Just in time for the end of Comic Con, I stumbled on a great Tumblr post on Jackie Ormes, the first African-American woman cartoonist. Considering how frackin’ groundbreaking/awesome she was, it’s a travesty of Catwoman (2004) proportions that she’s been forgotten. But we’re going to remedy that right now; hold onto your phasers y’all, I’m ‘bout to drop some knowledge!
Jackie was born Zelda Mavin Jackson on August 1, 1911 in Monogahela, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh. In the mid/late 1930s, Jackie, like Superman/Clark Kent, started working at the Pittsburgh Courier, a widely circulated black newspaper.
Soon, her artistic capabilities were discovered, and in 1937 her first cartoon, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem appeared. It starred a pretty African-American heroine leaving Mississippi for the Big Apple. Torchy, and her creator, had moxie and were revolutionary for the era. Here’s proof: there’s a strip that shows Torchy about to board a train north. She spots two arrow signs-one directing passengers to the colored section, the second to the white. She heads towards the more comfortable white train cars and says, “I’ll jus’ pretend I can’t read very well…” I told you, moxie! This original incarnation of Torchy only lasted until 1940, but was resurrected ten years later as Torchy in Heartbeats (1950-1954). Torchy had become a sophisticated woman who, like a cropped cape-wearing crusader, continued to resist imposed social inequality.
Jackie had other comics, too. Candy, published in the Chicago Defender, was a smart-alecky housemaid. In 1945, back at The Courier, she debuted Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger. Patty-Jo was a precocious youngster, Ginger her pin-up gorgeous, college-educated big sister. Cleverly, Jackie used Patty-Jo to remark on topics concerning African-Americans. Following the murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till for supposedly flirting with a white woman, Jackie drew Patty-Jo saying to Ginger, “I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject… but that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!” Thor’s hammer, that’s sassy!
Patty-Jo became a doll, too. Different from more common black dolls, she represented a realistic person, not a caricature; likewise, she was the first African-American doll to have a wide-ranging, fashionable wardrobe. When Torchy re-emerged, she also had a paper doll and large collection of glamorous ensembles.
Her liberal sensibilities precipitated a FBI investigationduring the McCarthy era. She retired from newspapers in 1956, but continued to create art and stay active in her community. She died December 26, 1985 at 74 years-old.
She wasn’t a pioneer just because she was the first African-American woman cartoonist, Jackie’s characters became role-models for readers. Though generally depicted as overweight simpleton domestics, personalities like Torchy, Patty-Jo, and Ginger were beautiful, intellectual, and politically-minded. So, this year as you’re designing your homemade Avengers costume for next year’s Comic Con, don’t forget about Jackie Ormes, cartoonist “Wonder Woman” and comic trailblazer.
For more information on Jackie Ormes check-out:
Comics Crusader: Remembering Jackie Ormes
Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist
Profiles in Black Cartooning: Jackie Ormes
The History Bitch
Podcaster, tea aficionado, Anglophile, 'Game of Thrones' enthusiast.