Jane, by Norman Pett

Norman Pett was a British illustrator and comics artist, most famous for creating 'Jane' (1932-1959), one of the most infamous erotic comics of the 20th century. The frequently nude heroine excited many British readers with her constant wardrobe malfunctions. The series ran for over two decades, but was particularly popular during World War II. Many soldiers enjoyed her adventures. So much in fact that the British Ministry of Defense valued Pett's comics for "boosting up the morale of the recrutes." At the time 'Jane' was such a cultural phenomenon that she inspired a striptease show and a feature-length film. Even after Pett retired and passed away, 'Jane' remains legendary.

Norman Pett was born in 1891 in Kings Norton, Worcestershire as the son of a gold cutter. By 1911 his family moved to Birmingham. During the First World War Pett joined the army but fell victim to a gas attack. The good thing about this was that he was allowed to return home. The downside was that the effects would plague him for the rest of his life. Back in England he studied art at the Press Art School in Forest Hill, London. He later became an art teacher himself, working for the Mosely Road Junior Art School and the Birmingham Central School of Art. One of the future comics legends educated by Pett was Peter Maddocks.


First appearance of Jane, 5 December 1932

On 5 December 1932 Pett launched his signature series: 'Jane's Journal, the Diary of a Bright Young Thing' which appeared in the Daily Mirror. The chief editor explicitly instructed him to create a comic strip with the same popularity as Bertram Lamb and Austin Bowen Payne's 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred', though aiming at an adult demographic rather than children. Within less than a decade Pett achieved his goal. 'Jane' became one of the most widely read British newspaper comics of its time. The series starred a pretty young blonde, Jane Gay, who often finds herself in embarrassing situations. The original comic strip was comparable to a daily gag comic, with a clear punchline in each final panel. Just like the title implies Jane's adventures were presented as a daily journal, with her handwritten entries being combined with Pett's drawings. Aside from Jane there were no real side characters, except for Fritz, her little black dachshund, and Georgie Porgie, her steady boyfriend. Fritz was inspired by Pett's own dog.

The series as most readers would recognize it today, slowly but surely took shape on 28 April 1936, when Jane accidentally lost her clothes for the first time. The episode in question had her rip off parts of her dress, though showing not much more than her bare shoulders. Four months later, on 19 August, Jane is saved from drowning by a boatman passing by, but now accidentally gets her top removed. From June 1937 on her unvoluntary strip acts started to increase. On 28 August she appeared completely nude, when she went swimming in a river and found her clothes stolen by an escaped convict. Jane happens to find a newspaper, drapes it around her body and tries to cross a nudist colony. Unfortunately she is promptly arrested for "not walking around naked". Jane's loss of clothing and (semi) nude appearances became a standard formula. The change came about as the Daily Mirror morphed into a more sensationalist tabloid newspaper, making less squalms about nudity in its pages. Even though the narratives weren't that demanding, Pett still felt he could use some help. On 1 April 1938 he hired a scriptwriter, Don Freeman (1903-1972), who has also written narratives for other series like 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred', 'Garth' and 'Belinda Blue Eyes'. Freeman once said about 'Jane' in an interview: "We must have had the best jobs in Britain, Norman and I. Our whole purpose in life, our raison d'être, was to think up ridiculous ways in which to get the clothes of a gorgeous woman; in fact, the woman who was probably desired by the majority of red-blooded males in the entire world! And, the best of it was that we were getting paid for it!" The series' title was shortened to 'Jane' and stylistically it became a more traditional comic strip. The diary set-up was removed and Jane's adventures were now told in episodes.


The day after D-Day...

As the United Kingdom got involved in the Second World War, the gag comic changed into a war-time spy action-adventure series. Jane now became a military spy working for the British army. Her best friend is Dinah, who is active with the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). Jane obeys orders from a Colonel with a highly suspicious wife, Thelma. Her military missions bring her behind enemy lines, where Jane is frequently confronted with the Nazi spy Lola Pagola. Fritz the dog was briefly written out of the series, out of fear that his German-sounding name would displease readers. After a few weeks he simply returned to the series, since Pett realized he could make a lot of anti-German jokes through Fritz. Despite becoming more political in its content, Jane nevertheless still couldn't go anywhere without some wardrobe malfunction occuring. Yet most of the time readers could only see her half nude. Her breasts and genitals were typically hidden away from the camera, though she still showed enough skin to make people's imagination go into overdrive. On 6 June 1944 D-Day occurred and the Allied Forces invaded France, reconquering occupied Europe from the Nazis. To celebrate this historic breakthrough, the next episode of 'Jane' on 7 June featured the character completely nude, while preparing to take a bath. According to legend British forces suddenly became so energetic that they advanced five miles in North Africa, where they fought against general Erwin Rommel. The Daily Mail instantly sold more issues, although the news about D-Day was obviously another important reason while many people bought a copy. Despite all the commotion at the time, 'Jane' had appeared in the nude before, namely on 28 August 1937 while skinny-dipping.

Originally Pett's own wife modelled for Jane, but as the series grew more popular, Pett felt he ought to have more professional models pose for his sketches. In 1938 Christabel Leighton-Porter (1913-2000) took the job. She became so associated with the comics character that she even toured England with a striptease act based on Jane. Each show she sang tongue in cheek: "I'm Jane, Jane: the model. That's plain. I can't sing. I can't act. I can't even croon. And the dog that I fondle is also a model that you've seen in a famous cartoon." The dog she used during her stage act wasn't even real but a stuffed toy. In order not to disappoint the fantasies of millions of men, Leighton-Porter's marriage was kept a secret. When Edward G. Whiting directed a live-action film named 'The Adventures of Jane' (1948) she was evidently the one natural choice to play Jane, even though Leighton-Porter wasn't credited for her role. The low-budget film was a sex comedy, but many people assumed there might be some nudity in it. When it turned out it didn't, the picture quickly died at the box office. Pett himself also appears in the picture, drawing Leighton-Porter as she poses for him.

All throughout the 1940s, the popularity of 'Jane' reached iconic levels. Much like other (semi-) erotic comics from the same time period, such as 'Male Call' by Milton Caniff, 'Sally the Sleuth' by Adolphe Barreaux and 'Wonder Woman' by William Moulton Marston, the series was particularly beloved with lonely soldiers far away from the home front. Jane was as recognizable as real-life pin-ups like Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth. Pilots painted her likeness on the nose cones of their planes. Pett received hundreds of overly excited letters from readers, some with wedding proposals. Censorship was considered, but abandoned since many military officers defended 'Jane' as literature which "kept the morale of the men up". The British Ministry of Defence even ordered advance copies of her adventures to be printed so submariners could take several episodes along with them, while being underneath the sea for several months. Apart from the newspaper comic itself, Pett also published various booklets under the name 'Jane's Journal'. These are notable for not only featuring pin-up pictures, but also being in full colour as opposed to Jane's black-and-white adventures in the press. The newspaper adventures of 'Jane' also appeared in The Eighth Army News, Over Seas, Gunpit, Union Jack and such countries as Australia, Canada and Italy. In 1945 an attempt was made to syndicate 'Jane' in the United States, but the press over there was even more prudish than in England. Pett was ordered to redraw every instance of too explicit imagery, which naturally gave him so much extra work that he fell behind meeting his deadlines for the Daily Mirror. One time Pett was even unable to produce new episodes for a couple of days, which alarmed enough readers to send in hundreds of letters of concern and protest. Pett reacted to all the brouhaha by drawing a cartoon in which Jane peered naked behind some curtains and gave readers an explanation for her absence: "In reply to all your many inquiries as to what has happened to me - Give me a break. I can't find my panties!" Much to his surprise, readers send in truckloads full of women's panties to the Daily Mirror's office afterwards!

From 1946 on Pett was assisted by Michael Hubbard, who also succeeded him on 1 May 1948. Pett meanwhile created another comics series about a woman who frequently stripped in the nude: 'Susie' (1948), which appeared in the Sunday Dispatch. Around 1950 the British Foreign Office secretly hired Norman Pett and his writer partner Don Freeman to adapt George Orwell's novel 'Animal Farm' into a comic strip, as part of their anti-communist foreign propaganda program. The 78-episode strip allegedly ran in papers in Burma and Brazil, but no British publications are known. The concept didn't come to light until 1998, when the files were declassified. This would mark the first time that 'Animal Farm' was adapted in other media, a mere five years before John Halas and Joy Batchelor's classic animated feature 'Animal Farm' (1955), on which artists like Harold Whitaker, Reginald Parlett and Bill Mevin worked too. Pett's comic strip is also the first comic strip adaptation of the story, again five years before Harold Whitaker published a newspaper comic based on the animated film to co-incide with the film's premier.

In 1948, he drew a comic book adaptation of the Warner Bros swashbuckler film 'The New Adventures of Don Juan' (1948) starring Errol Flynn. He also contributed to some of the weekly comics magazines by the Amalgamated Press. For Comet he drew 'June' (1949), while both illustrating 'Cardboard Cavalier' (1949) and the final installments of Reginald Heade's realistic comic 'The Captain from Castile' (1949) for Knock-Out. In 1951 Pett also drew 'Penny Wise' (1951) which was published in Girl. 


June (Comet, 17 December 1949)

Under Michael Hubbard's pencil 'The Adventures of Jane' continued for another decade, evolving more into a chaste soap opera. The series eventually came to a close on 10 October 1959 with Jane marrying her male lover. A special tribute volume was published, 'Farewell to Jane' (1960), collecting some wartime episodes in one book. The Daily Mirror realized they might lose readers and hired Dutch comics artist Alfred Mazure and writer Les Lilley to create a spin-off around Jane's daughter, uninspiredly titled: 'Jane, Daughter of Jane' (1961-1963). This version never quite caught on and was thus cancelled again. As far more explicit comics rolled along in the decades after Pett's death, 'Jane' was nevertheless far from forgotten. Already in 1976 all 'Jane' episodes during World War II were collected in the omnibus: 'Jane at War'. The BBC adapted the comic strip into a comedy TV series: 'Jane' (1982-1984) starring Glynis Barber. Another film adaptation was made a few years later by Terry Marcel, 'Jane and the Lost City' (1987), starring Kirsten Hughes in the title role. This sparked enough new interest in the original comic strip that The Daily Mirror rebooted the series between 1985 and 1990, but in a more explicit version, drawn by Roger Mahoney. Writers who worked on this strip were Mahoney himself, Ian Gammidge, Hilary King, Tim Quinn and Les Lilley. The Jane in this version was introduced as the granddaughter of the original character.

Norman Pett passed away in Cuckfield, Sussex, in 1960. For those interested in his work, Andy Saunders' 'Jane: A Pin-up at War' (2004) is a must-read. In 2008 Titan Books collected the series in a prestiguous book collection: 'The Misadventures of Jane'. 'Jane' was an influence on Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's 'Little Annie Fanny', as well as the work of cartoonist Martin Brown.

Jane at war, by Norman Pett

Jane at war, by Norman Pett

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