Twelfth issues officially symbolize the end of one year and the beginning of another in the realm of monthly comic books. With the market as volatile as it is, reaching or surpassing such a number of issues is no guarantee even from “big two” publishers, much less IDW Publishing. Yet that is exactly where longtime writer Kelly Thompson and returning regular artist Sophie Campbell (alongside steady colorist M. Victoria Robado) have led their utterly brilliant recreation of this iconic 1980’s franchise – a feat which has even put Hollywood to shame. Part of that has been a fearless attitude towards handling a franchise all involved clearly love, and love enough to not play safe with. It is with this spirit in mind that the current story line, “Dark Jem”, enters its second chapter.
As presented in the previous issue, this arc is succeeding in large part because it showcases a desire to flip their status quo around for their cast and explore exactly what that means to everyone. While Jerrica and her sisters may have oodles of talent and skill as performers, the technological advantage provided by their inherited artificial intelligence system Synergy has always provided them an extra ace in their deck. It’s allowed Jerrica to escape her own shy demeanor with a holographic alter ego, and Synergy’s continued holographic feats have helped bring this “out of nowhere” band onto a similar cusp of fame as the more experienced Misfits. Now, that advantage has become their Achilles’ heel as it has seemed to corrupt not only Jerrica herself, but the rest of the Holograms as well! A glitch in Synergy’s system has drastically changed their outlook and their wardrobe, which is something everyone around them (including Rio and the Misfits) have quickly noticed. In the meanwhile, Blaze manages to embrace her own “secret” to claim a position of lead singer with the Misfits as Pizzazz struggles to recover from her injuries, both physically and (especially) spiritually.
The Misfits have certainly been getting the lion’s share of the focus lately, and it can be imagined that it is no accident. While the two bands are rivals, this series has been careful not to paint everyone in rigid “good vs. evil” columns – which is something Jerrica herself has claimed. Blaze herself gets a lot of development in the second act of this issue, revealing her status as a transsexual to not only the audience, but the Misfits as well. The entire comic book industry has been seeking to grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion in a manner which it never has before, and the results quite often are as varied as the creative and editorial teams behind them. The music industry has always been a melting pot for diverse groups of people, and it is this fact which this Jem series has embraced with full gusto. Blaze’s concerns about “coming out” to her idols seem to come from a place of genuine honesty and emotion, which the editorial column from an earlier issue made clear that Sophie Campbell herself experienced. Comic books where the “usual suspects” of straight, male (and usually middle aged) writers attempt to tackle issues such as gender identity can often be hit-or-miss depending on the skill and empathy of those involved. But when a comic book has a diverse creative team as its foundation, then such stories can come from a more genuine experience or emotional base. Naturally, the story plays with the audience expectations a bit; comics still tend to handle gender identity as a “big deal”, but the Misfits are more concerned with more practical band details. While the Misfits will never “take over” the book per say, giving them more time in the spotlight has proven to be quite fascinating. Without her voice or her position in the band, the normally unflappable Pizzazz seems utterly deflated and defeated (and far more sympathetic). Stormer has always been the most sensitive of the Misfits, but even Jetta, Roxy, and their groupie Clash get much to do here.
While Kelly Thompson’s run of “Jem and the Holograms” has been gifted with great “guest” artists who always do well to fit the tone and fashion design of previous issues, there really is nothing like a Sophie Campbell drawn installment. Her tandem with Thompson has been obvious since the first issue, which her co-story credit makes obvious on the back of the front page for readers. Rather than gush exactly the same way as before, instead readers should take another look at Sophie’s panels and figures. See how every single character never wears the same outfit twice, or even the same hairstyle twice. How every single face and body type is different, from the chins to the noses and so forth, even of incidental characters such as the kids at the band lesson. See how even without the word balloons, the story could be comprehended and appreciated just due to the body language and facial reactions of the cast. This kind of art is akin to the best in film special effects; easy to under appreciate because it works so well that a reader is completely immersed in the “illusion” of the world presented around them by the work. The color palette presented by Robado also embellishes the line work;l suddenly the Holograms are “dark” and faded out and the Misfits are more vibrant looking.
Obviously “Dark Jem” won’t be a permanent change (even if some of the ramifications may be). That is hardly the point. Instead, this arc shines because of its boldness in flipping its own traditional narrative to give readers different protagonists this time around. More importantly, a later arc where the Misfits are (presumably) the antagonists of the Holograms once more will only be stronger now that they have been fleshed out even further beyond cliches and stereotypes. It is another installment of one of the best recreations of any franchise which has been put to comic books, which utterly refuses to rest on its own laurels. Those who may have given this a pass because of not being into the cartoon back in the past or considering it too “girly” should seriously reconsider that position. A year’s worth of issues are officially in the polybag, and if this issue is any indication, everyone is in for another great dozen issues to come.