Black Humor

Local comic authors
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See you in the funny papers” is a phrase one seldom hears these days. Indeed, with the possible exception of “Daddy-​O” or “23 Skidoo,” few expressions seem more obscure.But once upon a time, when newspapers were the Internet of their day, conversational reference to the funnies was the equivalent of an emoticon.

In keeping with the tenets of yellow journalism, the earliest comics were lighthearted and distinctly lowbrow, pandering to the immature tastes of the hoi polloi while allowing sophisticates to embrace their inner rube. Naturally, they proved to be wildly popular and served as essential cannon fodder in the fierce circulation battles waged between dailies during the early years of the 20th century.

Much has changed since the days when the Katzenjammer Kids ruled the rags, and today funny papers are poised to outlive the medium that spawned them. As newspapers fade into obsolescence, comics — initially conceived as disposable diversions with a lifespan of 24 hours — now constitute the very nexus of contemporary pop culture, celebrated worldwide for their contributions to modern arts and attitudes. Redefined as “serial art” or “sequential art,” they are widely recognized as complex texts worthy of serious scholarly attention. Harvard, for instance, offers a course in “Comics and Muslim Identity,” while Princeton sociologists ponder the question of “Pornography or Therapy?” regarding the influence of Japanese manga on young girls. Meanwhile, the graphic novel section of your local bookstore is already larger than the poetry shelf, with sales easily outpacing the classics.

Like so many cultural phenomena, the transformation of funnies from slapstick simplicity to present pretentiousness involves the contributions of Pittsburghers, as doll enthusiast Nancy Goldstein discovered when research into a dark-​skinned collectible called Patty-​Jo led to the publication of “Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist.”

Born in Pittsburgh in 1911 and raised in nearby Monongahela, Jackie Ormes, nee Zelda Mavin Jackson, created four comic series during her career. The Patty-​Jo doll was a spinoff of “Patty-​Jo ’n’ Ginger,” a single-​panel cartoon featuring a precocious moppet with a penchant for free speech and her perpetually mute, overbuilt older sibling. It ran in all 14 city editions of the influential African– American-​owned and –operated Pittsburgh Courier between 1945 and 1956, alongside another Ormes creation, the romantic serial, “Torchy in Heartbeats” (19501954).

Although recognized as the first black female cartoonist, Ormes was neither the first African American nor the first woman in comics history. (George Herriman, creator of the legendary “Krazy Kat,” and Rose O’Neill of “Kewpies” fame hold those distinctions, respectively.) Her subjects were not particularly original, either. Loudmouthed kids and dishy dames were well-​established comic types long before Ormes launched her artistic career, and the courageous but lovelorn adventuress, Torchy, followed the model of intrepid Brenda Starr.

The little sister/​big sister setup of “Patty-​Jo ’n’ Ginger” actually revived the premise of “Susabelle” from the Continental Features Syndicate, one of the few national distributors of black comics. Ormes expanded on the wordless original by allowing Patty-​Jo to speak her mind on a variety of topics ranging from domestic dilemmas to politics and race relations, while stacked and statuesque Ginger remained silent, resplendent in fashions designed by the artist.

Author Goldstein offers an interesting, albeit transparent, analysis of “Patty-​Jo ’n’ Ginger,” in which the sisters represent dual aspects of Ormes’s personality while referencing the daughter she lost in toddlerhood. It is apparent, however, that the real significance of Ormes’s work is not psychological, but sociological, reflecting the socially critical cultural expression that characterized the Chicago Black Renaissance and attendant mid-​century black press.

Ormes and her husband, Earl, relocated to Chicago in the late 1930s, and settled in the Bronzeville neighborhood, known as “the second largest Negro city in the world.” Like Harlem two decades earlier, Bronzeville in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was a crucible for black political power and the center of an aesthetic movement that launched writer James Baldwin, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, photographer Gordon Parks, sculptor Marion Perkins and pianist and vocalist Nat “King” Cole. The era also witnessed the proliferation of new institutions, including numerous newspapers and magazines for an all-​black audience.

In that milieu, Zelda Jackson Ormes hit her stride. As a society reporter for the African American paper, The Defender, she immersed herself in the life of the community and assumed leadership roles in various organizations advocating public improvements, civil rights and peace activism. After studying drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago, she restyled herself as “Jackie” and ventured into cartooning with the short-​lived features “Candy” and “Torchy Brown.”

When The Defender dropped her comics after one year, Ormes took her talents to the competition, her hometown Pittsburgh Courier, and dispatched weekly submissions by mail.

The Courier at that time was at the pinnacle of its success and authority, with a circulation of approximately 200,000 and a readership estimated at nearly one million. Although based in Pittsburgh, it shared the spirit and racial pride of Chicago’s renaissance. Its mission was not only to fill the void created by mainstream media, in which people of color were largely ignored, but also to improve the public image and increase the self-​respect of African Americans by denouncing segregation, combating negative stereotypes, and advocating “complete citizenship” across the board — including on its so-​called kiddie pages, where Ormes’s work appeared. There, in “the cause of racial uplift,” little Patty-​Jo expressed some pretty big ideas, exhorting readers to vote, criticizing postwar foreign policy, commenting on inequalities in housing and public schooling, and promoting membership in the NAACP. Her wisecracks at the expense of the House Un-​American Activities Committee were sharp enough to attract the attention of the FBI, and the resulting dossier on Ormes’s suspected communist sympathies eventually — and ironically — served as the principal source of information for Goldstein’s book.

Patty-Jo’s assertiveness may have encouraged social action, but it was Ormes’s other leading lady, Torchy (of the revamped “Torchy in Heartbeats”), who best modeled positive self-​esteem. Whereas the original “Torchy Brown” from Defender days was a scatterbrained comedienne from the South, who had more in common with the African American caricatures found in predominantly white papers, the new Torchy was poised, elegant, well-​spoken and distinctly humorless. Touted by the Courier at her debut as an individual “filled to the brim with the ideals that surround the best in American womanhood,” Torchy defended her virtue, pursued an education, dressed stylishly, and combated social ills — including industrial pollution, a full decade before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” brought the issue national attention. Through it all, Torchy held out for the fulfillment of her dreams, which, in the custom of the ’50s, meant securing the proper husband. Her motives may seem quaint today, but the dignity, patience and forgiveness she demonstrates throughout her trials is anything but laughable.

It’s difficult to imagine anything farther removed from the reforming zeal of Jackie Ormes’s art than “Afrodisiac,” the recently released, critically acclaimed parody of the 1970s produced by Pittsburghers Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca. In the name of artistic irony and the self-​referential wit essential to contemporary Comic-​con culture, they revive not one, but two unflattering African American stereotypes in their protagonist, a mild-​mannered janitor who transforms into a superhero pimp in the hyper-​sexed, hyper-​coiffed, polyester-​clad “Super Fly” tradition. Clever it may be — featuring former President Richard Nixon in the roles of both pro wrestler and villain, and depicting the protagonist’s giant Afro as an effective cushion for falls from tall buildings — but a comparison with Ormes’s inspirational idealism reduces its hilarity to a nasty sneer, as if all the things Ormes and the Courier strove to impart with humor were themselves the punchline. Yet “Afrodisiac” is much admired among connoisseurs of comics, and hailed for its retro aesthetic, ghetto machismo, and deliberate defiance of liberal political correctness. It surpasses Ormes’s work in artistry, inventiveness and entertainment, and rivals it in cultural significance, illustrating as it does Marshall McLuhan’s prescient observation that, in a mass age, the medium, not the content, is the message. In the continuing evolution of funny papers, it remains to be seen who will get the last laugh.

Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

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