I’ve long believed that the ultimate goal of any civil rights movement is a day when the point of “difference” simply becomes a nonissue-that people and society simply cease to care about it, in a good way.
This is not to in any way dismiss the sacrifices and struggles of those who are out there trying to transform an intolerant world until that eventual day arrives. Such activists are visionaries and heroes and, if anything, should be revered even more in a brighter future.
For me, comics creator Paige Braddock fits this image perfectly. She might object to being described as an “activist,” and she’s too humble to put on airs of self-importance. But like Braddock herself, who married her partner Evelyn in 2009 (and then had a second, “legal” ceremony in July to celebrate the the demise of Proposition 8 and DOMA, jokingly referred to as “wedding 2.0”), her work is simply so honest and genuine that it changes minds without being in the least bit obviously subversive.
Braddock started working on her series Jane’s World actively in 1991. Having grown up on a diet of newspaper comic strips (and working as a visual journalist herself, for such major papers as the Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), the story started out in comic strip form. Braddock published it online for years starting in 1996. (The long-running series has since been published in paperback form in nine volumes: buy the first one now to try out the series, without hesitation. You will thank me.)
What makes Jane’s World remarkable is not the apparent ease with which Braddock brings her relatable characters to life, or even the fun, engaging events that thread together the story. It’s the fact that most of the central characters in the series, including the eponymous Jane, are gay women.
Braddock has conceded that she did set about to fill an empty space, that being a lack of representation of lesbians in comics. But while Jane’s World doesn’t overtly attempt to tackle major political issues as its main purpose, it is groundbreaking and transformative in several ways. It’s the first gay-themed comic strip to be picked up by a mainstream outlet, United Media’s Comics.com website-national syndication followed. Also, it’s been nominated for an Eisner Award, comics’ highest honor (in 2006, for “Best Humor Book”). In the industry, there is no greater mainstream endorsement or measure of acceptance.
Jane’s World puts its story across with a total lack of pretense, a sort of humor that makes you like not only the characters, but the creator herself, and a good dose of ordinary-day drama, Jane’s World shows us a world in which gay people are-wait for it-completely normal, regular folks. The storylines aren’t about them being gay or otherwise attracted to the same gender, they’re more about their lives as people.
So if there’s one undeniably subversive thing about Braddock’s work, it’s this: her insistence on drawing for us a world in which the torturous crawl through hatred, unrest, persecution, and prejudice that many of us know as some part of our reality has reached the only conclusion that will ultimately make sense. The gay people are just there, and they are living lives at least somewhat like anyone’s, with all the ups and downs. Not as freaks, exaggerated caricatures, or representations that are obviously trying to transform minds and tackle stereotypes. Just regular folks, with the same human potentials and fallibilities as anyone.
Braddock recalls a time when she got an irate letter from a minister, who roasted her for picking on then-president George W. Bush. The remarkable thing: the priest took issue with Jane’s objections to Bush’s plans for arctic drilling. Nothing at all was mentioned about Jane (or her creator) being gay. This is the future we may all live in some day: when it’s more important what a lesbian says and thinks, not that she’s a lesbian saying or thinking it.
Jane’s World, since it has been running for quite some time as a continuous storyline, is entirely character-driven. Jane is a woman trying to navigate life and make the best choices she can, generally following her heart. Other characters in the story, including Jane’s straight male roommate Ethan, add texture and some of the storylines revolve around them. Dorothy is Jane’s best friend, and somewhat more ambiguous about her sexuality (Jane has an on-again-off-again crush on her, and it’s revealed at one point in the story that Jane and Dorothy’s mothers tried to set them up, yet another subtle but effective portrayal of that wonderful someday-world in which such things would happen more commonly than not). Ex- and current girlfriends of Jane’s appear now and again as well, including the redheaded waitress Skye and occasionally meddlesome Talia. None of this does it justice, but then, it’s hard to summarize the story. You just have to read it.
Besides her most visible work on Jane’s World, Braddock is also the co-creator of a sci fi-themed graphic novel series called The Martian Confederacy, on which she collaborated as an illustrator with author Jason McNamara.
As for Braddock herself, following her work as a journalist for many years, she became the creative director at the Charles M. Schulz studio in California. In this capacity, Braddock works with the Peanuts creator’s legacy to oversee visual and editorial direction for all Schultz licensed products worldwide. As an established comics creator, Braddock has also illustrated several Peanuts-themed children’s books, including a pop-up book released by Simon and Schuster and an endearing book based on Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown.
I’ve met Braddock a few times at different comics-related events, and each time found her to be completely delightful. Originally from the rural south, she’s bright, cheerful, and impossible not to like. A perfect modern-day hero.
I’m always curious how creators find their way to comics. You were a visual journalist for twelve years. How did this and other influences lead you to illustrated work?
I think I gravitated toward visual journalism because it was the closest career path to what I actually wanted to do…which, in the beginning, was a comic strip for newspapers. In the end though, I loved doing illustration work for newspapers. So my path was a happy accident.
You describe newspaper comics as a major early inspiration, and you work closely with Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts legacy. Did this shape the way you envisioned Jane’s World in the beginning?
Working with Jane’s World has been a lot of fun. I feel like when I look back over the past 10 years, since I started publishing the books, the comic has really evolved. Both from an art standpoint and a character development standpoint. When I first started publishing online I think I was still just trying to figure the concept out. When I look back, that work seems kinda rough. But there’s still a nice, organic quality to it.
You started publishing Jane’s World in 1996 as an online comic. Since then, it went into syndication, and you started publishing it in print form in 2002. What’s it been like to work on this story for two decades, and where did the idea come from?
The original idea for Jane’s World came from a project related to my job at The Chicago Tribune. They were looking for a comic feature for their (at the time) new “Women’s News” section. The concept I pitched was “See Jane,” which eventually became “Jane’s World.”
You’ve been a vocal supporter (and visible face) of LGBT creators in the comics world. How do you think the industry has changed in regards to queer creators and/or LGBT subject matter in comics?
There’s a great LGBT support system in comics. I discovered most of that support group through Prism (PrismComics.org). I feel like currently, there are more gay characters and gay themed storylines. Not just in LGBT books/comics, but also in mainstream stories. The past few years of Batwoman is a good current example. Of course, recently there’s been some coverage of Williams walking off that project because DC wouldn’t let Batwoman marry her girlfriend.