Illustration by Jacquelyn Moore. 

The Woman Whose 1940s Comics Starred Chic, Socially Aware Black Women

Jackie Ormes, creator of the beloved character Torchy Brown, was the first Black woman to have a syndicated comic strip in a US newspaper.

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Mar 2 2018, 3:08pm

Illustration by Jacquelyn Moore. 

Fashion and politics are rarely represented alongside each other in a smart way, but cartoonist Jackie Ormes, the first American Black woman to have a syndicated comic strip, consistently married the two with ease. From the 30s through the 50s, her Torchy Brown and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger comics featured clever, independent women with a taste for chic clothing and sharp political commentary.

Jackie Ormes was born Zelda Jackson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911. As written in Nancy Goldstein’s Jackie Ormes: The First African-American Woman Cartoonist, Ormes’ artistic talent and interest in writing appeared early in life. While in high school, she approached the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, for a job and was offered a gig covering a boxing match. It was an unusual assignment for a young girl, but she pulled it off with enough aplomb that the newspaper hired her. (She also became a lifelong boxing fan, according to Goldstein.)

In 1937, Ormes began drawing comics for the Courier, which distributed them to other papers. Her first was Torchy Brown in From Dixie to Harlem, about a clever young woman who makes her way to New York City to chase a career in showbiz. The protagonist's interests resembled those of Ormes’ sister, Dorothea, a singer signed to Decca Records; and she mimicked Lena Horne’s trajectory from Georgia to the Cotton Club. But with her leggy figure, short hair, and stylish outfits, Torchy most resembled her creator.

Beyond physical appearance, Torchy and Ormes also shared a similar self-reliance and barrier-breaking ambition. When Torchy wants to leave “Dixie,” she sells a cow and hops a train (pretending she can’t read the “whites only” sign); when she wants a job, she storms in and demands an audition. On Ormes’ part, she was undeterred by the fact that the cartooning world at the time was overwhelmingly male-dominated and, for the most part, the work of Black cartoonists was only run in African-American publications, including hers.

Courtesy Nancy Goldstein.

Torchy Brown lasted a year. Afterward, Ormes moved to Chicago and got a job writing a society and fashion column for the Chicago Defender. She then briefly worked on a cartoon called Candy about a wisecracking maid. But it was her next gig that would cement her legacy.

Beginning its run in 1945, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was a single-frame comic featuring scenes in which the precocious Patty-Jo makes outrageous pronouncements as her lovely older sister, Ginger, looks on. As Patty-Jo exclaimed with comically naïve yet often prematurely astute commentary, Ginger—depicted as a book-loving college girl—silently functioned as the mature, jaded counterpart. One panel featured a bruised but grinning Patty-Jo clutching a football and declaring, “Wha’cha mean it’s no game for girls? We Got feet too, ain’t we?” In another, the pair walk out of a movie theater with Patty-Jo saying, “It would be interestin’ to discover which committee decided it was un-American to be colored!”

Through Patty-Jo, Ormes spoke her mind on all kinds of political matters, using humor to highlight issues of race and gender. In other panels, for instance, Patty-Jo holds forth about still-relevant issues like history textbooks glossing over slavery and the government spending money on the military, rather than citizens’ welfare.

Beyond commentary, Ormes’ sister stars were also an outlet for her love of fashion. Patty-Jo appeared in an array of chic children’s clothes, cowgirl costumes, snowsuits, and fashionable lounging pajamas. Meanwhile, Ginger always sported beautifully rendered, high-class trends of the time. While contemporary media overwhelmingly depicted African-Americans as maids and laborers, Patty-Jo and Ginger’s vast wardrobes, Heywood-Wakefield-furnished home, and visits to orchestras and art galleries indicated an upscale lifestyle that in itself was a political statement.

Courtesy Nancy Goldstein.

Post-World War II was a golden age for comics, as people sought escapism and laughter. It was also a good time for female heroines, with both Wonder Woman and Brenda Starr getting their start. Amidst this moment, Patti-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was syndicated to the 14 different city editions of the Courier and eagerly read from Harlem to Houston by an audience of over 300,000 readers, according to Goldstein.

Patty-Jo stepped off the page in 1947, fulfilling Ormes’ ambition to make a doll for Black children that was different from others on the market, which tended to reflect racist stereotypes. The advertisements made it clear that this toy was different: “Her hair can be shampooed and recurled by little girls. The only original Negro doll.”

Torchy returned in 1950 with Torchy in Heartbeats, also in the Courier. The plotlines were more romantically inclined, but remained infused with Ormes’ politics. One story involved Torchy and her doctor boyfriend uncovering the industrial pollution sickening the residents of a small town. These also featured “Torchy’s Togs,” a Torchy paper doll complete with “pale green linen sheath” or “dapper pinwale corduroy slack suit” that young readers could cut out. These had adult fans, too: Black servicemen were known to use the Torchy paper doll as pin-ups and, in his own Guardian column, the poet Langston Hughes declared himself an admirer of Torchy’s combination of sexiness, smarts, and sass.

Courtesy Nancy Goldstein.

Torchy Brown ceased publishing in 1954 and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger ended in 1956. Ormes continued her career in fashion and art, putting on fashion shows and painting professionally in Chicago; she was also on the founding board of the DuSable Museum of African American History. She also became involved in activism: Over her lifetime, her overt politics earned her an F.B.I. file almost 300 pages in length, while her involvement in Civil Rights and charitable causes got her branded as a “commie” in McCarthyist times.

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In “One Tenth of a Nation,” a 1953 newsreel about prominent African-Americans, Ormes appears sporting a wicked pair of Eartha Kitt eyebrows and pin-curled bangs. Sitting at an enormous drafting board, she puts fountain pen to paper and a Torchy drawing that could be a self-portrait takes shape. She smiles enigmatically and gently adjusts the hat on a Patty-Jo doll, as the narrator booms about the “cute playmate that’s brought happiness to many a youngster, the achievement that Jackie Ormes is proudest of.”

With that and many other accomplishments under he belt, Ormes died in Chicago in 1985. In 2014, she was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. And during Comic-Con San Diego in July, she will be officially added to the Will Eisner Comic Awards Hall of Fame.