Charting the cartoon (mis)adventures of Britain's first and best-loved World War 2 pin-up - the scintillating, blue eyed, blonde-haired, clothes-phobic cartoon legend that is Lady Jane Gay - the book, edited by David Leach, looks set to be one of the best archive titles of British newspaper comic strip in recent years.
Created by Norman Pett for the Daily Mirror in 1932, using Chrystabel Leighton-Porter as the model, the ever patriotic Jane wasted no time in joining up following Britain's entry into the war. Following a brief stint as a chauffeur, secretary and with the W.A.A.F.S. Jane finally joined Army Intelligence in 1941 where she stayed off and on for the remainder of the war battling 5th columnists and Nazi spies. The original strip ran until October 1959 and has been revived and adapted into other media several times, but it's Jane's war record that is remembered most fondly by her fans: there are even rumours that after the character first stripped in full for the first time in 1943, her actions inspired the British forces in North Africa to advance five miles!
downthetubes caught up with the ever-busy David Leach for a quick chat about a project that has proven a real labour of love...
downthetubes: If you’re talking to a comics fan who’s never heard of Jane and needs convincing to buy the collection, how would you pitch it?
David: Jane was the world’s first super-model, Page Three girl and pin-up. She predates the Vagas girls, Betty Gable, Rita Haworth and Lana Turner as the military’s pin-up of choice by a couple of years. Pilots painted her on the nose cones of their aircraft, she received wedding proposals, and van loads of knickers.
The Ministry of Defence recognised her importance as a troop morale boaster, so much so, advance copies of her adventures were printed so submariners could carry on reading her adventures, even at sea. She was read by over four million readers every day!
Jane was the envy of the American GI and the German high command and was the first cartoon character to go not only topless but nude in a national newspaper and yet she was never smutty or crude. Indeed there’s a strange chaste innocence about Jane and her penchant for losing her clothing at the drop of a hat.
downthetubes: How did you first come across the Jane strip (no double entendre intended...)?
David: As a lad aged 13 I brought the Jane at War book and read up about her. The then editor of the Daily Mirror was a friend of my parents and I talked to him about her. Then at Titan 33 years later I was made the editor of a new collection and started to do some new research.
downthetubes: What does this new Titan collection contain?
David: The great thing is, there’s nothing new in it! I went the other way and discovered material that’s not been seen in over 60 years!
I discovered that Norman Pett, the artist had published several full-colour, war-time booklets called Jane’s Journal filled with glorious pin up art and full colour cartoon strips. I got permission to reuse some stunning artwork and cartoon strips.
Then I found an article written for the Canadian Armed Forces newspaper – The Maple Leaf – written about Norman Pett and got permission from the Canadian government to reprint that! And illustrated it with photos of Norman at work in his studio, sketching his model, Christabel Leighton-Porter.
downthetubes: How long has it taken to put this collection together?
David: Over a year! We’ve tried really hard to find the best source of material to scan from and the amount of correction we did was at times nothing short of heroic.
downthetubes: Are any of Norman Pett’s family or descendants still alive? Did you contact them?
David: No, alas not, however we did talk to ‘Don’ Freeman’s (the writer’s) family. They pointed out that Don was abbreviated from Gordon and not Donald.
downthetubes: What was the hardest thing when it came to sourcing material?
David: Finding good quality strip material, we had to use existing scans of the strips and also the Mirror’s own impressive digital archive.
downthetubes: What’s your favourite element of the collection?
David: The pinup art: I was so proud to have discovered it, I hadn’t realised it existed, I’d seen black and white reprints in a book about Christabel and went on to do some digging. Also, visiting the Mirror’s comic archive in Watford, I sent three blissful days just reading old archived comic strip. It’s as close to heaven as I’ve ever gotten.
downthetubes: There’s a lot of Jane material that has never been collected – are there plans for further volumes?
David: Well, if the first book does well, then there’s more than enough material to do more volumes, I’ve recently found another period feature on Pett and Freeman which I’d love to reprint and I’ve got lots more lovely pin-up art to use up. We’ve only scratched the surface of Jane – she started in 1932 and went on until 1959! That’s 27 years of material to reprint. And not forgetting the fact she, came back in the 1980s, although in a far more raunchy strip.
downthetubes: If Jane returned today, which British comics artist would you hire to draw it?
David: Well, John M. Burns drew her in the 1980s and no one draws comely women quite like John.
downthetubes: Do you think it’s true the British army advanced five miles in North Africa after Jane stripped in full for the first time in the Mirror?
David: Of course I do! Jane was a thoroughly decent gal and would never lie!
• The Misadventures of Jane is on sale from 24th September.
• The Unforgettable Jane: online article on GoComics