Meet Jackie Ormes and Torchy Brown

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 8/1/2012, 4:36 p.m.
Decades before Coffey or Foxy Brown, there was Torchy Brown, a smart, beautiful, tough-as-nails Black...
Meet Jackie Ormes and Torchy Brown

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Meet Jackie Ormes and Torchy Brown

Decades before Coffey or Foxy Brown, there was Torchy Brown, a smart, beautiful, tough-as-nails Black woman-turned-lipstick-crusader who took on racism, sexism, human rights, politics, environmental issues and injustices against women and Blacks long before the Civil Rights Movement. Torchy was the creation of Jackie Ormes, the first Black female cartoonist.

Over a span of 28 years, Ormes created four strips: "Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem" (1937-40), "Candy" (mid-1940s), "Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger" (1946-65) and "Torchy Brown Heartbeats" (1950-55). The adventures of Torchy Brown were played out on the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.

In a scene from the 1937 strip "Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem," young, ambitious Torchy is leaving her small Southern hometown headed for the bright lights of New York City. As she boards the train, she sees a sign with two arrows; one points to the colored section of the train while the other points to the white section, no doubt a scene played out tens of thousands of times in real life. However, Torchy pretends she can't read and goes to the white car.

Torchy makes it to New York and becomes a dancer at Harlem's famed Cotton Club, meeting Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and even dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

A later installment has a mature, savvy Torchy and her doctor boyfriend taking on a corrupt chemical plant owner who carelessly and callously poisons the environment of the Brazilian jungle and bullies the area's native people. Not bad for a protagonist who just happens to be a beautiful Black woman.

Ormes changed the way Black women were drawn in cartoons. Before Torchy, Blacks were depicted as buffoonish, with exaggerated lips. They were always servants or porters. Black women were always fat and unattractive, with bandannas on their heads. Torchy was shapely, smart, beautiful, stylish and outspoken--a first for a Black comic character.

Torchy did her work quietly and effectively. Of course she fell in love and got her heart broken, but Torchy was not one to throw a pity party to lick her wounds. Instead, she jumped right into the next adventure. A woman for the ages indeed, especially in the 1930s, when Ormes' cartoon alter ego made her auspicious debut on the pages of the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier.

Ormes was born Zelda Jackson in Pittsburgh on Aug. 1, 1911. Her father was killed six years later in a car accident, after which she and her older sister lived with their grandmother while their mother worked as a live-in maid. Her mother later remarried.

She became known as Jackie, a take on her surname, Jackson--a name that would come in handy when she broke into the male-dominated world of cartooning. Both sisters were encouraged to develop their talents; Jackie's talent was her pen.

Before she was out of high school, her articles were appearing in the Pittsburgh Courier, which hired her as a cub reporter when she graduated. In 1936, she married Earl Ormes. Her groundbreaking comic strip, "Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem," appeared in 1937.

In 1942, the couple moved to Chicago, where Ormes began writing for the Chicago Defender, the nation's leading Black weekly at the time. She covered important news, including the city's major racial stories. Despite her success as a newswoman, she was most known as a cartoonist. Her next project was a single-panel cartoon, "Candy," about a wisecracking housemaid.

In 1945, Ormes was back at the Courier with "Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger," a big sister-little sister setup, with the little sister featured as a precocious and clever child. The Ormeses had lost their only child to a brain aneurism at age 4--this strip was Ormes' way of giving voice to her child. The popular strip ran for 11 years.

Patty-Jo was so popular that in 1947, the Terri Lee doll company created a doll based on the character of a real Black child --another groundbreaking first for Ormes. Today, the Patty-Jo doll is a highly prized collector's item.

In 1950, the Courier began an eight-page comic insert in which Ormes revived her Torchy character. The new strip was called "Torchy Brown Heartbeats." Now Torchy was in color, but there was a hitch; the paper hired writer John Messman to write the dialogue, and he and Ormes clashed over how Torchy was written. Ormes wanted her character to be written as the kind of woman she wanted her to be. Ormes won the battle and a more mature but still strong and confident Torchy emerged.

"Torchy Brown Heartbeats" became a nationally syndicated strip, appearing in 14 newspapers, another first for Ormes. A depiction of a strong Black female character in a comic strip drawn by a Black woman was a big deal--consider that when in 1965, a Black girl appeared in the popular "Brenda Starr" strip, the comic was pulled from Southern newspapers. Five years later, when the Black character of Lieutenant Flap joined the popular Beetle Bailey strip, it too was dropped from Southern papers.

Torchy inspired "Friday Foster," the adventures of a Black female photographer who, like Torchy, found herself in one adventure after another.

Sadly, the legacy of this pioneering artist is largely forgotten. Filmmaker Susan Reib has spent more than two decades of her professional life working to bring the story of Ormes and Torchy to life on film.

"Her legacy has really been lost. She had such a huge impact in her time and has largely been forgotten. I've devoted my professional life to giving voice to the rich legacy of her pioneering work, Torchy Brown. The greatest compliment given to her was that she drew like a man. At that time, all the Black cartoonists were men and she had to fight her way onto the page," Reib told the AmNews.

"About 25 years ago, I read an article about Jackies Ormes in the Chicago Reader. The cover story had a picture of Jackie Ormes right next to Torchy Brown. All I had to do was take a look to see this was something that I had never seen before. I knew, seeing the creator next to her creation, that there was a story to be told. I pursued the life rights to Jackie Ormes and set about trying to get a film made," said Reib.

"My passion has never let up on this. This is not just a Black story--this story crossed racial boundaries. Jackie Ormes created a character that could step into a world that was forbidden to her. She gave voice to a whole generation of readers. I feel that her voice is as potent today as when she first put pen to paper. The issues of racism and sexism, and even environmental pollution, against the backdrop of romance, were being tackled. She took these issues on before they were popular."

Reib missed meeting Ormes just months before her death in 1986, but she did get in touch with Ormes' sister, Delores Towles. The two women became friends and Towles granted Reib the life rights to Ormes' work.

"I had to convince her and show that I was gong to take good care of this story, that I was worth trusting. We developed a relationship and she had faith in me. She passed away last year. I'm looking for an angel. I feel that she is watching over this project," Reib said.

"As a creative filmmaker, the story is that Jackie created a character that comes to life and empowers her to face her own life. The creator, Jackie, is sending Torchy into adventures and challenging Jackie to live a bigger life. Ultimately, Jackie Ormes did not step into a bigger life, as a lot of the Black urban newspapers were fading out or could not afford to run comics. Jackie was brought over to the Chicago Tribune but turned down the position because she could not freely express herself. Her work would be controlled. She said no.

"The story I've developed is that of Torchy Brown as Jackie Ormes' alter ego. You see, during the 25 years of Torchy Brown's run, you see her evolve from a young girl into a wise woman, and it was that depth of wisdom that I've related to. Torchy Brown has become my alter ego. She created a world that we can all step into regardless of race," Reib said.

Ormes died Dec. 26, 1985, at age 74. In one of her last interviews, she confirmed that Torchy was the eternal strong, beautiful, smart Black woman who never succumbs to heartbreak. "I have never liked dreamy little women who can't hold their own," Ormes said.

The time is right for the story of Jackie Ormes and Torchy Brown to make its way out of obscurity and onto the screen. Are you listening Spike Lee, Tyler Perry and Oprah?

For more information about the project, contact the filmmaker at susan@torchybrown.com.