Illustration by Christina "Steenz" Stewart
When people consider the early history of comics, a few names spring immediately to mind – Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Steve Ditko, and newspaper cartoonists like Charles Addams and Charles Schultz. Rarely do you hear about the women who paved the way for modern comics, especially not the women of color who created pioneering comic strips. One such voice is Jackie Ormes, the first black female syndicated newspaper cartoonist, who created dynamic characters that rejected the negative stereotypes that permeated depictions of black women at the time.
Jackie began her career as a court journalist at the Pittsburgh Courier, before beginning to draw and create comics, which the Courier later published. Jackie’s women were confident, smart, brave, and beautiful, often depicted in detailed, high-fashion clothing. Her first strip, Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem,” focused on a Mississippi teenager who moves to the big city. The strip, which started in 1937, initially began as a comedy but eventually turned into a melodrama that covered more political topics like race, gender, and even pollution. The titular Torchy was also a fashion maven whose appearance was based loosely on Ormes herself, with her own paper dolls called “Torchy’s Togs.” Torchy’s original strip only ran for one year in 1937, but returned as a romance comic in the Chicago Defender in 1950, where it ran for four years.
Ormes, who described herself as “antiwar and anti-everything-that’s-smelly,” was vocally political enough to land herself on an FBI watch list during the rise of McCarthyism. She was involved in arts advocacy in 1950s Chicago, where she wrote a society column and befriended many cultural luminaries of the time. Her comics largely appeared in black newspapers, but were syndicated nationally until 1956. In the 1940s, her original character Patty Jo was made into the first ever black baby doll. Ormes herself was a doll collector, with over 150 in her personal collection.
Jackie was incredibly successful as a female cartoonist, and yet her work has been largely unknown until recently, when a 2008 scholarly book from the University of Michigan brought it back into the public view, leading to a newfound appreciation for Ormes online. A trailblazing creator, Jackie Ormes combined high-fashion glamour with sociopolitical messages to create work that was revolutionary for her time.
For more information on Jackie Ormes and her work, check out these links: