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Jackie Ormes and African American Comic Strips

on Wed, 01/22/2014 - 00:00

Jackie Ormes
The comic strip has been a unique and influential aspect of contemporary life for well over 100 years. Initially added to newspapers as a way to increase sales, the “funny pages” quickly became a popular component of the daily reading habits for many Americans regardless of whether their publication of choice was the New York Times, Chicago Tribune or the San Francisco Examiner. Designed to take reader’s minds off the more somber fare found on the front pages of these newspapers, comic strips not only made people laugh but also satirically reflected everything from domestic life to politics, making them easy to identify with and serving as testaments of their times as well.

During a vast majority of the Twentieth Century, African Americans were shunned within the pages of the major newspapers, which gave little actual reporting on subjects that mattered to that segment of the population. Thus in addition to mainstream media, most African Americans also subscribed to black newspapers, such as the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and New York Amsterdam News. And just like their white-dominated brethren, these publications likewise contained their own comic strips, created and drawn by African Americans specifically for the African American community.

Although the medium was dominated by males, both the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender had comic strips written by an African American woman during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Her name was Jackie Ormes, and while she was living in Chicago for the majority of those years, Ormes was born and bred in the Steel City, and it was within her hometown Courier that she ultimately found her greatest success.

“Jackie Ormes’ work crossed several thematic boundaries and presented readers with a variety of expectations and pleasures,” Nancy Goldstein writes in Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist (University of Michigan Press, 2008). “Her wide range of styles and topics eludes easy categorization. For some, her most memorable achievements may be found in her participation in the tradition of American editorial cartoonists. Others will admire her pinup art and her bold invention of herself as an artist in that genre, so popular at the time. Her work can be appreciated for its messages of racial uplift, made especially interesting because they were aimed at a wide readership in a family newspaper. Ormes’ cartoons also vividly document the material culture of the postwar period and show the ways people dressed, how they furnished their homes, and their ambitions, pleasures and pastimes.”

Zelda Mavin Jackson was born on August 1, 1911, in Pittsburgh, although her family moved shortly thereafter to Monongahela in nearby Washington County. Young Zelda was eventually nicknamed Jackie, a shortened version of her last name, and upon graduation from high school, she moved back to the Steel City and got a job at the Pittsburgh Courier as a proofreader and freelance journalist.

In 1937, Jackie Ormes created a comic strip called Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem,” which told the story of a young country girl who moves from Mississippi to New York City in order to make it as a lounge singer at the famed Cotton Club. The comic strip only ran in the Pittsburgh Courier for one year, and by the time it had ended, Jackie Ormes had moved to Chicago with her husband.

Earl Ormes quickly found employment in the Windy City, first as manager of the DuSable Hotel and later at the more upscale Sutherland Hotel. Because of his success in the hospitality field, there was no pressure on Jackie Ormes to find employment herself, and she instead ingratiated herself into the music, fashion and artistic communities of Chicago. She still had a strong desire to work in the newspaper business, however, and convinced the Chicago Defender to hire her as journalist based on her experience at the Pittsburgh Courier.

Merely reporting the news wasn’t enough for Ormes, as she continued to fine-tune her artistic talents and relished the opportunity to make people laugh while offering insights on African American life in the mid-Twentieth Century as well. Thus was born Candy, a single panel cartoon that featured a curvaceously-drawn housemaid who wisecracked about her unseen employer and borrowed clothes from her boss’ wardrobe.

Candy only ran for four months, although the reasons for such a short-length are not known. Biographer Nancy Goldstein speculates that the comic strip either did not suit the editorial needs of the Defender, or that it was published on a trial basis that saw no financial returns for Ormes. By the time Candy ended, however, Jackie Ormes had already created her next comic strip and this time sold it to her old newspaper back in the Steel City, the Pittsburgh Courier.

Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger turned out to be her longest running comic strip, printed in various editions of the Courier from September 1945 until September 1956. The sexually provocative image of Candy was transplanted onto Ginger, the big sister of main character Patty-Jo. Ginger never “speaks” in the single panel comic, with all of the dialogue spouting from the mouth of her younger sibling. Despite her age, Patty-Jo has both a “smart mouth” and keen insights into the time period.

Although specific cities are cited in their names, the majority of black newspapers during the era were actually national publications. The Pittsburgh Courier, for instance, had fifteen different editions published throughout the United States. While the main issue of the Steel City-based newspaper may only have had a circulation of 300,000, the Pittsburgh Courier itself—adding up all of the other regional editions—was read by well over one million subscribers.

Jackie Ormes thus had a wide readership that stretched from New York to Pittsburgh, Chicago to Los Angeles, and her comic strips complimented the actual news that the Courier carried to those millions of African Americans across the country.

“Ormes’ characters demonstrated competence, astute insights and, at times, extraordinary achievement, in contrast to the images of blacks in the mainstream media, where buffoonery and clueless victimization were the all-too-frequent stereotypes,” Nancy Goldstein writes of Jackie Ormes’ comic strips. “Her characters’ up-to-the-minute fashions, stylish home décor, and leisure lifestyles artfully extended the Courier’s agenda of promoting racial uplift, equating material affluence with respectability and social advancement.”

In August 1950, the Pittsburgh Courier added a full-color supplement to its publication that contained a larger assortment of African American comic strips, similar to those found in the Sunday editions of major newspapers. Jackie Ormes was responsible for one of those creations, Torchy in Heartbeats. The main character of her first comic was essentially given a make-over, with Torchy Brown no longer in New York but looking for love in all the wrong places instead.

Although a combination of styles that borrowed from both Victorian romance novels and pulp fiction of the 1950s, Torchy Brown also addressed violence against women and touched upon racism, public health and the environment in much the same way that later classic comic strips—including Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks—would likewise include political messages that complimented the narrative.

“Ormes most often spoke through ordinary people, characters who were not in the public eye,” Nancy Goldstein says in her biography of Jackie Ormes. “Patty-Jo, for instance, seems the least likely person to take on such topics as atom bombs or unfair employment policies, though she frequently spoke on these issues. The later Torchy, an unassuming nurse in a small clinic, became the adversary of a powerful industrialist. Through depictions of ordinary people doing and saying extraordinary things, Ormes established a deep sympathy with her characters and, by extension, with her public.”

The full-color pages of comics eventually became too expensive for the Pittsburgh Courier to publish, and Torchy in Heartbeats likewise ended shortly thereafter. Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger continued for another two years, until it also concluded on September 22, 1956.

No one knows why Jackie Ormes stopped drawing comics after that, and it was more likely a combination of reasons—from editorial changes within the Pittsburgh Courier, to the development of rheumatoid arthritis from all those years of drawing, to the fact that Earl Ormes was successful enough at his job that the second paycheck wasn’t a necessity.

Regardless of the reason, Jackie Ormes left behind a legacy of not only being a woman in a male dominated industry, but an African American in tune with the sensitivities of her racially-tinged times as well.

Anthony Letizia

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