Contributed by Yehudith.
I was born in 1986 so I’m not exactly the right age to be the target audience for Jem nostalgia. I did watch the cartoon as a toddler, but my memory of it is a little vague (understandably so, I’m sure). Plus I thought it was a show about Barbie, so when I was asking my parents to put it on they would have been pretty confused even if I had been old enough to speak in coherent, fully formed sentences.
Still, even though my memories of Jem were fuzzy at best, I was absolutely enchanted by the colorful, musical cartoon. I have Kimber-pink hair today, and I’m pretty sure 80s cartoons like Jem are entirely responsible (I also gravitated towards Love-a-Lot from the Carebears and several My Little Ponies with the same color scheme). My most coherent childhood memories may have been formed in the 90s, but thanks to reruns, bootlegged VHS marathons of Saturday morning cartoons, and hand-me-down toys from older relatives, Jem impacted my childhood. So needless to say, when I found out the forces of nostalgia were spawning a Jem movie and a comic book, my interest was piqued. And thank Netflix for the ability to binge watch the entire series in preparation for these events.
The more I learn about the movie the less I want to see it. Not to bash a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but I’m just getting the feeling that it’s not made with me in mind. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that every property out there needs to be marketed towards my particular niche (cough, I’m looking at you gatekeepers, cough-cough). However, since I am on the periphery of the Jem nostalgia wave I was a little disappointed. Thankfully, every time a bit of worrying news about the movie reaches me I can always cheer myself up with the reminder that the comic book is truly outrageous (as opposed to an outrage, to paraphrase the Mary Sue).
We’re three issues into the series so far, which I think is a fair amount of space to start critiquing the book. Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell have set out their intentions for us and given us a strong taste of their style. In addition to the comics themselves, Thompson wrote a thoughtful analysis of her intentions for the book in lieu of a letters page a first issue obviously wouldn’t have. The pre-emptive press circuit and the first issue itself left me confident that my beloved childhood characters were in good hands, but even if that hadn’t been the case, the one page write up would have done the job. Thompson gets at the heart of what the 80s cartoon represented, drawing conclusions that would make any feminist concerned with media representation cheer. In Thompson’s opinion, the show is predominantly concerned with smart, capable, modern women. Obviously, that means something different in 1986 than 2015, so how is she going to make this book magnificently 2015 in the way the cartoon was magnificently 1986?
Smart, character-driven, inclusive storytelling is most definitely the answer. Thompson has studied the source material in depth and taken the core of the characters from their beloved glitzy, kinda cheesy background and modernized them into well-rounded women capable of telling powerful, somewhat more mature stories than their original counterparts. Which isn’t to say that the new stories aren’t capable of being lighthearted and silly.
Kimber’s flighty attention span for romantic partners lands a lot better in 2015 than it did in 1986
The characterizations are very faithful to the cartoon, but much more nuanced than a children’s cartoon with an accompanying toy line had the space to be. Jerrica is still the business-savvy rock of the group that organizes and manages her sisters, Jem being her outrageous counterpart. Shana is pleasant and has a tendency to be pushed into the background, which has the potential to erupt eventually as it did in the cartoon series, where she went off for a few episodes to try a solo career as a fashion designer when she felt the band didn’t appreciate her. Aja is the sensible one who calls the others out when they get frazzled and silly. And Kimber, the junior member, is still immature, impulsive, and lovesick.
The most important thing the storytelling accomplished in the first issue, from my perspective anyway, was filling in a glaring hole from the cartoon. Just why does Jerrica Benton construct the identity of Jem to begin with? The origin story as presented in the first issue of the comic is not all that different from what we encounter in the cartoon. When Jerrica Benton’s father dies, he leaves her a computer that is the stuff of sci-fi fantasy dreams, named Synergy, which Jerrica can access through her distinctive pink earrings. Synergy projects perfectly lifelike holograms that often function as a deus-ex-machina throughout the series. In the cartoon, Jerrica must win a battle of the bands to retain control over her father’s record company, Starlight Music, which allows her to fund the foster home for orphaned girls that is near and dear to her heart. She creates the Jem persona and saves the day, but is immediately pulled into a totally unnecessary love triangle with herself as her very confused boyfriend Rio starts to fall for Jem.
The love triangle between Rio, Jem, and Jerrica does provide a lot of drama and angst for the series, so you can understand why the writers chose to use it as a principal trope for the show. The only problem is they never gave us a genuine reason for Jerrica choosing to hide her dual identity from Rio. They’re already dating in the beginning of the series. The other Holograms know who she is, including second season latecomer Raya. There’s just no substantive story-driven reason for Jem to exist, or for Jerrica to lie to Rio about her identity.
Thompson skillfully fills that hole by giving Jerrica crippling stage fright and anxiety, something her target audience of young girls can likely relate to.
When Jerrica discovers her inherited super-computer, she creates the dazzling stage persona of Jem to hide behind, giving her some protection from the glare of internet celebrity and allowing her to preserve some measure of her privacy. We’re a little early in to know exactly how this will impact her budding relationship with Rio, but thankfully any drama and confusion that results now has a contextual explanation. And we can already feel the social commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture coming.
Wonderful though the storytelling may be, this series is intensely collaborative (as all good comics should be) between the writing and the art, and the art more than pulls its weight in the storytelling. Sophie Campbell’s character designs were what initially got me excited about the book. She’s created a diverse cast of beautiful women that pay painstaking homage to their originals, while making them hip and quirky in a way that’s very 2015. The characters all have their original color schemes with nice little hints to some outfits and accessories worn in the 80s cartoon.
Best of all, the characters have different body types. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to convey how much meaning that has for me. Like just about every woman I can think of, I’ve struggled with society’s unhealthy beauty standards. The fact that all of these women are beautiful and some of them are heavy is important and cannot be overstated. Kimber Benton’s design is one of the one’s that harkens most closely to society’s typical standard of female beauty. She’s tall, slender, with large blue eyes and long flowing hair. Yet she falls head over heels in love with Stormer (more on that in just a sec), who is, to put it bluntly, fat. Stormer isn’t just a little chubby or delightfully curvy. She’s heavy, and she’s friggin’ gorgeous.
Jerrica’s budding romance with the impossibly perfect, sensitive, and daring Rio Pacheco has taken a total backseat for me in favor of her little sister’s star-crossed love for Stormer, the driving creative force of the Holograms’ rivals the Misfits. Not that the Jerrica/Rio romance is at all lacking. It’s a perfectly good romantic subplot, but let’s face it: there’s nothing revolutionary about two conventionally attractive straight people going on a date at a carnival. Kimber and Stormer are a huge win for representation. A romantic subplot between two girls in a series marketed towards kids is honestly something I never thought I’d see. People didn’t even want to acknowledge the existence of gay people to children when I was growing up. I didn’t know lesbians were a thing and that I wasn’t actually a freak while I was crushing on Kimber and her pretty pink hair when I was four (I learned about them later through the X-Men, when I was crushing on Psylocke and her pretty purple hair). Which is actually kind of funny, given that the Kimber/Stormer relationship didn’t materialize out of nowhere. There’s actually a precedent in the original series for their love story.
In a pretty remarkable episode from the second season, Kimber and Stormer each feel creatively frustrated with their respective bands and briefly leave the groups and put out an album working together. They develop a rapport surprisingly fast, and whereas it’s never actually stated that they’re more than friends, what with it being a kid’s show from the 80s, the hints given aren’t what I’d call subtle.
Needless to say, the Holograms and the Misfits don’t approve of the star-crossed…friends in the original series, although the Holograms do eventually come around on Stormer and even offer to let her join the band. They’re understandably wary of the Misfits, because by this point their rival band has tried to blatantly murder them a few dozen times.
The Misfits say right in the opening that they’re going to “get” Jem. They just don’t tell you that that’s their sole business strategy as a pop group: murdering the competition until there’s only one glitzy glam act standing…
Stormer ultimately remains with the Misfits, because she feels like they need her to get by. Which is true. She’s the only one of them who grows as a character throughout the series, getting complexities such as a moral compass. Since she occasionally pays attention to the creative process of being a musician, the band falls apart without her there to write the songs. Hey, you can’t just cruise around picking fights and trying to murder the pink haired competition all day and still have a new album to show for it.
In Thompson and Campbell’s capable hands, the Misfits would still rather Stormer not date Kimber, though they come short of being openly homophobic about it. There’s a chance they really are just concerned about her dating a potential business rival, although they’re kind of skating that line. We’ll see. The Holograms, as evidenced by the fact that Aja never for a second thinks Kimber might be referring to a man when she asks for help with her love life, are already fully aware that Kimber is a lesbian and we can infer from the lack of drama that they accept her and love her as she is. I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing homophobia addressed as a plot point as the series continues, because there’s just something kind of disingenuous about no one anywhere caring or making a big deal about sexual orientation, even in 2015, but I won’t complain if it never crops up. Having an idyllic safe space in a fantasy story isn’t a problem either. Still though, like Jerrica’s struggles with idealized forms of female perfection and beauty in celebrity obsessed culture, it would be nice for the little gay girls at home to see their stories deal with some of the messier aspects of their reality. Being out is hard. I’d like to see that acknowledged, and I trust Thompson and Campbell to do so in a way that isn’t patronizing or cliché.
For all the many amazing things about this series, I do have a few quibbles. Much as I love the art, I noticed some issues with it in the third book. Yes, the story is character driven, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the backgrounds. This is a shot from the first issue:
Now, M. Victoria Robado’s colors are a genuine strength of the artwork. They help bring the characters to life and they do take on a chunk of the storytelling by making the Holograms and the Misfits distinct from each other, in a way that gives you insights into their personalities. That being said, the dazzling colors are focused almost solely on the characters. I know the minimalist backgrounds are intentional, but in the first two books they’re at least colored in. The third book looks rushed and a bit sloppy in comparison. Overall though, that is quite the minor quibble for a book that’s been pleasing me at almost every turn. I would happily be running to the comic book store for this every month even if there were no backgrounds at all.
The creative team are acknowledged Jem-nuts, which honestly shows even when they don’t name drop Christy Marx (which they can; they’re in contact with the cartoon’s creator). The first issue was a little slow paced owing to them getting through that necessary origin story, which doesn’t stray far enough from the original to be super riveting to someone who’s recently watched the old series.
Things pick up like whoa in the second issue though, and that has a lot to do with the introduction of lots of beloved characters from the cartoon, including some relatively obscure ones.
Original series annoyance Clash has already made her debut, which means villains like Eric Raymond and Techrat can’t be far behind.
This is pure speculation, but I also can’t help but wonder what kind of stories we’re going to be getting out of the devious little hanger-on that is Clash. Campbell’s been giving us quite the visual treat in her varied character designs, but Clash stands out from the other gals. She’s much more angular than her companions, with a broader chest and a starkly defined collarbone. It’s totally consistent with her character for her to look a bit uncomfortable in her skin, but considering Sophie Campbell recently came out as a trans woman, I can’t help but wonder if the book might be gearing up to tackle that under-represented audience as well.
The book is already pleasing me greatly, but I would be absolutely over the moon if I’m right and Clash is a transwoman. Representation is one of my pet issues as an activist. I remember how isolated and weird I felt as a little girl who liked girls and saw no reflection of other people like me existing. I internalized a lot of shame, and it took me a very long time to get over that even after I stopped hating myself for being gay. I’m a ciswoman, so I don’t know for sure, but I’d imagine based on the suicide rates alone that it’s even harder being trans. There actually is media representation for that group, but it’s overwhelmingly negative. Granted, Clash isn’t exactly a role model, but she’s compelling in her flaws and Thompson’s writing has a way of making characters feel real and identifiable. I see a lot of potential in this and I hope that even if Clash is cis, maybe a trans character could make an appearance down the line.
I was definitely predisposed to love this book, so take my thoughts on it with a grain of salt. That being said, I give Thompson and Campbell’s magnificently 2015 take on Jem and the Holograms my most vociferously outrageous approval and hope I get the chance to shake their hands for a job well done sometime in the future.