Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein (book review).

When I realised that Nancy Goldstein’s book ‘Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist’ was in Eurospan’s catalogue, a request brought the book to my doorstep. This is a good reminder that if you’re after first hand books from any of the University presses and live in the UK, make Eurospan your first port of call to check their catalogues.

In her introduction, Goldstein admits that there are gaps that aren’t possible to fill but bearing in mind Ormes died in 1985 and many of the people and companies long before, it’s a difficult task when not all records were kept. However, what she has here is the only book on Jackie Ormes, so you have to wonder why she’s so forgotten. After all, she was the first black female cartoonist. More so, from 1947-49, a black Patty-Jo doll was available of one of her characters. Goldstein’s background comes from the history of dolls which led her to examine Jackie Ormes’ life in more detail.

Born in 1911, Zelda Mavin Jackson, she was called ‘Jackie’ from an early age. ‘Ormes’ was her married name and whom she was married to Earl all her life. She actually started off as a news reporter before switching to cartoonist in 1937-38 with Torchy Brown in “Dixie In Harlem” and later in ‘Torchy Brown in “Heartbeats” (1950-54). Her comic-strip character ‘Torchy Brown’ was derived from torch or love songs and ‘Brown’ was her mother’s maiden name.

The longest going strip was 11 years on ‘Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger’ (1945-56). How many cartoonists do you know who were producing two newspaper strips at the same time? I find that remarkable in itself. There are over 30 pages of panels of ‘Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger’ with very few taken from the originals and the rest cleaned from microfilm. When you consider that there were only three female cartoonists, the other two being Dale Messick with ‘Brenda Starr, Reporter’ and Mary Petty who drew amongst other things ‘The Peabody Family’ for the ‘New Yorker’, then they were a rare breed. Later in the book, another 5 lady cartoonists are noted in the 1950s.

The chapter examining black cartoonists in general from that period could have done with some illustrations to match the text but that could be put down to getting rights. Considering the racism that was going on at the time, I was glad to see black weekly newspapers in the Pittsburgh and Chicago.

A closer examination of Ormes’ cartoon strips shows how much she used herself as the model and zip-a-tone for colour. It’s hardly she used herself as the model as she was quite a knock-out. Artistically, Ormes shows great line economy and enormous fashion sense.

The most material comes from ‘Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger’ where oddly it is Patty-Jo, the little tyke who does the talking with her taller adult sister emoting. Goldstein’s analysis next to each of the 88 large panels picks up on topics that were important at the time and would probably carry similar meaning on some issues today for those who seek this book out. Ormes was nothing if not topical on all manner of subjects that drew her attention to the FBI on several occasions. Patty-Jo also has the distinction of being the first black doll for children with a full wardrobe. You could hardly expect Ornmes not to display that in the panels. Interestingly, much of her fashion designs were for Ginger and the samples even include some profile poses.

The chapter looking at her Patty-Jo doll is interesting. The model itself was expensive and stood 16 inches high with a full wardrobe. Ormes was given dolls to sell herself and would paint the features on and had taught the factory workers how to give the right look. Interestingly, there was no knowledge of how to make brown plastic at the time and this was sprayed on. Looking at the info, this is a lead-based pant which isn’t allowed any more.

The overall impression from this book was Jackie Ormes was a real go-getter with connections and certainly made some impact at the time. It’s even more amazing that until last year I hadn’t even heard of her.

If you’re interested in the history of newspaper cartoonists, then you really do need to pick this book up. It is informing and shows a lot of Ormes work both in black and white and in colour for ‘Torchy Brown’. The fact that she did so much with it also gives some insight into the time period and its fashions also makes Ormes of historical importance.

GF Willmetts

January 2018

(pub: The University Of Michigan Press, 2008. 225 page illustrated indexed very large hardback. Price: $40.00 (US), £36.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-47211-624-9)

check out websites: www.press.umich.edu and www.eurospanbookstore.com

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