Redefining Representation in Comics: Jackie Ormes

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Zelda Mavin Jackson, famously known as Jackie Ormes was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911 to William and Mary Jackson. In 1917, an automobile accident resulted in the death of her father, causing she and her family to relocate to Monongahela, a suburb of the Pittsburgh area. During high school, Ormes realized her passion for drawing and writing. It wasn’t long until she submitted her pieces to the weekly African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. The first article she wrote covered a boxing match, resulting in her professional career as a full-time journalist at the paper.

While Ormes enjoyed writing on local and national news, as well as reporting on sporting events as an avid fan, her true passion was drawing. In 1937, the Courier distributed Ormes’s first comic strip Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem. Once the paper published Torchy, Jackie Ormes became the first African American woman cartoonist, and is regarded as such to this very day. While the strip only ran until 1938, she continued to create new and innovative cartoons that depicted African American life, family, and relationships.

Once having left the Pittsburgh based paper, Ormes moved to Chicago in 1942 and the single panel comic Candy appeared in The Chicago Defender. It was the longest running and most popular African American newspaper in the United States at the time. With Ormes as a contributor, the popularity of the paper continued to grow across the nation. Her short-lived panel in the Defender featured Candy, an attractive African American housemaid that was comical and wisecracking. When Ormes moved her work back to the Courier, she created her longest running comic titled Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, featuring a big-little sister dynamic duo. Patty Jo, the younger sister, was a socially and politically aware child that called out injustices in public and in conversations with her older sister Ginger. As a result of the popularity of Patty-Jo, Ormes signed a contract with the Terri Lee doll company to produce the revolutionary Patty-Jo doll.

The doll held a larger meaning by symbolizing an empowered black girl that didn’t put up with social or political injustices. Patty-Jo was a remarkable and revolutionary character, and her sister Ginger symbolized feminine beauty and strength for African American women. She subverted media stereotypes of black womanhood as non-sexual and unattractive. Ginger was not a sex-symbol so to speak, she was a character that combated racist depictions of African American women by contradicting them.

After the eleven year run of Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, Torchy reappeared in the Courier in 1950 as the eight-page color insert Torchy in Heartbeats. The insert featured the titular character searching for true love. On her journey, she rejected misogyny, sexism, and overtly sexual flirtations. Ormes’s intent to create an African American feminist icon were realized in Torchy. She was politically active, and in her last issue, so was her significant other. When the last comic featuring Torchy was released in 1954, she and her boyfriend combatted pollution and the environmental crisis. Ormes instilled the importance of activism in all sectors of life in the comics she created.

Shortly after the end of Torchy, Ormes retired from creating cartoons. While living in Chicago in 1985, Ormes unexpectedly passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage. The National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Ormes in 2014 for the activist work she portrayed through her comics. In 2018, the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame inducted her for redefining the representation of black women in comics. Truly a revolutionary, Ormes consistently fought against racism, sexism, misogyny, and political injustices. This Black History Month, I call on you, the reader, to look deeply at the materials that you are consuming, the creators behind them, and remain cognizant of the importance of representation in all platforms. Jackie Ormes ensured that African American women nationwide would witness empowering images of themselves and her activism continues to reverberate throughout generations.

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