Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is a strange bird of a book. On one hand, it is a reverent – albeit short – biography of a mostly-forgotten forerunner of modern black women in comics. Cheryl Lynn Eaton (creator of the web-comic Simulated Life and founder of the Ormes Society), Rosario Dawson (co-creator of Occult Crimes Taskforce), Afua Richardson (artist for Genius), and Jackie Broadnax (creator of the Black Girl Nerds blog) all owe a huge debt to Jackie Ormes‘ trailblazing comics. Ormes authored and drew four different strips from 1937 to 1954 which appeared in African American newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.
This was a time, of course, when opportunities for African Americans and women, let alone African American women, were limited in the comics industry. In addition, the series were – mostly – not the kind of simple gag strip that was a major part of the industry. They expressed many moods and dealt with topics often not touched by other comics. Her work Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was very direct in taking on racism and McCarthyism. Another strip, Torchy in Heartbeats followed an educated African-American protagonist as she not only navigated romantic options but also issues of race, environmental activism, and even foreign intrigue.
Due to Ormes’ outspoken political beliefs and activism on their behalf, she was targeted by the FBI during the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Goldstein has appended excerpts from the FBI file. These primarily consist of several different interviews that were conducted over the years due to her leftist leanings and the anti-Communist hysteria of the times. Ormes consistently stated (and nothing to the contrary was definitively documented by the FBI) that she was not a Communist though sympathetic to the Party’s anti-racist and pro-worker principles.
But on the other hand, author Nancy Goldstein was previously known for having written histories of dolls. It is Goldstein’s initial interest in dolls that lead to the creation of this biography. Jackie Ormes developed a positive African American doll, produced by the Terri Lee Doll Company, in the late 1940’s. An examination of the doll’s creation, marketing, and impact – a small part of Ormes’ artistic output – takes up a large portion of the book.
The Patty-Jo dolls were based on the younger sister of her most prolific strip. Patty-Jo was not as glamorous as her older sister, Ginger, but she was the one given all the pointed dialogue in the strip. As a doll, though, Patty-Jo had many outfits and hair that was able to be easily styled. This made her an appealing toy to young African-American girls who had – at that time – very few choices for African-American dolls that were not stereotypical or demeaning.
For readers primarily interested in the comic side of Ormes’ work, there are copious illustrations from her strips, some early drawings, and other sketches. Her line work is typical of the time in that it is solid, clean, and mostly realistic. Sometimes the perspective of the human body is odd but oddly enduring at the same time. I found great joy in just flipping back and forth over the illustrations.
Goldstein knows that this book is somewhat incomplete in documenting the impact of Jackie Ormes and acknowledges so in the Conclusion. Some of this is due to the general lack of archives for old African-American newspapers in many library collections. To help rectify this problem, she calls for renewed donation of materials to and funding for several main collections of comic material such as the Cartoon Research Library (Ohio State University) or the Comic Art Collection (Michigan State University).
Formats Available: Book
Reviewed by Tony, Main Library