‘Jem & The Holograms’ #1 Comic Review
It’s been a difficult and trying week (or so) in comic book news.
First, Image Comics co-founder, Erik Larsen, tweeted his discontent with DC’s new look for Wonder Woman, accusing the “big two”—Marvel and DC—of placating a “vocal minority” who wants to see more “practical” outfits on female characters. Next, acclaimed artist Rafael Albuquerque personally requested that DC Comics retract his variant cover for Batgirl #41—an homage to Alan Moore’s 1988 Joker story, The Killing Joke—after the image struck a painful chord with fans of the character. Then, prominent comics blogger Chris Sims was publicly called out for harassing online comments—for which he publicly apologized—that he had made in regards to writer Valerie D’Orazio between the years of 2007–2010. No matter where you land on any of those events, they’re a lot to unpack, and are all part of a very important ongoing conversation involving gender sensitivity and the inclusiveness of the comics community.
This week also sees the release of IDW’s new comic Jem and the Holograms. If art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s also impossible to discuss in a vacuum, and the timing of this book couldn’t be more relevant. Written by Kelly Thompson and illustrated by Sophie Campbell (formerly Ross Campbell), the new comic series is supposed to be a modernized take on the story and a good jump on point for a new audience.
Some background for those unfamiliar with Jem; it was a 1985 cartoon series by Hasbro featuring record executive Jerrica Benton, owner of Starlight Music. Using “Synergy,” a holographic computer invented by her recently deceased father, Jerrica adopts a rockstar alter ego named Jem. Changing her appearance with the help of two star-shaped earrings that project an appearance altering hologram over her likeness, Jerrica (as Jem) is the singer of The Holograms, a band comprised of her sister Kimber and their two adopted foster sisters, Aja and Shana. It was—to borrow The Holograms’ hit single—“truly outrageous,” and in 1986, Jem became the #1 Neilsen-rated cartoon series.
Read that last sentence again, because it’s kind of nuts. Cartoons in the 1980’s were largely a boys’ game, with Transformers and G.I. Joe dominating the after school airwaves. This brightly-colored cartoon about warring rock bands, featuring a mostly female cast, came along in ‘86 and became so popular that Hasbro’s Jem toy line ended up in direct competition with Barbie. So, that said, Thompson and Campbell have their work cut out for them.
Campbell’s artwork is gorgeous, and it’s obvious that she put a lot of thought into the character design. Each member of The Holograms has their own physical identity and unique body type; the girls look like individuals. Even aside from racial differences (Aja is Asian and Shana is black, while Jerrica and Kimber are white), you could pick them out of a lineup based on their silhouettes alone. The page layouts are dynamic yet easily readable, and the cool pinks and blues by colorist M. Victoria Robado do a great job of unifying the aesthetic. It’s an accessible book with a lot of opportunity for a talented artist like Campbell to stretch out, and it’s going to be fun to see where she takes it in the future.
Thompson’s writing is fine in that it provides an introduction to the characters and their situation without being too ham-handed on the exposition, however her de-aged update makes them feel more like orphans of white privilege rather than the accomplished business-savvy women of the original cartoon. The idea of a young adult struggling to find his or her identity is a relatable situation for anyone, but the struggle presented here feels contrived when the characters are well-off 20-somethings who have inherited a sweet house with a decked out recording studio in it and a futuristic hologram computer that allows them to look like whomever they want. Assuming this book is targeting a new and younger audience—older fans of Jem will buy it out of sheer nostalgia—there needs to be some actual conflict here that they can relate to. As it stands, the writing is too simple and predictable, two terms that are hardly synonymous with younger people.
As recent events have demonstrated, and much like cartoons in the 80’s, the comics industry in the new millennium is still by and large a boys’ game. There have been improvements, of course, but the fact remains that the vast majority of creators and characters are white guys. In a letter to readers at the end of the comic (and in multiple interviews leading up to its release), Thompson states that she sees Jem as the “epitome” of the modern woman and wants her book to exemplify that for a new audience. With a movie set to come out in 2015 and IDW’s prior success with licensed 80’s cartoon properties, Thompson and Campbell have a golden opportunity to do just that if they can find the book’s identity and recognize its potential. If the biggest conflict The Holograms face in issue two is a battle of the bands—this issue’s villain was nothing more than stage fright—then unfortunately there won’t be much reason to keep reading.