Thursday, March 27, 2008

REVIEW: Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist, by Nancy Goldstein.

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist, by Nancy Goldstein. Published: 2008 by the University of Michigan Press. Nonfiction.

I read this book as part of's "Early Reviewer" program.

As the title might suggest, this book is a biography about Zelda Jackson "Jackie" Ormes, the first African American woman to be a professional newspaper cartoonist. She drew four strips, Torchy Brown in "Dixie to Harlem", Candy, Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, and Torchy in "Heartbeats" from the late 1930s through the late 1950s, at a time when there were few women in newspaper work at all, much less working as cartoonists. Her work appeared in newspapers aimed at the African-American community of that era, such as the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender and her work is known for its timeliness, humor and broad appeal. The Patty-Jo character was even made into a successful upscale child's doll for a number of years, and is now a sought-after collectible.

It's the Patty-Jo doll that got author and collector Nancy Goldstein interested in Jackie Ormes. For someone who is not primarily a scholar, Goldstein does a pretty good job of researching and telling the life story of this interesting, multifaceted woman. Jackie Ormes was an artist, fashionista, activist and social butterfly, mixing with the likes of Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt through the hotel managed by her husband Earl, and her comics ranged from cute gags about clothes or kids to romance to biting social commentary. She was also investigated by the FBI for possible Communist sympathies, one aspect of her story I found fascinating. Goldstein acknowledges the gaps in the available material about Ormes- there are, for example, no personal letters and little original art extant to help round her story out, and Goldstein's purpose in writing the book is in part to call out for anyone owning such material to donate to specific archival institutions, to enable further study. As such, the story sometimes feels like little more than a bare outline of dates and places, with little of Ormes's personality coming through. Goldstein also has a tendency to speculate openly when she doesn't have all the facts, which I found a little annoying.

Even with these gaps, Goldstein has done a decent job bringing together the material which is available. Unfortunately, her research is undercut by her writing and presentation, both a little bland. Even the chapter on the Patty-Jo doll, for which I had high hopes considering Goldstein's background as a collector, is a little dry. It took me a little longer than I hoped to get through the book, in particular the sections devoted to the comics, which seem dated. Goldstein's analysis is sometimes helpful in providing historical context but I think much of the true flavor of the comics has probably been lost with the passage of time. Torchy in "Heartbeats" series has aged the best of the bunch- its themes of pulp romance and environmental activism aren't as dependent on the day's headlines as the smart one-liners in Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, for example. People who read these comics when they were published might enjoy the trip down memory lane, though, and doll enthusiasts will enjoy the helpful tips for identifying genuine Patty-Jo dolls in the chapter devoted to her, as well as some interesting information on the history of African-American dolls in general.

For the casual reader, though, the book is probably a pass. It's not bad, but I think Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is best suited for either dedicated fans of the Patty-Jo doll or those with a serious, academic interest in cartoon- or African-American history. Jackie Ormes seems like an important figure, and I think Goldstein has done her a service by calling attention to her work- and preserving a taste of it- in this volume. More personal material is needed, though, to really make Ormes come alive in print. Hopefully those with information to share will come forward and allow a more detailed biography to be written in the future.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

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