Jackie Ormes. 
From the collection of Judie Miles


Published: March 30, 2008
Jackie Ormes, nee Zelda Mavin Jackson, was a journalist, artist, socialite and progressive political activist, a well-known figure in Chicago’s black community in the ’50s and ’60s. She was also, as the subtitle of Nancy Goldstein’s biography indicates, the first African-American woman to write and draw widely distributed comic strips: four different series, published between 1937 and 1956 in black newspapers including The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender. Ormes was well ahead of her time; the first black woman to create a syndicated daily strip for mainstream papers was Barbara Brandon-Croft, whose “Where I’m Coming From” didn’t appear until 1989.


The First African American Woman Cartoonist.

By Nancy Goldstein.

Illustrated. 225 pp. The University of Michigan Press. $35.

The first series to bear Ormes’s byline, “Torchy Brown in ‘Dixie to Harlem’” (1937-38), was a racy, crudely drawn narrative of a country girl’s journey to the big city; the much more graceful “Candy” (1945) was a short-lived one-panel comedy about a smart-aleck maidservant in the employ of the never-seen “Mrs. Goldrocks.” “Torchy in Heartbeats” (1950-54) was a romance/adventure serial starring another version of Torchy Brown, sometimes accompanied on the page by a bonus set of “Torchy Togs” — a paper doll of the character with some modish outfits to attach. Few cartoonists have ever been as fashion-conscious as Ormes, who modeled her protagonists on her own appearance.

The Ormes creation that attracts Goldstein’s attention most, though, is “Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger,” a gag panel that ran from 1945 to 1956 in The Pittsburgh Courier’s editions across the country. Goldstein devotes more than 40 pages to annotated “Patty-Jo” strips, some of them reproduced from the painstakingly if stiffly rendered original art — the book’s other Ormes drawings come mostly from the smudgy newspapers or microfilm that are the only forms in which they still exist. The premise was simple: precocious kid Patty-Jo makes a wisecrack, and her big sister/guardian Ginger, another Ormes stand-in, hangs around striking pinup poses and looking glamorous in the latest styles. “Gee … it must be awful to have to have that Dior fella switch rules on you in the middle of the game,” Patty-Jo quips in one 1954 strip, as Ginger reads about the advent of a new Christian Dior line.

In contrast to the images of African-Americans that prevailed in other pop culture of their time, the sisters are overtly upper class; they live in a well-decorated home, graced with fancy new products like plastic boots and a television. Patty-Jo comments on current events and occasionally pitches for the March of Dimes, sometimes at the same time. (“MAO — ???” she asks Ginger, who stands by attentively in toreador pants. “Golly, Sis, do you s’pose he’s any relation to old POLIO-MYE-LITIS? HE’S been attacking kids in their own neighborhood, an’ all we got to fight back with is volunteer DIMES!”)

Patty-Jo briefly became a symbol of upward mobility in another way: in 1947, Ormes made a deal with the high-end Terri Lee doll company to manufacture a deluxe doll with her character’s facial features, with hair that could be washed and curled. (She advertised it as “America’s Only Negro Character Doll”; as Goldstein points out, that wasn’t quite true.) Ormes actually painted some of the dolls herself and sold them through mail order. For the next two years, the cartoon Patty-Jo carried around little Patty-Jo dolls, wore Terri Lee fashions and sometimes plugged her creator’s sideline outright.

Ormes was devoted to leftist causes — the F.B.I. amassed a 287-page file on her, which didn’t mention her cartooning at all — and as the McCarthy red hunts and the civil rights movement gathered steam in the ’50s, the best jokes in “Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger” were often the most politically pointed. In one 1955 strip, published shortly after 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for ostensibly whistling at a white woman, Patty-Jo approaches her sister: “I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject, … but that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!” A few months later, Ormes’s drawing style changed dramatically, becoming looser and more awkward, and by the end of 1956, she’d left the comics page for good; nobody is sure why.

Ormes, who died in 1985, at age 74, isn’t quite a great forgotten voice of cartooning; what’s interesting about her is her historical significance. Only the first two chapters here detail the particulars of her life, though — the rest are devoted to reproductions and discussion of her work, with useful digressions on the hierarchy of black newspapers, the history of doll materials and the cartoonist’s now-arcane allusions to pop culture and fashion. (How did she manage to break through the cartooning world’s barriers? Goldstein doesn’t quite explain, although she cites a newspaper colleague saying that Ormes was talented, nice and good with deadlines.) Very few other women of color have since passed through the professional doors she opened, although the Ormes Society, founded last year, is devoted to raising awareness of black women in the comics industry. Ormes may have realized her dream, but it’s still a dream deferred.

Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”(Article courtesy of The New York Times: )

The First African American Woman Cartoonist
Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein (Hardcover – Feb 21, 2008)
5.0 out of 5 stars (1)
A Visual History
Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History by Fredrik Stromberg and Charles Johnson (Hardcover – Aug 2003)
4.0 out of 5 stars (2)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s