The attempt at rebooting the “Jem and the Holograms” franchise via a feature film may have been an aborted effort, but by all accounts they have seen far more success in the realm of comic books. 2015 was truly an outrageous year for IDW’s latest ongoing series which saw the recreation of a well known 1980’s franchise. Spearheaded by writer Kelly Thompson (on what was her first regular gig in monthly comics), artist Sophie Campbell (who went through an evolution of her own and delivered the best pencils of her career) and colorist M. Victoria Robado (who managed to maintain the same high quality flair for the series alongside two subsequent guest artists), it has quickly become one of the publisher’s top selling and critically acclaimed series. Thompson and Campbell have translated their obvious adoration for the original incarnation of the series into crafting a revised version which works just as well (if not better) for readers of this generation.
However, a new year brings with it a new challenge. After roughly two complete arcs and two one-shot specials, the creative team are up against the opponent that all successful creative teams face (and even welcome). That challenge is topping themselves; a feat which ideally is done with every subsequent story but in practice is often tricky to pull off. If this issue is any indication, it is that Thompson, Campbell, and Robado are facing this gauntlet head on without any hesitation or intention of resting on their laurels, and readers will be all the better for it.
It has been a whirlwind tour for the Jerrica and her band-mate sisters Kimber, Aja, and Shana. They went from being a plucky band nobody knew to being enhanced by a top secret artificial intelligence (A.I.) enough to make a public debut “hot” enough to steal buzz from one of the biggest established bands out there, the Misfits. In what seemed like no time, Jerrica (as her holographic alter ego “Jem”) and the rest of the Holograms have signed a contract with the Misfits’ record label as well as explored their love lives to varying degrees. All of the the Misfits’ attempts to sabotage them – mostly spearheaded by either their hot tempered lead singer Pizzazz, their groupie Clash, or their underhanded new manager Eric – have failed. Even worse, Pizzazz’s recent car accident has left her with throat injuries and an unclear prognosis. Yet most veterans of any industry will note that many times, the riskiest time for anyone can often be when it seems nothing can go wrong. And it is with this arc that Jerrica and those she holds dear may be learning this fact of life the hard way.
Much like many issues, Thompson and Campbell present both bands facing a similar situation (in this case, listening to some amateur singers) and showcasing the different ways both groups handle it. Yet as the issue progresses, readers are introduced to a potential flip of the status quo which the previous ten issues have built up. Without her voice – which she relies on for a living to either sing or yell orders – Pizzazz is vulnerable for perhaps the first time in her life, and almost at the mercy of the rest of the Misfits. Meanwhile, Jerrica may wind up paying quite a price for relying on Synergy so much, as the holographic A.I. seemingly has developed a glitch which transforms Jerrica’s entire outlook. As the Misfits are forced by contractual obligations to find a replacement singer and the Holograms plan yet another party, is it possible that the traditional roles may be reversed? As the cover and the title of this arc suggest, we are seeing the rise of a “Dark Jem”; could this mean that at least for a short time, we may also see a “Light Pizzazz”? Although much of this issue is clearly an introduction to the central premise of the latest story line, it is presented in a manner which allows long term subplots to flourish and progress in a natural manner.
The first thing to notice is Sophie Campbell’s return to pencils after an extended absence. At this point it goes without saying that this series is as much hers as it is Thompson’s. Her sensational art on the first arc so defined the series, its complete cast and the world it inhabits that even incredibly talented guest artists were forced to be compared with it and thrive within it. The fact that both are credited with the story is likely no coincidence, as Thompson has revealed their long term friendship as being one of the cornerstones of the series in more than one interview or podcast. As terrific as Emma Vieceli, Corin Howell, and Amy Mebberson were on art, there really is nothing like a Sophie Campbell issue of Jem. The energy in every panel practically feels different, from cover to cover. From the facial reactions to the depiction of music to the wildly imaginative fashion choices for everything from hair to swimsuits to pajamas, it seems any issue drawn by Campbell is an issue dialed up to eleven visually. No two characters look the same, nor does any scene. As Jem herself once sung in the 80’s, “she’s got the power”.
Kelly Thompson’s scripts for this series have always been of consistent high quality, but this issue seemed to be the narrative equivalent of stepping on the gas. The increasing panel time for the Misfits has done wonders to flesh them out as beyond being simple antagonists. Stormer may still seem to get the lions’s share of that focus overall by virtue of her romance with Kimber, recent issues have given Jetta and Roxy more to say and do. Yet it is Pizzazz who seems to steal most of the scenes she is in, and is in the middle of her own transformation. Considering how she has typically acted, it is quite a turn of events to see her in a more vulnerable light. It is easy to cast Pizzazz as the villain of the series, especially since she seems to eagerly play the role so well, yet as the series has progressed we have also seen her character arc evolve as well. From her perspective, she is the leader of a successful band in an industry where someone can go from top to flop in almost an eye-blink, now forced to compete for her career against some “new kids from nowhere” who have an advantage that she just can’t figure out. Hints of her lighter side were seen in the Christmas special, but seeing how she acts when she’s not in control (and how the Misfits react around her) makes for compelling reading. Naturally, the Holograms themselves can easily fill the book with fun dialogue, amusing interaction and all of the dramatic romantic soap opera elements that comic book readers adore. While the change to Jem’s persona very much comes from the external, it may be possible that Pizzazz’s changes are coming from within.
One chapter in, and this issue reveals that fans of the series may easily be in for the best arc yet – as if such a thing were possible! By seeing the dynamics they have created and being fearless in their willingness to bend or flip them for the sake of character growth as well as a riveting story, “Jem and the Holograms” showcases an imagination and maturity which can often seem in short supply in an industry which – to be blunt – seems to often be dominated by people undergoing an eternal midlife crisis. It’s nostalgic yet fresh, simple yet innovative, unique yet beautiful. It reads like discovering a new band or form of music that at least for a little while feels like it is a precious thing that is yours alone. With a years worth of development at its back, it already looks like 2016 will be even better for Jem and her friends, and even some of her rivals.