Alright, I confess. I may have a way with words, but when it comes to drawing I am not so nifty. A simple stick figure is a challenge. I just can’t seem to get the circle to connect. Unlike me, Zelda Mavin Jackson was a natural. Born August 1, 1911, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native started as a writer. Well, sort of. She began her career in the publishing industry as a proofreader for the Pittsburgh Courier. After a while the African-American owned and operated paper promoted her to a cartoonist. With the promotion came an alias and a marriage. Zelda Ormes’ penname became Jackie Ormes.
Jackie Ormes’ comic ran in the Courier from 1937 to 1938. The strip Dixie to Harlem featured a character by the name of Torchy Brown. Torchy was a Mississippi teen who found fame performing in the Cotton Club. Modeled after Ormes in both the physical and intellectual, Torchy was a well-dressed, outspoken chick with toffee skin and a short Rihanna-esque ‘do. Ormes used the comic strip to express her left-wing political view. Obviously Torchy defied all stereotypes of African-American women in the 1930s. Her openness regarding her political views caused Jackie to be investigated by the FBI during the McCarthy Era. Like Feminist Philosopher Laurel Thatcher Ulrich states: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
After a brief hiatus from the Pittsburg Courier, Ormes returned to cartooning. In August 1945 the single panel cartoon Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger debuted. The duo was made up of a politically aware pre-teen serving as the speaker and her adult sister serving as eye candy all dolled up in pin-up girl garb.
In 1947 Patty-Jo went plastic. Ormes collaborated with the Terry Lee doll company to manufacture a doll resembling the tot from the comics. The Patty-Jo doll hit shelves on Christmas and was the first African-American doll to have an extensive, fashionable wardrobe. In 1949 Patty-Jo’s run ended and now the dolls are sought after collectors’ items. Christie better watch her back!
After the fame of the Patty-Jo doll, the Courier gave Ormes an 8 page comic. Ormes took this time to re-invent Torchy Brown. Torchy in Heartbeats features the updated character on a quest for love. I guess she got sick of the cat calls in the Cotton Club. Ormes seized the opportunity and began to feature her comic strip in conjunction with a paper doll cutout. Ormes had an eye for fashion and a love for the Black female body. Way to put T&A in the mainstream. The most controversial and well-known episode of Torchy in Heartbeats was released in 1954. The last time the strip was published. In the strip, Torchy and her doctor boyfriend comment on racism and pollution.
Ormes put down her pen in 1956 and lived the rest of her life creating murals, still lifes, and portraits. Oddly, there is a discrepancy in Jackie Ormes’ death date. Most note it as December 26, 1985, but the January 4, 1986 Chicago Tribune reported her death occurring on January 2, 1986. Despite her early end to cartooning, she is still known as the first African-American Woman Cartoonist.
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