The world of comics continues to grow and become more diverse. Women like Nilah Magruder, Eve Ewing, Stephanie Williams and Roxane Gay are taking over the Marvel universe, bringing a slew of black cartoon characters like Ironheart and Monica Rambeau up to date. The rise of webcomics and independent publishing has also opened doors for many comic book creators opened to spread art with lower barriers to entry.
These women stand on the shoulders of Jackie Ormes, the first black cartoonist and creator to create her own comic book. Her rise to comic fame is a story comic book lovers should know.
The beginnings of an artist
Ormes, born Zelda Mavin Jackson, grew up in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She began writing and drawing during high school and eventually became the art editor for the Monongahela High School yearbook in 1929. Her early sketches of students and teachers formed the basis for her later comic works. She graduated in 1930, at which point Ormes was reporting on boxing matches for the Pittsburgh Courier, a popular black newspaper. Her time at the courier included positions as proofreader, editor and freelance writer. Ormes loved covering various social topics, but drawing was her ultimate passion.
A career in cartoons
a black and white comic by Jackie Ormes with a flare brown character and another woman
The Ohio State University Libraries
Ormes’ first comic book, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, made its Pittsburgh Courier debut on May 1, 1937. The newspaper had issues in multiple cities, so its work attracted the attention of readers across America. (Her pseudonym was not Jackie Ormes at the time.) The title protagonist of the funny comic was a Mississippi teenager who found celebrity singing and dancing at the Cotton Club.
Torchy Brown’s migration from the south to New York City was similar to the travels of many black Americans during this period, as they left their homes for a less oppressive environment. The strip ran until April 30, 1938, almost a year to this day, before it suddenly stopped for reasons unknown.
The story goes on
A few years later, Ormes moved to Chicago. She started working for The Chicago Defender, a leading black weekly newspaper. The newspaper ran its candy comic about a pretty and funny housewife for a few months in 1945. Since this was the end of World War II, the comic provided readers with the humor they needed.
Ormes was really weird when she returned to the courier later that year. Her new accomplishment, Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, ran for 11 years – an impressive feat for a single-panel story. Patty Jo, a socially conscious and lovable child who talked about segregation and union strikes, became so popular that Ormes signed a contract with the Terri Lee doll company to make a Patty Jo doll. Ormes played a role in the design of the doll, a natural choice for someone who often added upscale fashion to their comic book work.
The doll became available just in time for Christmas 1947 and crossed borders in a number of ways. First, it was very different from most of the black dolls at the time, which were based on mammy and topsy stereotypes. Like the cartoon character, Patty Jo looked like a regular black girl and still had some fancy wardrobe options. The Patty Jo doll also became a hit with black and white children at the height of its popularity. Now the dolls are a hot collector’s item because of their rarity.
The evolution of the torch
In 1950, in addition to her Patty Jo run, Ormes restarted her Torchy character via Torchy in Heartbeats. The eight-page color comic insert (in the courier) followed a new torch – a woman who went on adventures in search of love. The strip dealt with everything from racism to pollution, with a black protagonist as opposed to many contemporary depictions of black women. Torchy was smart, independent, fashionable, and headstrong, with a clear sense of self. The insert also contained paper torch dolls with Ormes clothing options.
The figure became a vessel for Ormes to talk about the blacks’ experiences during this difficult time. As Ormes once said in an interview, she didn’t like “dreamy little women who can’t hold their own”.
She was certainly a person who stood up. The 1930s, 40s, and 50s were a time of racial segregation and limited job opportunities for women – especially black women. Some professions such as journalism and comics were heavily male dominated while the majority of women remained housewives.
Photo of color comic strip page from torch brown
The Ohio State University Libraries
Becoming an Ormes journalist, and also getting into the cartoon space, was a huge leap outside of societal boundaries. And she did it with characters that resonated with people, especially black women and girls. Patty Jo and Torchy were free thinkers who faced realistic threats to their existence such as racism and sexism. However, they maintained their optimism and determination.
Ormes retired from drawing in 1956 to pursue the next chapter of her creative life. She created murals and portraits and was later a member of the founding committee of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. She also became a doll collector with over 150 dolls in her possession. Ormes died of a cerebral haemorrhage on December 26, 1985 at the age of 74.
The Ormes Society, an online group promoting black women in the comic book industry, was founded and named after its pioneering creator. The group was founded in 2007 with the artist Cheryl Lynn Eaton at the helm. Eaton wanted to close the gap in comic diversity and support black creators and fans. The Ormes Society temporarily ended in 2015 but came back the following year.
Jackie Ormes was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2014 and into the Hall of Fame of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Eisner Award for Judges’ Choice in 2018. Her work is currently part of the Library of Congress’s Illustrators and Caricaturists on display. In 2016, she awarded her hometown Monongahela a historical marker.
a photo of comic book creator Jackie Ormes at a desk making drawings for Torchy comic
Watch Stitch / YouTube
A Google Doodle dated September 1, 2020 paying homage to her work further drew her attention to her story and prompted a new generation to catch up on her posts. Additionally, a Jackie Ormes / Torchy Brown documentary is in the works to highlight their life and comic contributions. A biography, Jackie Ormes: The First African American Cartoonist, written by Nancy Goldstein, describes her accomplishments.
Jackie Ormes used her talent to break down barriers and make necessary social comments from the perspective of a black woman. Their combination of humor and frank conversations about black life came about through authentic and intelligent depictions of black women and girls. The path she has taken continues to grow with more stories about and through black women coming to the fore.
Jackie Ormes’ comic book Career Set a Foundation for Black Women first appeared on Nerdist.