“You Could Stand Up a Little Taller”: An Interview with Paige Braddock

Paige Braddock had been making the comic strip Jane’s World for more than two decades when she concluded it last year. Though many of us associate Braddock with the strip, it’s just one of many projects she’s made over the years. Braddock has drawn two volumes of the Martian Confederacy, written and drawn three volumes of the kids graphic novel series Stinky Cecil, and worked on many Peanuts related projects. That’s in addition to the many prose novels she’s written, including Jane's World: The Case of the Mail Order Bride, and a series of novels written under the pen name Missouri Vaun. Last year Lion Forge released Love Letters to Jane’s World, a collection of the comic along with an introduction by Howard Cruse and notes from fans, and Braddock was named the Chief Creative Officer of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, where for more than two decades she’s been helping to oversee Peanuts.

Braddock was a keynote speaker at the Queers and Comics Conference in New York and we spoke recently by Skype about the evolution of Jane, how she had to give up donuts, and the people who helped her along the way.

Alex Dueben: You wrote in the afterword to last year’s collection, Love Letters to Jane’s World, that you can see shades of Jane in all your previous cartoon creations. What were you doing before you started Jane’s World?

Paige Braddock: In high school I did a comic. This sounds so crazy now to say, but my dad loved Westerns so I watched a lot of Westerns and I did a comic about a cowgirl – but without the hat she looked a lot like Jane. [laughs] Then in college it was basically the same characters – without the cowboy hat – as a college student. She looked a lot like Jane – except with '80s hair. [laughs] So if you just look back, Jane was there under the surface all the time. She just didn’t quite find her voice. I had an editor tell me once that she thought I was going to be a good cartoonist, I just wasn’t quite there yet, and the only way I was going to get better was by living. Just getting a little bit older and have a little more life experience and practice. She was right. I think those early versions had to happen so that later Jane could happen.

When you say that you hadn’t found your voice, is some of that just getting older and discovering who you were? Is some of that coming out?

I think some of that was coming out. I was trying to maybe say things without saying them. That doesn’t feel very authentic. It doesn’t seem meaningful. I often say I wish I had been braver sooner about that.

It was the early 1990s so I had this professional life and private life and I was trying to keep them separate. Back then you didn’t really come out at the office. Until I could integrate my private life and professional life I don’t think Jane could have happened the way it did. I think moving to California helped me. There was a really supportive LGBT comics community in the Bay Area and all that was part of my journey, I think.

I would imagine that moving to San Francisco and working for Charles Schulz and being surrounded by people who ate, drank, breathed comics was a very different experience.

It was. In all my other aspects of my “day job” career, comics was a second-class citizen. Then suddenly I’m in Santa Rosa and working with this guy – the guy – at a studio in which comics were the pinnacle. Comics were treated like an art form and comics were taken seriously. Suddenly, as a cartoonist, you could stand up a little taller and hold your head a little higher and it definitely changed my perspective.

Jane’s World started in 1991 as a single-panel comic, do I have that right?

It was called See Jane. I was trying to play with this idea of not having a set cast of characters. It was just random thoughts, standalone gags – and I found I’m not very good at that. Some of them were okay, but I think my strength is more in characters in conversation with each other. The humor came out through character interplay. I had these three or four characters who kept showing up more often. That’s when it changed from a single panel to a comic strip with a regular cast of characters.

So you were making Jane’s World the comic strip for a few years before it launched online on whatever GoComics was then.

I pitched it to some syndicates and of course the storyline back then wasn’t overtly gay but it seemed too gay to conservative newspaper editors. I just started publishing it online in 1995. That was about five years before comics.com which then got taken over by GoComics. I like to say I had a webcomic back when people didn’t really know what the web was. [laughs] 1995 was like the dark ages.

When you were starting, what kinds of strips were you thinking about? Did you have a model for what you were trying to make?

I had pitched a couple of generic concepts. One where the main character was a little girl, sort of the girl version of Calvin and Hobbes, but not as well executed. I think I was trying to fill what I perceived as some niche missing on the comics page. It wasn’t until I abandoned that and started writing what I thought was funny and what amused myself that I think Jane got better. Then of course it didn’t really solidify until I introduced Chelle because then Jane had a nemesis. Every comic needs a nemesis, right? Charlie Brown has Lucy, and Jane has Chelle.

Once you began working on a strip like this, it dominates your life.

It does. You’re always thinking about it. You’re always making little notes. You’re stealing excerpts of dialogue from your friends at dinner parties. It’s forever in the forefront of your mind. Even after I stopped it I got really depressed. It was like breaking up with your best friend or your best friend moving across the country and now you don’t get to have lunch with them every day. That’s what it felt like. I moved to California by myself, to Sebastopol, which is a super small town. There was nothing to do. I was really drawing friends on paper and it was about making myself less lonely and entertaining myself. For me, there’s an emotional connection there beyond just the art of doing it.

Last year, besides ending the strip, you put together Love Letters and I’m sure that was a challenge to select the comics to include.

I actually had to get help. I worked with an editor named Joel Enos because I was just too close to all of it. I couldn’t decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Even when he and I did it, we ended up with a 400 page book which was too long for the publisher so I had to make the tough call and cut another 100 pages – which wasn’t easy.

Not to spoil anything, but the strip ended with Jane marrying Dorothy.

All the fans were like, finally! They were supposed to be together a long time ago. [laughs] I had a couple people e-mail me and say, if Dorothy and Jane don’t end up together in the very end I’m going to be so mad.

They married and you got a nice writeup in The New York Times about the ending and their marriage – and I’m sure nothing in that sentence is how you would have ever imagined the strip ending just a few years earlier.

[laughs] You’re right. Life is weird that way.

I literally didn’t know how it was going to end. I started talking about ending it about a year before. I felt like I was pressed for time to work on it and I didn’t want the quality of what I was doing to suffer. I had started doing some of the inking on an iPad while traveling, which helped a lot with production so I could draw strips faster. It’s not as satisfying for me to ink digitally as it is on paper but it offered an easy way to add color and do some other special effects. I started thinking about ending it and for a year I didn’t exactly know how I would wrap it up. Then the anthology happened and I thought, okay, this is the best material in this book. Jane can live on in the book. Now is the time to end it. About eight weeks out, I figured out the date I wanted it to end and went, I think they’re going to get married. Twenty years ago, they couldn’t have. That was the biggest statement you could make. That the strip would end with a legitimate wedding that would not have been legal twenty years before when the strip started. And it left everybody with a happy ending, which for my fans is what I wanted to do. Especially with Trump in office. [laughs] There are some good things still happening in America!

The strip has gone in many directions and it’s been dark and goofy and touching but thinking about it, I find Jane comforting. Which may just be me admitting that I’m a lot like Jane, but I find her comforting. [laughs]

[laughs] Maybe that’s my contribution to the bigger narrative of gay content. My experience coming out ended up not being traumatic. I have a good relationship with my family now, even though I worried a lot about it when I was thinking about coming out. Even though in the strip Jane struggles with coming out to her mom. I feel like the characters support each other and comfort each other, even if they do give each other a hard time. Maybe that’s part of my approach to life, too. We’re all in this together and nobody has it all figured out. I have a friend who’s older and was going through cancer treatment and his wife sent me a note at one point to say that he kept a volume of Jane’s World on his night stand to read every night before he went to sleep because it made him feel better. I teared up. That’s the highest compliment anybody can give you. And he made it through treatment and he’s doing well.

When you pitched Jane’s World to the syndicates you said that it was considered “too gay” – or maybe just “gay” – but it’s always a PG-rated strip.

It’s Disney gay. [laughs]

[laughs] But the strip is reserved and understated with a lot implied rather than said, and how much is that restrictions and how much is that your sensibility?

I do think I’m clean cut. I was raised Southern Baptist and my mother occasionally reads the material and will sometimes say “is that really necessary?” [laughs] I did get in trouble once for a shower scene with GoComics. I heard that I was the reason they had to create some editorial guidelines for what could be in the comic strips. I thought I very strategically placed the shower curtain but apparently not. [laughs] I think the editors weren’t paying much attention to Jane’s World. I know they read it, but they trusted I wouldn’t do anything too crazy – and occasionally I would slip and get in trouble. [laughs]

The strip ended, but you have a day job which takes up a lot of your life – and I’m sure would take it all up if you let it.

It would. You have to have really clear boundaries with work because now with being able to work remotely it just bleeds into every minute of your life.

Last year you became the Chief Creative Officer. What does that mean compared to what you’ve been doing?

I feel like the title is recognition of the job I have been doing for the last ten years but I just hadn’t lobbied for the official promotion. I’m also at this point where I’m trying to grow the next team of leadership so I needed to move up so someone else could move up. We have a staff of 21 now and we’ve got a lot of new content in production because we’re working with this new partner DHX Media. Work has never been busier and Peanuts just keeps growing. Especially in Asian markets. It’s still huge in Japan. There are times when it could get repetitive because how many Snoopy t-shirts or Snoopy embroidered socks can you look at without wanting to pull your hair out? But now everything is exciting again because we’re doing all this new stuff. We have this new partnership with NASA, which is really fun. We’re doing twelve animated shorts in conjunction with NASA that have educational content for kids about space travel and space exploration and the solar system.

So what have you been doing with your “free time,” since the strip ended?

I had all these ideas of things that I wanted to do but no time to do them. Two years ago I pulled out a literal suitcase of concepts that I had not exploited. I just kept throwing ideas in there. Ideas that I thought at one point I might turn into graphic novels, but graphic novels take a long time. [laughs] I ended up submitting a couple of the ideas as prose novels to a small indie publisher in upstate New York, Bold Strokes Books, and they picked them up. BSB publishes gay and lesbian fiction, with a focus on romance. I wrote these books under a pen name – my great-grandmother’s name – Missouri Vaun. She’s writing books from the grave now. I have eleven prose novels under that pen name. That’s been a surprise creative outlet.

I just pitched an idea for another kids graphic novel series, because I wrapped up Stinky Cecil. It just got picked up so I’m very excited about that. I probably shouldn’t mention the publisher just yet. It will be out next year. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I was still doing Jane because that’s just too many characters crowding your head and only so many hours in the day. If you want to ink on paper, your hand gives out after a while if you do too much. [laughs]

You prefer drawing on paper.

I do. I’ve tried every other way to do it. I actually did Stinky Cecil all digitally just because it was quicker and I knew I was going to use simplistic drawings and focus on the color instead of the inking, which was an experiment. I think kids really responded to that. It was fun, but it’s more fun for me to ink on paper. Plus, I use Sparky’s nib. I’ve been using his nib now for twenty years and I’m sort of addicted to it.

You’ve clearly enjoyed writing novels because you’ve written a number of them.

The first one was rocky because you realize when you write a prose novel that you only get one or two points of view. You can’t write 18 points of view, but when you make a comic, everybody with a word balloon gets a point of view. So, you have to strategically figure out from what viewpoint you’re going to tell a story. Then there’s so much in comics that’s implied through visuals that you have to be able to articulate in words. I feel bad for my editor on the first book although I learned so much from her. I find that I visualize things first and then try to describe what I’m seeing in my head – as if I were going to try and draw it.

I do think that writing the novels has made me better at writing comics. I felt that my last two years of Jane’s World were better and I wish I had focused more on the writing early on. Or done some training or I don’t know, but I feel like that would have made the strip better earlier. Maybe it wouldn’t have? Maybe it just got better because I had been doing it for a while and practice makes perfect?

When you were writing Jane’s World, did you have long term plans or were you just writing it storyline by storyline?

It was week by week. If I went down a path for a week and didn’t like where it was going, I’d just change it. I never knew where the long form stories would end up. Except the Starfighter story; I knew where that was going to go.

You’ll be a keynote speaker at the Queers and Comics Conference and when we were speaking about things no one expected years ago, an academic conference discussing the intersection of queer culture and comics is on that list.

It is on that list, yes, right under gay marriage. [laughs]

What are you going to talk about in your keynote speech?

I asked them, what do you want me to talk about? They said, tell us about your journey. I said, oh my god, how long is this conference? [laughs] I feel like it’s sort of a miracle I ended up where I ended up considering where I started. I spent my elementary school years in rural Mississippi. I say to people, I’m a product of the worst public schools in the nation. No art programs. I really owe it all to some really classy older gentlemen who were professional cartoonists who really helped me along the way. There’s been so much in the news about men who don’t mentor women and I really had a different experience. There were some real gentlemen who shared knowledge and tool and helped me out back in the seventies when there weren’t really women doing comics. Looking back now I see how unique that was and how lucky I was. The first professional cartoonist I met was Dave Graue. He took over Alley Oop from V.T. Hamlin. He was living in Western North Carolina, where we moved when I was in high school.

Anytime anybody would let me publish anything, I did. I published the cowgirl comics I did in high school in the county newspaper once a week. Dave saw it and called the paper and got my number and offered for me to come up to his studio. He said I had some talent and he wanted to help me out. Now my mom said, this strange man wants you to come to his cabin in the woods? I don’t think so. [laughs] So my dad went with me. He’s this very scary Clint Eastwood looking fellow. He was a forest ranger. We went up to Dave’s place and from that point on, I knew I wanted to do comics for a living. He had this awesome second floor studio in the house that he and his wife lived in. He had all of this original art on the walls. He gave me a nib pen. The first one I ever used. He showed me how to use it. He gave me a bottle of ink. I still have the t-square that he gave me hanging in my office. He just showed me how to do it. I had been just literally winging it. I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s huge for somebody in high school to have that sort of mentoring from a professional artist. That was the first part of my journey. He was the guy who introduced me to Charles Schulz’s editor in New York, Sarah Gillespie, which is how I ended up connecting with Sparky back in 1985. It’s this weird random trajectory. I believe in fate, is what I’m saying. [laughs]

The conference is in New York and I was going to ask if you have a go-to donut shop in the city.

This is a deep dark secret I’m going to reveal to you. Four years ago, I had to give up gluten because I get really bad migraines. I can’t eat donuts anymore! [laughs] It’s the worst! Like Jane, my all time favorite thing to eat is a fluffy glazed donut. That’s just the most perfect thing. But I can’t eat them anymore. I have to live vicariously through Jane.

My flippant, funny final question has ended up in this sad, dark place.

I have a new dachshund puppy named Charlie Cooper and he is my inspiration for this new kids story that I’m working on. That’s a bright note to end on.

You had a sequence where when Jane and Dorothy first move in together and she holds a meeting with all the pets about the need to get along, I thought that was perfect but I also remember thinking, this is from real life.

Yes it is! The second part of that series is the top ten ways to identify delusional cat owners. [laughs] That was modeled after my wife Evelyn and I trying to integrate two cats – who hated dogs – and two dogs. My wife had this really fluffy Persian cat and his name was Gaia. I said, he’s in a terrible mood all the time because you gave the poor guy a girl’s name. He was just super grumpy all the time. We would put up these short baby gates to keep him from killing my dachshunds. Literally he could have jumped over them, but he would just sit behind them and stare at the dogs. In the strip I gave him the name Mr. Fluffy because that seemed equally annoying for a cat. He sits behind the baby gate saying “quiver in fear, canines.”

For this new series, are you going to drawing it like Stinky Cecil or are you trying a different approach?

This is going to be more like Jane’s World in terms of style – except that all the characters are animals. I’ve been wanting to do an animal comic. It will feel more like Jane’s World with solid crosshatching and building shapes with pen and ink.

You said that your speech is about your journey and I read somewhere that you were working on a memoir.

Yeah, I think I said I was and then I haven’t done it. It’s very hard. There’s a lot of naval gazing that has to happen and introspection. I have to figure out a way to tell that story without telling my parents’ story. We’re in a really good place now but we did have some hard times in terms of my coming out. I don’t think my mom wants to share that with the world necessarily. She’s a very private person. There’s no way to avoid it completely because their story is part of my story, but that’s the aspect I haven’t quite worked out yet. I have a sketchbook full of notes and drawings but I haven’t really launched it yet. Maybe writing this keynote talk and thinking about this journey might help me figure out what happened and what mattered and what made a difference.

I want to write something inspirational for kids. Something to encourage kids in marginalized rural communities that they can succeed in these professions that they don’t know they can succeed in – and where parents don’t even know how to help. Maybe it would be a memoir that adults would find interesting, but I’d want to inspire the next generation. I’m not quite there yet.

Because someone read your work in a newspaper and sought you out to teach you, and asked nothing in return. Which is pretty amazing.

I try to remember that when a kid asks me for advice. I try not to miss those opportunities because somebody did it for me. I was driven. Maybe that’s what it takes to succeed, right? The drive. Even though you don’t know what you’re doing and even though you face all these obstacles. Life is the best teacher. [laughs] I think failure teaches you as much as success, if you’re listening.