This segment is dedicated to a trailblazer to the highest degree. Born Zelda Mavin Jackson outside of Pittsburg, PA in 1911, Mrs. Ormes is recognized as the first African American woman cartoonist. Typically thought of as a (white) man’s domain, Ormes work was sharp in a cerebral and aesthetic sense, breaking new ground with her comic strips Torchy Brown, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger and Candy.
Ormes’ entrée into journalism was in the 1930’s at an African American weekly called the Pittsburgh Courier. From 1937-38, she amused and enlightened readers with her comic strip Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, which chronicled the life of a Mississippi teen, made famous as a Cotton Club performer. In 1942, the comic creator moved to Chicago where she wrote articles, columns and eventually penned her single panel cartoon, Candy – about a snarky, beautiful maid – for the prominent community newspaper, the Chicago Defender.
The official Jackie Ormes site provides deeper insight into her life and inspiration: “As a member of Chicago’s black elite, Ormes’ social circle included leading political figures and entertainers of the day. People who knew her say that she modeled some cartoon characters after herself as beautifully dressed and coiffed females, appearing and speaking out in ways that defied stereotyped images of blacks in the mainstream press. Ormes’ politics, which fell decidedly to the left and were apparent to even a casual reader of her cartoons and comics, eventually led to her investigation by the FBI during the McCarthy era.”
The introduction of the Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger coincided with Ormes’ return to the Courier in 1945. A highly successful concept, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger ran for 11 years. According to Wikipedia, the popular strip featured a big sister-little sister set-up, with the precocious, insightful and socially/politically-aware child as the only speaker and the beautiful adult woman as a sometime pin-up figure and fashion mannequin.
A doll enthusiast and fashionista herself, Jackie Ormes partnered with the Terri Lee Doll Company in 1947 to create a doll based on the strip’s perceptive young star. Unlike the demeaning dolls designed for Black girls of the time, Patty-Jo was the first of its kind complete with an elaborate, chic wardrobe. Today it’s considered a rare collectors item.
Mrs. Ormes revived Torchy for the Courier in 1950 when the weekly began to showcase an eight-page color comics insert. Torchy in Heartbeats followed the life of a sexy, yet sophisticated woman (with substance) on the quest for true love. Wikipedia cites its final episode in ’54 as its most cutting edge: Torchy and her doctor boyfriend confront racism & environmental pollution. Like her originator, Torchy represented a powerful and uncommon image of her era: A sista who was bold, beautiful, brilliant and brave.
The vanguard cartoonista retired in 1956, her creative force redirected to produce murals, portraits, still life’s, and the like. Ormes kept her passion for fashion alive by contributing to fundraiser fashion shows. She was on the founding board of directors for the DuSable Museum of African American History and an active participant of the Guys and Gals Funtastique Doll Club. It’s been said that the cultural pioneer was happily wed to Earl Clark Ormes for 45 years. Jackie Ormes passed away on December 26, 1985, but her influence lives on to this very day.
Cheryl Lynn Eaton, a Black comic artist from Jersey and creator of webcomic Simulated Life, founded The Ormes Society as a means to “fend off creative isolation and to build a support network of like-minded individuals,” Eaton told Geek Out. “Finding [Ormes] work was like opening the door to a lost world. An entire American subculture and been denigrated and misrepresented through mainstream comics for years. Ormes used comics to show African-Americans as they really were; as human beings. Her work should be collected and shelved next to peers such as (Will) Eisner.”
Eaton said the Ormes Society has received “an amazing amount of support” from across the comic blogosphere since she launched the organization four years ago. It’s her hope that the society will act as a well of inspiration and support for creators and readers, while establishing a new visual & cultural terrain.
“I find it so frustrating that I come from a family of readers and yet I am the only woman who reads comics,” Eaton continues. “I think the best way to attract black women as consumers is to eradicate the myth that comics are for men and solely involve superheroes.” Thankfully, much of that groundwork has been laid by the genius of Mrs. Jackie Ormes.