In an essay at the end of the first issue of Jem and the Holograms, series writer Kelly Thompson discusses the difficulties of reviving a beloved cartoon as an ongoing comic book series. In addition to translating the source material to a new medium, the creators must walk a fine line: “Nostalgia is a wonderful thing…” Thompson explains, “but nostalgia is also a liar.” Licensed comic books like this one rely on familiarity to attract readers, but if the series stick too close to the original it will end up feeling dated and repetitive. Luckily, Thompson and artist Sophie Campbell have captured all of the essential elements of the original Jem cartoon (glamour, glitter, fashion, and fame, obviously) in a comic that feels contemporary, unique, and most importantly, truly outrageous.
For those unfamiliar with the original 1980s cartoon created by Christy Marx, the premise is pretty simple, albeit a wee bit far-fetched. The Holograms are a band fronted by Jerrica Benton featuring her sister Kimber and their foster sisters Aja and Shana. Unfortunately, Jerrica’s terrible stage fright is holding the band back until they discover that their late father had created a hologram-generating artificial intelligence computer called Synergy. Jerrica and her sisters decide to use Synergy to create Jem, an alternate personality for Jerrica so she can overcome her nerves and sing with the band. With new-found confidence, Jerrica and her sisters become pop music sensations, and, as expected, hi-jinx ensue.
In order to revamp Jem and the Holograms for 2015, Thompson and Campbell add a social media element to the band’s origin. In this first story arc, the Holograms are competing in a viral video competition for a chance to play in a battle of the bands against The Misfits. Just like in the cartoon, the Misfits are willing to do anything to keep their popularity, even going as far as sabotaging their competition (attempted murder was alarmingly common on the original show).
Of course, the competition between the bands is complicated by the budding romance between Kimber and the Misfits’ Stormer, which serves as the emotional hook for this opening arc. While the two characters had a friendship on the cartoon, the comic does not hide the fact that they are physically attracted to each other. Obviously, making an established character homosexual courts controversy, but it does not feel forced at all. Instead, it seems like an obvious choice for the characters (although, maybe I’m biased since Kimber and Stormer wrote some of my favorite songs from the original series).
Although the influence of social media is new to the franchise, all of the familiar elements are still here: the rivalry between the Holograms and the Misfits, Jerrica juggling her personal life with her alter-ego Jem, even the musical montages. In most ways, the book stays true to the original show while still feeling unique from it, as if Thompson and Campbell are simply extrapolating the ideas and concepts in order to make them work as a monthly comic book series. Even familiar aspects and characters –like the Starlight House for orphans where Jerrica volunteers, and journalist Rio who has an eye for both Jerrica and Jem– are introduced in these first issues, and they will surely come into play as the series goes on. Overall, the creators do a nice job introducing the world of Jem and the Holograms to a new audience while keeping long-time fans happy.
Since this is a comic about bands, music plays an important role. Translating songs into the comic book medium is tricky, but Sophie Campbell and colorist M. Victoria Robado are able to capture the energy of the show’s music video montages visually, even using color to indicate the different musical styles of the Holograms and the Misfits. It’s a nice touch that goes a long way in making the comic feel musical.
Obviously, the biggest change from the cartoon is the art style, particularly the look of the characters. For a franchise rooted in ’80s fashion, the book manages to imply the glitzy neon sparkle of the cartoon without looking dated. The differences between the Holograms and the Misfits is shown through their respective clothing styles, as is each character’s personality. In addition to personal styles, Sophie Campbell also gives the characters more realistic body shapes –similar to those in her own comic Wet Moon— as opposed to the typical super-model looks of the cartoon. Not only does it make sense given the diverse cast, it also underscores the book’s themes of self-expression and inclusion. Even though Jerrica pretends to be Jem, the overall message of Jem is one of finding a way to be comfortable with yourself, and Campbell’s art really showcases the importance of that.
It’s clear in these first issues that the original Jem and the Holograms meant a lot to Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell, and their love for these characters comes in every page. Like the other licensed books from IDW, such as Transformers vs G.I. Joe, Jem and the Holograms captures the tone and spirit of the original series while expanding what made it appealing in the first place. Instead of slavish nostalgia, this is a comic that celebrates its source material in a way that will delight fans while introducing it to new readers. Jem and the Holograms deftly walks that fine line of nostalgia, and is the truly outrageous comic that these characters –and us readers– deserve.
Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell capture the spirit of the '80s cartoon in a comic series that stays true to the original while being accessible for new readers. It's not just a great Jem comic, it's a great comic period.