Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) was the first black woman to write and draw widely distributed comic strips.
Born Zelda Mavin Jackson on Aug. 1, 1911, in Pittsburgh, Ormes enjoyed drawing as a child and was praised for her artistic abilities. Following graduation, she began working as a proofreader for The Pittsburgh Courier, which was once the country’s most widely circulated black newspaper.
On May 1, 1937, Ormes created her first cartoon, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem: an action, romance and soap opera comic featuring a black heroine named Torchy Brown. The Courier distributed it to 14 other black papers around the country making Ormes the first black woman in America to become a syndicated cartoonist. She remained the only one until the 1990s.
Torchy started out as a teenager living with her family, but quickly developed into a strong and independent woman. She was all the things black women in mainstream media of the time were not — resolute, intelligent, resourceful, courageous … and sensual, a word critics and commentators have repeatedly used to describe her. Ormes drew her with a bolder pen line than was generally used which helped convey the inner power of the character herself. Torchy was ahead of its time, tackling issues like sexism, racism and environmental pollution particularly perpetuated upon black populated areas.
Jackie Ormes’ Torchy’s Togs
In her first incarnation, Torchy lasted only until 1940. She returned a decade later, however, in a new weekly comic, Torchy in Heartbeats, which ran until 1955. Ormes also marketed her in paper doll form, as Torchy Togs. Young girls liked her as a paper doll, while older girls who could sew, made their own versions of Torchy’s togs. Black servicemen used them as pin-ups.
In 1942, Ormes moved to Chicago and began writing for the Chicago Defender. Her single panel cartoon, Candy, about an attractive and wisecracking housemaid, appeared in the Defender.
Three years later, Ormes introduced another single panel cartoon, Patty Jo ‘n Ginger. It ran for eleven years and featured a big sister-little sister set-up, with the precocious, insightful, and socially/politically-aware Patty Jo as the only speaker, and the beautiful adult woman, Ginger, as a sometime pin-up figure and fashion mannequin. The Patty Jo character went on to become the nation’s first positive black character image doll and hit toy stores in 1948. Patty Jo was the first black doll to have an extensive upscale wardrobe and the Patty Jo dolls are now collector’s items.
In 1950, the Courier began an eight-page color comics insert, where Ormes re-invented Torchy in a new comic strip, Torchy in Heartbeats. This Torchy was a beautiful, independent woman who finds adventure while seeking true love. Ormes expressed her talent for fashion design as well as her vision of a beautiful black female body in the accompanying Torchy Togs paper doll cut outs. Few cartoonists have ever been as fashion-conscious as Ormes, who modeled her protagonists on her own appearance.
Ormes was devoted to leftist causes and the FBI amassed a 287-page file on her, which didn’t mention her cartooning at all. As McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam, 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, 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’ 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 continued to create art, including murals, still lifes and portraits. She contributed to her South Side Chicago community by volunteering to produce fundraiser fashion shows and was also on the founding board of directors for the DuSable Museum of African American History. A passionate doll collector, Ormes possessed over 150 antique and modern dolls in her collection and was active in Guys and Gals Funtastique Doll Club, a United Federation of Doll Clubs chapter in Chicago. Jackie Ormes died in Chicago on January 2, 1986, at the age of 74.
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