The Comic Strip Pioneer
Jackie Ormes has the distinction of being the first nationally published Black female comic strip artist.
She was so ahead of her time, it boggles my mind.
She created amazing Black heroines who were smart and funny and fashionable.
She used her art to call out hypocrisy and assholery.
She ably satirized even the most horrific current events, a skill that humorists know is NOT EASY.
For example: Here’s the comic strip Jackie drew in 1955 in the aftermath of Emmett Till’s lynching. The 14-year-old boy was murdered because he was accused of whistling at a white woman (an accusation that was later recanted).
(If you look closely, you can see the newspaper headline says “Till.”)
But let's go back to the beginning. Jackie’s creative talents were evident from childhood. She enjoyed writing and drew caricatures for her high school yearbook. Shortly after, she began freelancing for the Pittsburgh Courier as a proofreader and reporter.
Her first comic strip appeared in the Courier in 1937. “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem” told the story of Torchy Brown, a Black teenage girl from Mississippi who moved to New York to sing and dance at the famous Cotton Club.
Jackie moved to Chicago and her next comic appeared in the Chicago Defender. “Candy” was a single-panel cartoon about a Black maid who worked for “Mrs. Goldrocks” and wisecracked while wearing a sexy French maid’s outfit.
Jackie’s longest-running comic was “Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger,” which began in 1945 and ran for 11 years. This single-panel starred a young girl, Patty-Jo, and her older sister, Ginger. Jackie herself had an older sister, Dolores. I wonder if their sisterly dynamic inspired these strips?
The fun of Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was that little Patty-Jo always had a smart remark about grown-up topics like racism, sexism, politics, McCarthyism and war, while her adult sister Ginger never said anything and was just there to look pretty. Jackie had strong views about the state of the world, and she also loved fashion—this strip allowed her to explore both.
Jackie created a full-color strip in 1950 called “Torchy in Heartbeats.” She brought her old character of Torchy Brown back to life in this very modern serial about an independent woman finding her way in the world and looking for love.
Jackie continued to explore themes of racism and prejudice through Torchy’s life and relationships. The strip also included a section called “Torchy Togs,” a paper-doll illustration spotlighting Torchy’s glamorous outfits. Yay fashion!!
In her 2008 book, “Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist,” author Nancy Goldstein writes:
“Ormes was primarily a humorist. She kept her antennae tuned to the wide world around her, picking up signals about events, fads, manners, and language that could be used as material for humor. Part of her attraction for readers then as now is the playful and witty way she interpreted modern life in America.”
Jackie died in 1985. Her sister Dolores wrote in Jackie’s obituary: “Jackie’s philosophy of life was that you don’t wait for someone to encourage you to do things. If you want to do it, then do it.”
Jackie was a true pioneer, ahead of her time both in the depth and humor of her work, and the path she paved for other Black female humorists. In 2018, she was posthumously inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame for achievement in American comics.