Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist
A petite stunner with a 1,000-watt smile, Jackie Ormes enjoyed great success despite the twin hurdles of race and gender. Active from the late 1930s to the mid-'50s, Ormes produced three comic strips over her career, running in newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, papers that served the black community in the two cities in which she lived. The short-lived Candy was a single-panel gag depicting the brash, witty, titular Candy, a domestic in the home of an unseen wealthy woman. Snappy and biting, the humor is usually at the expense of the invisible Mrs. Goldrocks--despite matters of race and status, it's clear who's in charge here. Ormes moved on to produce Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, another single-panel featuring the bright, talkative 5-year-old Patty-Jo and her silent foil, elder sister Ginger. Patty-Jo's youth and cuteness allowed her to take on some weighty topics--her musings on war and racism would likely have been stifled by cautious editors had they not been delivered in the funny pages. During Patty-Jo's 11-year run, Ormes launched Torchy in Heartbeats, a continuation of a character she had developed some 12 years prior in a short strip called From Dixie to Harlem. Torchy enjoyed a multipanel treatment and story arcs that stretched over weeks, as well as the delightful "Torchy's Togs" paper-doll supplement. All of the strips showcased Ormes' singular ability to mix humor and mild sensuality--the sinuous, pinup lines of Ginger contrasting with the cheery pluck of Patty-Jo--and her clean, confident drawing style, which lent her work a sophisticated graphic quality.
All this talent and humor and cultural significance, however, makes it doubly painful to realize how little of Ormes' work is still extant. Biographer Nancy Goldstein does the best she can with what's available, but the blurry reproductions from microfiche are nothing close to the treatment the original materials deserve. Goldstein did manage to dig up some original art and some printed pieces, but these are in heartbreakingly short supply, and the bulk of Ormes' work is lost to the ages or to inferior methods of archiving. But Goldstein became interested in Ormes' work via her fascination with dolls--the Patty-Jo doll is a collectible--and you wonder if, with the aid of reproduction experts behind her, there might not have been a better way to clean up the existing images. As a biographer, Goldstein is more than serviceable--the book's wide margins allow for a running historical commentary, and if she at times falls into the studious, earnest tones of a grad student writing a thesis, she is generally engaging and thorough. If this is all that's left to be salvaged form Ormes' fascinating life--of interest to cartoonists, history buffs, or anyone who likes to laugh--the world should be happy to have it.