white. Then came a breakthrough. In 1988, United Feature Syndicate took an interest in his cops strip and offered him a development contract. For $2,500, he would work on the strip exclusively with United Feature, giving them the right of first refusal once the strip was fully fleshed out.
Infusing the characters with more of his own real-life experiences proved the key to Armstrong’s success.
Unlike Hector, his new characters’ speech is rarely peppered with slang. Nor do these characters make a habit of attacking race-based issues head- on–something he has been criticized for by some black readers. However, their lives do regularly amplify the uniquely black experience, often in subtle and unpredictable ways.
For those who wish JumpStart was a bit more in-your-face, Armstrong shrugs, and responds: “It’s painful to be misunderstood, but it’s less important for me to be understood than to work at understanding others. Doing that is the only way I can portray my characters in a real way.”
By all accounts, Armstrong’s efforts are paying off big. JumpStart has gone from syndication in about 40 papers in 1989, (each paying between $10 and $100 a week, depending on their circulation) to its current 250 newspapers. Armstrong now commands six figures for his strip, up from $30,000 in the early days. But it wasn’t until last year, when he inked a book deal with HarperCollins for another “six figures” that he finally quit his day job as an art director. A year ago, JumpStart: A Love Story was published. His third book, an illustrated children’s story called Drew and the Homeboy Question (the second in a series of children’s books), will arrive in bookstores later this month. But Armstrong still has plenty of fresh ideas for JumpStart. The strip is now being shopped around for television possibilities, and Armstrong uses its popularity as a platform for speaking and teaching engagements.
Of this latest turn in his career, Armstrong says, “It’s really important to me to let kids know that this is a possibility for them. There was no one to tell me that, and yet I am living my dreams. I want them to believe that they can too.”
Zana Billue Recipe Development Specialist
TV dinners and powdered potatoes were not to be found in Zana Billue’s house when she was a child. Nor were frozen fries, pizza or pudding. “My mother was an excellent cook,” says the 33-year-old Brooklyn native. “Her attitude was always, ‘Why buy that stuff? I can make it better.'”
In fact, she could–and so could her daughter, as Billue recalls. “By the time I was 10, I would compete with my more in the kitchen. Imagine the nerve! But I loved working with food, and it came easily to me. I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.
That was then. These days, Billue (pronounced bil-loo) consumes more prepackaged food in a day than many people eat in a week, and she loves it. Or, rather, she loves her job as a recipe development specialist