One of the pleasures of March was reading the beautifully produced Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist.
Independent scholars come to their books in odd ways: Nancy Goldstein began with a doll. Made of plastic, the Patty-Jo doll stood 18” high and was marketed with her own range of clothes. Manufactured between 1947 and 1949 the dolls were designed and in some cases hand-painted by Jackie Ormes who also included multiple references to the doll in one of her comics.
The most striking and valuable thing about this biography are the dozens of reproductions it includes. It’s clear that Goldstein spent hours in the microfilm room recovering what remains of Ormes work. Paper copies of Ormes' work are long gone: either suffering the fate of much mid-century newsprint or destroyed by librarians overly enamoured of microfilm. The images Goldstein has found have been patiently cleaned up and carefully annotated.
Jackie Ormes (1911-1986) wrote and drew four separate comic strips—all of which feature African American women or girls. The comics appeared weekly in the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, African American news papers with national distribution. Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, a black and white, three or four panel strip ran from 1937 to 1938 in the Courier. Candy, a single panel comic, ran in the Defender for several months in 1945. Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, also a single panel comic, ran in the Courier from 1945 to 1956. Torchy Brown Heartbeats, a full-colour romance comic in the Courier from 1950 to 1954 and was accompanied by a series of Torchy paper dolls and clothing.
What struck me most in looking at the comics was the pin-up style of the drawing of the female characters. While pin-up figures of Torchy Brown or Candy aren’t particularly odd for comics or for the period, the contrast between five-year-oldish Patty Jo’ and her older sister Ginger constantly startled me. Ginger is fashionplate, Vargas cheesecake. The strong contrast between a hyper-sexualized adult female body with a just past toddler body is more dissonant than the contrast between entirely silent adult and overly-knowing child who comments on the social and political events of the day. Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger is a fascinating combination of fashion and politics.
In the end, Goldstein’s account of Jackie Ormes life is hampered by a lack of primary documentation. While Ormes kept some of the business and social correspondence she received, few if any of her letters or original art survives. Goldstein reconstructs Ormes' life from family memories, an admittedly inaccurate interview given shortly before Ormes' death, and some public records. There are odd elisions—why did the Ormes leave the Sutherland Hotel in 1956 the same year Jackie Ormes stopped drawing comics? And odd gaps—how did Torchy Brown, as a romance comic, compare to others of the period or how did Ormes’ work compare to that of other African American comic artists of her period?
There’s more work to be done in collecting Ormes work and placing her in the social, political, and artist context. But this is a fine beginning, the product of much care and attention.
- Short film of Ormes in her studio
- Salute to Pioneering Cartoonists of Colour
- Archive of Golden Age Romance Comics (via Journalista)
- Publishers Weekly Review
- Interview with Nancy Goldstein (via Torchbearers)