Love Letters to Jane’s World

Love Letters to Jane’s World

My favorite genre of social media jape is straight women who proclaim they’re going to only date women from then on out because men are too difficult. That one always gets me.

To put it another way, “being a lesbian is like being in fifth grade . . . with sex.” These are Paige Braddock’s words, albeit through the character Chelle, and they rather nicely sum up the premise of Jane’s World: lesbians constantly falling in and out of love with one and other as part of a very confusing process that involves a great deal of subterfuge, misdirection, obfuscation, and gossip, eventually involving everyone in the entire community. Because every girl who likes to sleep with girls in these stories invariably knows every other girl who likes to sleep with girls in these stories, even the ones who sleep with boys sometimes too. And they’ve all either slept with each other or probably will at some point down the line.

But there’s a whole lot of talking that gets in the way of the fun stuff in Jane’s life and that’s taken as more or less a given – as Jane’s “lezbro” Ethan asks, “how do you people ever get each other into bed?” That’s a good question considering just how much panel time is occupied on the characters endlessly talking around each other.

Suffice to say, Jane’s World was a bit of a trailblazer. When United Media picked up the strip in 2001 it was hailed as the first gay-themed work to receive distribution by a national media syndicate. The strip is far more humble in focus, if not execution, than such a consequential bit of trivia might have you believe. Jane’s World focuses on the love lives of its main cast with the same bald matter-of-factness that the residents of Apartment 3-G gather to discuss their fresh kills. That accounts for much of the charm. Braddock’s queer characters inhabit a world where their desires and needs are considered just as significant and just as worthy of fulfillment as anyone else’s. The unspoken premise remains that the strip and Braddock don’t and shouldn’t need to explain to their non-gay readers why or how they should care about gay people.

If that seems obvious, imagine for a minute being gay and having literally every piece of mainstream media representation be ham-fisted tragedy porn written by people whose good intentions often mask the fact that they regard queer folk as exotic animals to be petted, pitied, and packed away to limbo once their Very Special Story Of Intolerance has been told. The joy at the heart of Jane’s World is the idea that there are actually places where gay people can just be themselves without having to justify their own existence to one another. That goes not just for the community inside the strip but the community of real-world readers who embraced the strip on account of seeing themselves reflected in its panels.

It’s nice to see that gay romances aren’t de facto doomed because literally the only thing cishet creators can think to do with queer people is to use us as an abject lesson in character-building tragedy. Romance isn’t doomed in Jane’s World for any reason other than Jane is kind of terrible at it – but who isn’t, amiright? She’s popular enough, in the way that lank butches with floofy haircuts often cut their way through a dating population of eager femmes like a warm knife through yielding butter. She’s also hopeless, as the strip takes great pains to emphasize: she doesn’t understand women, doesn’t know what they want, sometimes struggles just to communicate. This despite the fact that, as Ethan reminders her throughout, Jane is a woman herself.

This is a very important point that underlines half the punchlines here: When men discuss how romantic misunderstandings occur because women are flightly, mercurial, and arbitrary it’s often a product of poor communication between two different kinds of people who don’t listen well and fill in their gaps with assumption and even bad faith. On the other hand, when women discuss how romantic misunderstandings occur because women are flightly, mercurial, and arbitrary it’s often a product of good communication between people who listen well (if selectively). The point is not that women are especially awful (har har) but that romance makes everyone flightly, mercurial, and arbitrary, and the straight relationships that appear throughout the strip also reinforce the point.

It’s not the genders involved but the feelings that create confusion, and it is both the triumph and tragedy of lesbians that we like to talk about our fucking feelings until we are blue in the fucking face. That tendency to talk through feelings beyond the point of absurdity gives the strip much of its texture – people talk about what motivates them, their fears and their hopes. Those emotions fuel the drama. The characters seem like reasonable people. Because Braddock plays fair and eschews much of the kind of cheap melodrama that can lead readers to resent poorly-motivated characters, their stories matter.

Love Letters to Jane’s World is a selection of the strip’s greatest bits from over its lifetime, and serves as a good introduction to a long-running feature with a strong pedigree and confusing publication history. Some collections are for collectors and some are for casual readers, and Love Letters is an example of the former. Love Letters is an apt title as the book is actually interspersed with testimonials from folks like Howard Cruse, Alison Bechdel (who attests that Braddock draws breasts “better than anyone”), Stephen Pastis, and Hilary Price. The theme of the book is celebratory and warm, showcasing the strip’s breadth across multiple decades and formats while also congratulating Braddock for her run.

One advantage this type of overview collection has is the ability to sample the evolution in Braddock’s art. The early strips are rough, but that in itself is fairly unexceptional for any long-running feature. The joy as always comes from watching cartoonists on the job over long periods of time as they expand their visual vocabulary incrementally but steadily over the course of months and years in order to fit each new narrative challenge that arises. Accordingly the subject matter of the strips expands to fit not merely the maturation of the characters but the maturation of the cartoonist. Some of Braddock’s early staging and pacing is a jerky, and there’s maybe one too many stories that climax in Jane taking a dunk in a river. (After a certain point it becomes kind of a motif that anytime she leaves the house for an extended period of time she ends up in a river). But eventually as more characters are introduced she rises to the challenge with progressively more ambitious storytelling.

Her line grows more disciplined, her gestures more focused, her body language more organic. Towards the end of the book it even becomes possible to see the influence of her day job as one of the stewards of the Charles Schulz studio and Peanuts IP. It’s interesting to see the influence of Schulz’ line, so distinctively thick and expressive, creep into her work towards the end of the collection. That was the direction her work was always trending, even back to the beginning when she owed a lot more to Roberta Gregory.

I spent some time while reading the book counting how many lines Braddock used to draw Jane’s face. Throughout the book it remains pretty consistent – Jane’s face requires approximately twenty lines to draw, and if you trace the path of Braddock’s brush that winds up sometimes seeming like no more than ten or twelve separate brushstrokes. Even though the lines she uses to draw Jane’s face remain more or less the same, the number of emotions she’s able to draw with the same handful of lines only grows throughout the volume. That’s Schulz’s influence, clearly, but her hand.

Even if it’s hard to begrudge the book on any level, there’s still a grumpy critic trapped inside of me who wants to bitch a minute about the fact that the collection doesn’t provide more context in regards to chronology or publication history. Jane’s World has existed over the years as a comic book, comic strip, and now even a prose novel (although there’s no sample of The Case of the Mail Order Bride in the present volume, that novel came out in 2016). There is a little of the strip’s provenance in the backmatter, but the volume’s editorial prerogative seems to have been creating an accessible point of entry to a long-running soap opera, a daunting task whose difficulty should not be discounted. Of course, the original stories are in still print in a pile of other collections still in print, so it’s not as if Jane’s World isn’t available.

But there is nevertheless enough here to get a fairly deep sampling of Jane and her world and her friends. Like Chelle, who I mentioned above, a femme fatale spitting image of Trinity from The Matrix, which makes her the dream woman of approximately 78% of North American lesbians. (Rasmussen, with their dogged conservative bias, had her at 67%.) She never actually settles down with anyone even if she manages to smooch a lot of people over the course of the strip, including Jane, leaving disaster in her wake. As the kids would say, definitely the archetypal “disaster lesbian.”

It’s nice to see these kinds of characters as stock comedic types in a cute comic strip, as opposed to paragon tokens in straight peoples’ stories or simply not at all. There’s more than one type of lesbian, after all. There are three, and we come with different colored hair for ease of classification.