More Than Mere Ornament: Re-evaluating Norman Pett’s Jane.
Authors: Twycross, A.
Start date: 27 June 2018
Norman Pett’s Jane, although at one time a hugely successful and popular strip, is now chiefly remembered as little more than a titillating piece of Second World War ephemera. In British Comics: A Cultural History, James Chapman describes Jane as “the most popular comic strip of the war”, whose “basic motif, such as it was, was for the heroine to accidentally shed her clothes” (2011, p.40). Similarly, the historian Joshua Levine dismisses Jane as “a character whose clothes consistently fell off, in front of groups of men, for no apparent reason” (2016, p.3067/5791). In both academic and popular literature, dozens of other examples similarly ascribe Jane’s appeal principally to wartime conditions and a simple gratification of male sexual fantasy.
The truth is, however, far more complex. Rather than being a product of the war, Jane enjoyed an uninterrupted run of more than a quarter of a century, appearing between 1932 and 1959 in a period of enormous social change that the series both reacted to and helped to shape. Although today assumed to be aimed firmly at male audiences, at the time of its inception Jane was designed to appeal primarily to women, and throughout its history retained a substantial and loyal female following. Even the wartime Jane strips do not depict a heroine who easily conforms to the vacuous fantasy figure of popular legend. For all Jane’s habit of appearing in various stages of undress, her wartime stories are principally espionage adventures that reveal her character to be one of uninhibited bravery, resourcefulness and fierce independence.
This paper will re-introduce Jane’s Second World War strips to conference goers, identifying how the series’ wider history informed its evolution during the conflict and helped to shape public perceptions of Jane as a character. It will break the wartime strips down into four distinct phases, and use a Bakhtinian methodology to establish how each of these eras reflected and responded to the changing fortunes of the British war effort and Jane’s evolving role within popular culture.