Many things separate the truly great comic book series from the “good enough” comic book series, but one thing is fearlessly progressive storytelling. This is beyond elements such as diversity or attention to detail, but a willingness to realize the rules of one’s own series and then being daring enough to cast it aside for the sake of suspense. This tactic can backfire, as any serialized series which considers “killing off a cast member every other episode” as shorthand to drama. When executed effectively, however, it leaders readers breathless for anticipation as not even the most jaded among them may be able to see where things are going. That is where Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell (with colorist M. Victoria Robado) have steered this licensed series with this “Dark Jem” arc. In it, the Holograms’ greatest strength has become their greatest weakness, and there is no telling what sacrifice may be needed to prevail.
As dramatic as a series about two rival rock bands of teenage girls could be, the truly fantastic element which places Jem and the Holograms above others (such as “Josie and the Pussycats”) is Synergy. An artificial intelligence which also doubles as holographic technology for the next century, it is what has allowed the shy Jerrica to lead her sisters (Kimber, Shana, and Aja) from being nobodies practicing in their garage towards being a sensation capable of knocking the established Misfits down a peg or two. But as anyone who leaves a PC on too long knows, viruses and glitches can arise from even the most simple of networks, much less an prototype A.I. This “bug” has corrupted Synergy into something dark, which has infected Jem and the Holograms and caused them to become conduits to a strange “sound” which seems to enslave anyone who hears it. Their drastic change in fashion and demeanor hasn’t gone unnoticed (by either the Misfits or two of the girls’ lovers, Rio and Craig) and it comes as Blaze (the friend of the Misfits’ groupie Clash) begins her stressful tenure covering for the injured Pizzazz as lead singer. The Misfits quickly learn that a brainwashed crowd isn’t usually eager for a song while Jem crosses the line with Rio, who is desperate to find Jerrica. Jolted to her senses, a shaken Jerrica has to team up with Rio and Craig to free the rest of the Holograms and then figure out how to save everyone. May it mean the end of Synergy? And has Synergy truly turned against them?
From panel to panel and page to page, this has been a thrilling story which turns everything upside down for the Holograms and then dares them to recover from it. Jerrica in particular goes through the ringer here as the “glitch” causes her to attempt starting a “love triangle for two” with Rio. That term may have been explained in a previous review, but the gist is that it involves both identities that one character may have being romantically intertwined with the same person. The first modern example was in 1905’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel” between the titular dashing rebel, Marguerite Blakeney, and her husband Percy (the Pimpernel’s alter ego), which was written by Emma Orczy and is considered the prototype for most masked heroes. Perhaps the best example is the “triangle for two” among Lois Lane, Superman, and Clark Kent (which was so strong that Clark literally proposed to Lois before revealing his secret identity to her in the 90’s). The original “Jem and the Holograms” had such a triangle between Jerrica, Rio, and her alter ego Jem, which Kelly Thompson (via the podcast “3 Chicks Review Comics” circa 2014-2015) found problematic for various reasons. It is a dynamic which fans of the series (or even the premise) all but expect, but it is also Thompson’s challenge to put a new, updated spin on it which also feels natural for her characters. A pivotal scene within this issue delivers this series’ take on that dynamic in an interesting and totally organic way which explains why Jerrica would even try to woo Rio as Jem as well as has Rio react in a way which displays his core truth as a character – which also triggers a crucial reaction. It won’t be a moment which either will forget and still plays with the “triangle for two” angle without it seeming like old hat. Aja’s boyfriend Craig also gets more to do as a shout out to the “Valentine’s Day Special” is made. What follows is a fun sequence as the three of them try to “liberate” their friends as Blaze gives the performance of her life. Speaking of which, all of the previous embellishment of the Misfits beyond having them be mere rivals has paid off. It’s easy to sympathize with Blaze as she sings her heart out to no avail, as well as to Pizzazz who makes the most of her lone page this month. One doesn’t want Blaze to be deflated or crushed by a poorly received run as lead singer, yet one also may easily have more sympathy for Pizzazz now that she’s been rendered virtually speechless. Having characters be in conflict without either of them being bluntly “right” or “wrong” is the sign of intelligent writing within a full fleshed universe.
Every issue by Sophie Campbell and M. Victoria Robado seems to raise the bar in terms of art for the series, which seems to be something virtually every one of these reviews say. Yet as repetitive as that is, this issue elevates that quality bar once more. Not only is Campbell able to flow with new fashion changes for her cast again and again, but some of the sequences involving the corrupted Synergy, Blaze’s concert, and a more subtle page with Pizzazz are incredible even by this series’ previous standards. Other artists have and will work on this series, but issues such as this seem to display that it really is Campbell’s opus, the comic book equivalent of her Sistine Chapel. It elevates an already great script (in a series where both Thompson and Campbell are credited on story work) and blasts it into the stratosphere. It looks nothing like any other comic book out there on a visual level, which only adds to how “Jem and the Holograms” stands on its own even among IDW Publishing’s successful line of licensed comics. Every character is unique and recognizable, and no two look alike, even when they drastically change their hair or how they dress – exactly like real people.
The best series are unafraid to travel to new narrative places and see what their characters are made of by breaking them down at an opportune time. This began in a smaller way with Pizzazz’s injuries (which were an unintended consequence of her own vengeful actions) and continues in a larger way as the Holograms now have to fight against their patron digital saint. By risking a shattering of what had passed as the series’ status quo, it creates a path towards unique and unpredictable storytelling where anything can be at stake and nothing is safe. Raising the stakes for one’s heroes to make their triumphs sweeter is perhaps the oldest storytelling trick in the book, yet it is one which more superhero writers should take to heart. Obviously the Holograms will eventually prevail in some way, but it will be the means and the aftermath which will be the most fascinating to read. Every arc builds on the last with top notch serialized continuity, progressive characterization and an instinct towards paying homage to the past while promoting the new all at once. Before Mark Waid and Fiona Staples were giving the world an “Archie” reboot the world didn’t know it wanted, Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell were outshining even Hollywood with their efforts here. Any tour with teenage musicians is a wild one, and this one may be the wildest and most energetic yet.
The only flaw is that it is not double sized or that a time machine does not exist to make the wait for the next issue shorter. Anyone who’s not aboard for the tour should catch up with the collections and get aboard the bus, pronto! Whether “dark” or natural, Jem and the Holograms are always a blast!