A Torchy Brown paper doll with a couple of outfits. Artist: Jackie Ormes.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Published in: The Pittsburgh Courier
First Appeared: 1937
Creator: Jackie Ormes
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Nobody was surprised when, in 1970, Friday Foster, a black, female lead character in a mainstream American …

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… newspaper comic strip devoted to telling serious, sometimes hard-hitting stories, appeared. A lot of people, however, will be surprised to learn she was preceded by more than a third of a century, by another serious, hard-hitting, black, female lead character in a comic strip syndicated to American newspapers. What's more, Zelda "Jackie" Ormes, the cartoonist who created Torchy Brown, was herself black and female.

The reason Torchy (no relation) isn't remembered as well is, she didn't appear in mainstream newspapers, but in the same type of venue as Ollie Harrington's Dark Laughter, Leslie Rogers's Bungleton Green and Carl Pfeufer's The Chisolm Kid. Ormes was working for The Pittsburgh Courier, which serves that city's black community, when, on May 1, 1937, she launched Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem as a weekly feature. The Courier distributed it to 14 other black papers around the country. This made Ormes, as far as history has determined, the first black woman in America to become a syndicated cartoonist. She remained the only one until the 1990s. Ormes also created a panel titled Patty Jo & Ginger, about a little girl and her adult sister. In 1948, Patty Jo became the first black character successfully marketed as a doll.

Torchy started out as a teenager living with her family, but quickly developed into a strong and independent woman. She frequently stood up to injustice, and racism was only one of the forms she opposed. She was all the things black women in mainstream media of the time were not — resolute, intelligent, resourceful, courageous … and sensual, a word critics and commentators have repeatedly used to describe her. Ormes drew her with a bolder pen line than was generally used by Dale Messick on Brenda Starr or Tarpé Mills on Miss Fury, to cite a couple of other female cartoonists with female heroes; and this helped convey the inner power of the character herself.

In her first incarnation, Torchy lasted only until 1940. But she was back a decade later in a new weekly comic, Torchy in Heartbeats. This one ran until 1955. Ormes also marketed her in paper doll form, as Torchy's Togs. Black servicemen were known to use these as pin-ups.

Nowadays, newspapers are full of strong, serious black women — not just on the comics page, but on the front page as well — and Torchy Brown is practically forgotten. But in an era of pickaninnies and mammies, she stood as a role model for her younger sisters, showing them they had better options.


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Text ©2004-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © estate of Zelda Ormes.