman who wrote in, that they just pulled it. They did let me respond to the woman in an Op-Ed piece, but they still did not want to run the strip any more. I posted the strips on my website and told the story. Over the next two months, I probably got 500 emails from parents and grandparents and clergy. One woman in particular said she never had the courage to talk to her kids about teen pregnancy. What this did was it allowed her and her son to talk. She let them read the strips and she emailed me and said, ‘Thank you so much.’ I thought that was the coolest thing.”
Promoting health: “I don’t want it to just to be a funny strip. I love it when people say, ‘It’s so funny.’ But I have done the diabetes strips, and even the New York Daily News, they asked me to do strips on AIDS. I think I did at least three of their supplements. I took it as a real challenge. I did some strips on organ and tissue donation. I just got commissioned to do two 24-page comic books on organ and tissue donation. I haven’t even started writing the story yet, but that’s going to be interesting. It has to be humorous, but it has to really deliver the message. I try to make it more digestible than brochures.”
Art imitates life: “It’s really funny because the characters in the comic strip Tyrell and Yusuf, are two years apart. The older son is a little more conservative and the youngest son is little more outgoing. That’s just the way my kids are. It’s really funny to have kids that are so similar to the Mama’s Boyz characters.”
Labor of love: “I still am not syndicated daily. When you see the Boondocks, he was able to reach that by having a daily strip. A lot of what I do comes from just my effort. If I want to publish a Mama’s Boyz book, I sit down and publish it. The money comes of my pocket. I do layout, everything. I’m really a one-man show that if anyone orders my books from my website, I’m the one putting them in the envelope and things like that. Whenever people do order, I’m real appreciative. I let them know because that’s what I need to continue to do this. It’s great to get a pat on the back but what really helps is when people read and think about it.”