"Shuh! Ain't Nothin' to It": The Dynamics of Success in Jackie Ormes's Torchy Brown

Article excerpt

A newspaper in the first half of the twentieth century that neglected its comic strips endangered its future. Only the New York Times and the Boston Evening Transcript ventured onto the marketplace without the benefit of funny pages. To meet this nationwide demand, corporate syndicates had stood ready since the 1920s to supply comic strips in batches pre-printed for newspaper publishing. These features for syndication were chosen for wide appeal, so even material aimed at the adult end of the comic strip audience was supposed to skirt controversy (Walker 117-18). Yet what was deemed non-controversial by King Features, the syndicating arm of the mighty Hearst empire, was almost certain to affront readers of the weekly papers published by and for African Americans. King Features packaged four-page "ready-print" units that offered a variety mix of strips in eighteen different combinations (King Features 47). Out of the eighteen, eight included Barney Google, a strip whose popularity rested in part on Google's sidekick, a minstrelized caricature of an African American jockey. A black reader might have testily observed that the jockey bore a derogatory nickname, "Sunshine," while the name of the horse he spurred to victory celebrated the animal's skill at running: "Spark Plug."

Finding virtually all syndicate ready-prints untenable, black newspapers necessarily developed their own strips by working with in-house artist-and-writer teams or negotiating short-term contracts with freelancers. But not all comic strips printed in black newspapers attempted to counter the racism deeply embedded in syndicated strips. Most black newspaper strips were content just to deliver a basic gag, and many seemed leveled to catch a child's attention. This may have been a significant missed opportunity. The black newspaper, as Gunnar Myrdal concluded in An American Dilemma (1944), "more than any other Negro institution, created the Negro group as a social and psychological reality for the individual black person" (qtd. in Barger 9). Black newspaper strips had the potential to be remarkable productions, for they escaped the limitations that Jennifer Hayward, in her examination of syndicated strips, associated with the "large-scale, centralized manufacture of interchangeable parts" (91) that "produce[d] a sterile, conventional 'product'" (93). When at last the communication possibilities of the comic strip were finally understood by an inventive African American entrepreneur, the result was a feature potent enough almost to compensate for years of missed opportunities.

The 1937-1938 comic strip titled Torchy Brown and subtitled "'Dixie to Harlem "' by Zelda Jackson (Jackie) Ormes would have been distinctive if only for its heritage. Not only was Torchy Brown almost certainly the first strip to be written and drawn by an African American woman, but its appearance in all editions of the Pittsburgh Courier (as many as fourteen) was as close to syndication as an African American strip could expect. Ormes would go on to design other strips that not only aimed at a black audience but embraced a perspective that registered elements of a socially-segregated world, including two single-panel gag features, one involving a black maid (Candy, that appeared in the Chicago Defender in 1945), the other involving a small girl and her older glamorous sister (Pattie Jo 'n' Ginger, that appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier from 1945 to 1956) and featuring a central character that Ormes successfully marketed as a doll for African American girls. In addition, Ormes produced a "sequel" in the 1950s to the Torchy Brown narrative that, in the words of Trina Robbins, was notable for its "treatment of segregation, bigotry, and, in a time when ecology was virtually an unknown word, environmental pollution" (116). (1)

But these later productions, as smartly controlled and effective at targeting their audiences as they were, could not exceed Ormes's first work in boldness and daring. …