I love it when a book exposes me to an event or person that I’d previously known nothing of. This happened recently when a friend sent along an email linking to an article on Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist. This book grew out of author Nancy Goldstein’s interest in a doll modeled after one of Ormes’ comic characters. What emerged from that little pique is this multifaceted portrait of a vivacious lady who channeled the excitement of mid-20th century politics and social issues into her own jazzy drawings.
Actually, cartooning made up only part of Ormes’ life story — between 1937 and 1956, she had a hand in four different comic strips in between stints as a reporter, community volunteer and social hostess on the Chicago scene. Her best-remembered comic was Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, a single panel weekly which ran in the black-oriented Pittsburgh Courier in 1945-56. It starred Patty Jo, a smart-mouthed little girl whose beyond-her-years wisecracks often startled her mute yet smartly dressed older sister Ginger (the fashionable Ormes modeled Ginger after herself). Although the strip looked innocuous enough on the surface, Ormes used the Patty Jo character to caustically speak on current issues ranging from segregation to the HUAC Communist witch hunts to Dior’s “New Look” fashions. Around the same time, Ormes also drew a full color romantic saga titled Torchy In Heartbeats, a series notable for its independent Afro-American herioine and Orme’s lush drawing style (a distinct improvement over Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger‘s cute but often stilted compositions). Goldstein also devotes a chapter to the highly collectible doll based on Patty Jo.
The book itself is a nice and thorough summary of Ormes’ life and career. My only complaint is that Goldstein’s text often detours into unnecessarily long passages giving context to the times she lived in. On the other hand, I did enjoy her paragraphs describing the often obscure topics covered in each Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger panel. Ormes’ comics are presented in the best possible way, despite many of them only surviving on grungy microfilm reels. All in all, with this book I was left with the impression of getting to know a fascinating lady who lived in a fascinating era.