File this one in the “cartoonists those jerks at Angoulême should have known about.”
Zelda “Jackie” Ormes was a pioneer of American comics and the first black woman to have a syndicated comic strip.
Jackie Ormes syndicated several strips from 1937-1956 in African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pitsburgh Courier. She drew several strips, either in the romance-adventure genre or single-panel subtle political cartoons. Her first notable strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, was about a young, glamorous woman traveling to New York City to seek her fortune. Torchy Brown was a fashionable, smart young woman who wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get what she wanted: love, a dance career, and great clothes.
Why was this a big deal? Particularly when written or drawn by white people, black representation in comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s was often limited to racist stereotypes. Ormes sought to break these down through her comics and later, her dolls. She portrayed real people rather than caricatures.
Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem stopped being syndicated in 1940, but returned later in the strip Torchy in Heartbeats, which focused more on Torchy’s romantic aspirations, but also touched on themes of environmental justice and Torchy’s career. Romance comics were the rage in the 1950s, and Ormes’ work is a good example of the genre.
Aside from romance comics, Ormes also drew single-panel cartoons. Her most famous is the humorous political strip Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, which ran from 1945-1956. Every strip is some sort of witty banter between Patty Jo, a little girl, and her teenaged sister, Ginger. Like Torchy Brown, Ginger is a fashion plate: always in fantastic, fashionable outfits. She never speaks in the comic, and plays the “straight man” to Patty Jo’s witticisms. Patty Jo is smart and pulls no punches.
Patty Jo is the epitome of speaking truth to power. She takes on racism, sexism, and injustice, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly.
In this 1948 comic, Ginger is holding a pamphlet and pledge cards for the Negro College Fund, a scholarship fund that helped students get into historically black colleges:
After the 1955 lynching of teenager Emmett Till, who had reputedly whistled at a white woman, Ormes posted the following cartoon:
Unsurprisingly, Ormes’ work was not syndicated in white newspapers.
Never once was Patty Jo asked to silence herself or rein herself in: the strip just served as a place for her to be precocious, i.e. smart and politically incisive. Rebecca Onion of Slate describes Patty Jo as a “spiritual ancestor of the radical Huey Freeman of the comic strip Boondocks.”
Jackie Ormes made a Patty Jo doll with the Terri Lee doll company in 1947, which was a sixteen inch tall plastic doll with “playable hair” and a variety of fashionable outfits. It was a huge commercial success, and is now a collector’s item.