Torchy, Patty-Jo and the Indispensable Jackie Ormes

Pioneering cartoonist Jackie Ormes did not suffer fools, and neither did her heroines. Her Torchy Brown, an ambitious Mississippi gal, migrates North (“From Dixie to Harlem”) in the late 1930s to become an accomplished Cotton Club entertainer who navigates the hard-boiled city. By the time of the second iteration of Torchy In the Sunday Pittsburgh Courier section we reprinted earlier) she romances and supports some of the movers and shakers of her community. The even more famous and long-lived Patty-Jo (“Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger”) was a sharp-tonged tike who shot barbs at the pretensions of adulthood and especially the petty bigotries of others and the larger structural racism of 40s and 50s America.

Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) is finally getting the attention she deserves with a full-length biography and a further reprinting of some of her work in this year’s indispensable It’s Life As I See It compilation of Black cartoonists of Chicago. She was the first Black woman to work in the comic strip medium, and spent her career addressing both race and gender in mid-Century America. Her political and cultural activism attracted the FBI enough to earn her a 200+ page dossier. While a cartoonist since childhood, she started as a journalist in the 1930s writing for her hometown Pittsburgh Courier, one of the major American newspapers serving Black communities. She got a shot at a comic strip for the Courier in 1937 and invented nightclub singer Torchy. The strip lasted only a couple of years, as Ormes followed her husband to Chicago. Torchy would be revived in 1950 as “Torchy in Heartbeats” to the romance genre role in the color comics section syndicated by Smith-Mann to the Courier and likely other Black newspapers.

Torchy parallels Ormes herself in some essential ways. Ormes lost her father at a young age to an accident and was raised principally by relatives as her mother pursued career and re-marriage. Ormes/Torchy’s devotion to fashion becomes central to the art and some of the best moments of the strip involve her depiction of feminine curves, sharp attire and bodies in motion.

Ormes’s art had its contradictions. Visually, it could be inconsistent. In the “Business of Star Hitching” episode above her use of clothing and dance has wonderful energy. And her fashion drawing is quite precise. And yet her juxtaposition of figures, sense of mass and perspective (especially in the Torchy in Heartbeats Sundays) feel wooden and inanimate. On the one hand she portrayed ambitious, self-possessed and whip-smart women characters, who she often disrobed into sheer cheesecake allure. And fundamentally, Ormes’s work was a deliberate counterpoint to ethnic stereotyping in rejecting any use of dialect or caricature in any of her Black characters. And yet in “A Letter ‘T Home” above she projects both dialect and illiteracy on her former caretakers, perhaps signaling Ormes and Torchy distancing themselves from humble pasts.

In the 1950 revival pf Torchy. Ormes recasts Torchy as supporting player to successful Black professional men. She was deliberately filling a genre slot for Smith-Mann, the romance comic that by 1950 was a bestselling comic book market segment already pioneered by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. But Heartbeats advances the form, as Torchy shows exceptional psychological insight into her romantic interests. In the case of the disabled pianist Earl, romance is less the object than is navigating his bitterness. Her job here is both personal and political, to rekindle his ambition so that this talented lover can assert himself again into an America that traditionally prefers to infantilize and undermine Black manhood.

Even a perfunctory dive into the Black cartoonists of the 30s through 50s shows how the concept of institutional racism, which seems revelatory to many white Americans today, was a common insight of Black newspapers decades ago. In one Heartbeats storyline, Torchy’s boyfriend is a doctor investigating the environmental poisoning of their community by a nearby manufacturing plant. It would take half a century for the rest of America to recognize the ways in which toxic dumping has always disproportionately endangered America’s disadvantaged and disempowered minority geographies.

Her biggest hit came in 1945 when she returned to cartooning for the Courier with “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger,” a one-panel cartoon that paired the wise-cracking and politically knowing child Patty-Jo with the curvaceous big sister Ginger, who remains mute and reactive throughout the series. But Patty-Jo went far beyond the typical precocious kid’s-eye-view. She was a jaded and informed social critic, making references to everything from Southern racism to the Truman Doctrine, Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

As in all of her work, in Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger Ormes combines upscale images of Black middle-class style with political awareness, social and racial justice principles and sex appeal. Ginger is effectively a mannequin for Ormes’s talent for drawing fashion and sexuality. In fact in one of the strip’s meta moment Patty-Jo chides big sister for her mute role in the strip, announcing she has been named “Miss Yummy Dummy of 1947.”

The real triumph of the Patty-Jo strip is the imp’s wry irony. She is on to the performative terrorism of Joe McCarthy by characterizing his dominance of early TV as “Cinnamacarthy.” She questions whether appeals to an “American way of life” refer to New York or Georgia’s version of the ideal. Through her Ormes takes aim at the subtleties of racial exclusion from official discourse. Patty-Jo reassures a tenement room of impoverished children not to worry because Uncle Sam is spending his treasure on a nuclear arsenal, so that they are poor but “protected.”

It is even more ironic that Ormes’s acerbic social critic would become the most mainstream of all her creations, a child’s doll. Produced between 1947 and 1949 by the Terri Lee doll company, the Patty Jo hard plastic toy was the first widely distributed Black character doll to dispense with “mammy” and “pickaninny” stereotypes. Few American cartoonists can claim to have blazed as many new cultural trails, upended so artfully the visual tropes of American culture and had a such genuine impact on her community than Ormes. A fuller reprint of her work is long overdue.