In Heartbeats: The Comic Art of Jackie Ormes by Rebecca Giordano

Jackie Ormes , Patty-Jo'n'Ginger  in  The Pittsburgh Courier , October 8, 1955

Jackie Ormes, Patty-Jo'n'Ginger in The Pittsburgh Courier, October 8, 1955

In Heartbeats: The Comic Art of Jackie Ormes
October 7—December 5, 2015

In Heartbeats: The Comic Art of Jackie Ormes celebrates the work of the first African American woman cartoonist. In 1937, Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) began publishing Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem.” This first comic strip detailed the title character’s move from the fields of Mississippi to the stage of the famed Cotton Club of Harlem. Ormes published another three comic series—Candy (1945), a revival of the Torchy character in Torchy in Heartbeats (1950-1954), and her most popular, Patty-Jo’n’Ginger (1945-1956).   

With examples from each of her comic series, this exhibit showcases how Ormes merged Cold War-era concerns with the politics of race and gender. Ormes did not shy away from difficult subjects: she consistently depicted her characters’ physical grace and sexual desire, even while addressing hot button political issues.

The short-lived series Candy was a peek into the private frustrations of a witty maid employed by Mrs. Goldrocks, an absent white woman. Ormes gave humor and humanity to the subtle disobedience of domestic workers. Perhaps because of her art and her participation in Black leftist intellectual circles of Cold War-era Chicago, Ormes was surveilled by the FBI, which amassed a file of more than 250 pages during 1948 to 1958. 

The artist drew comics in a style all her own: her frames are distinctly crowded, she employed variable text size, and she had a penchant for satire and glamor. Ormes brought attention to the way African American women used fashion and dress as tools for self-determination and positive self-representation. Through her comic art, paper doll designs published with Torchy in Heartbeats, and the plastic doll based on Patty-Jo, Ormes allowed readers the opportunity to generate narratives of their own and harness the power of self-representation to combat racist and sexist caricatures that were prevalent in the mainstream media.