If you were a little girl in the 80’s, it was the law that you loved Jem. You watched the show, you had tapes of the ridiculous songs. And if you were me and my cousins, you had the dolls…and, since the dolls were 14” tall to Barbie’s 11”-and-change and Ken’s pitiful 12”, you played “Biker Gang” with Jem and Aja as tough biker chicks who accost Ken in a “dark alley” (i.e. my cousin’s closet) and do Bad Things to him (sorry, Mom)…but I digress! The point is, Jem was an institution in the 80’s, and a staple of my childhood, so I was pumped for Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell’s comic reboot of the series from the word go.
Jem and the Holograms takes us back to the very beginning (Jem: Origins!) to tell the tale of how shy Jerrica Benton uses a special inheritance from her father to become alter-ego pop star Jem. As songwriter and would-be frontwoman for aspiring band the Holograms, whose immediate goal is to win a video contest against a popular band of bitch-faces known as the Misfits, Jerrica tries to use her powers as Jem for good while finding her own identity along the way. Pretty much the story of Jem as we knew it in the 80’s, right? Well, yes and no. Thompson and Campbell bring things up to speed, most obviously with the inclusion of the technology and social media that is essential for any working band to have nowadays. One would assume, for example, that the Misfits’ video contest is using Facebook or YouTube as a forum by the constant references to the number of “likes” for each video. In other examples, characters openly refer to “tweeting” and “texting”, and tweets are even depicted in some of the frames (“Misfits R SOOOO overrated. Next! #BOO”…HA ha!). Definitely NOT the Jem of 1985.
The third installment of Jem and the Holograms brings romance to both the Holograms and Misfits camps. Sparks fly for Jerrica and Rio on their first date as they open up to one another on the soul-searchingest trip to a carnival ever. However, Jerrica isn’t the only Benton looking for love: in a Romy-and-Juliet twist, Kimber and Stormer are spotted on a date by Pizzazz, who subsequently bullies Stormer into promising to avoid her “rival,” even going as far as to say “We stopped a million Twitter photos of you looking all lovesick at a girl who’s your competition…social media would have been all over that story.” (See? Jem 2015.) Kimber’s goal, at the other Holograms’ behest, is to compose the perfect text message to sweep Stormer off her feet. Meanwhile the Misfits get wind of a star-studded event that the Holograms have been asked to play and, true to the spirit of the cartoon, a diabolical plan is concocted to sabotage the performance for Jem and pals.
As much as I love the cartoon, the writing here is far superior, though it is definitely geared more towards teens (and grown-up nostalgia nerds like myself). The storylines are classic Jem, fun yet refreshingly relevant, always with a message. Thompson’s Holograms are much more fleshed out and three-dimensional than any of the characters I recall from the show, even Jem/Jerrica herself. I remember the Misfits of yore being brats (but laughable, weak villains); they still are, but Pizzazz 2.0 is a stone-cold beeyotch. The oppression of Stormer is a particularly despicable move on Pizzazz’s part (contrasted by the encouragement and support Kimber gets from her fellow Holograms regarding the relationship), and I’m curious to see if this bully will get her due as this subplot progresses.
Sophie Campbell’s art pulls off the same feat with adorably edgy 80’s rocker-girl characters that still look “cool” by today’s standards. I recall most of the Holograms, as cartoon characters and dolls, looked just like Jem with different hair; Campbell’s Holograms stand out individually, distinguished not only by hair color but different body types or little details (for example, both Aja and Stormer are full-figured with blue hair, but Stormer has a beauty mark on her face). The musical sequences are awesomely flashy with swirls of pink noise (Holograms) and loud clashes of green and black thunder (Misfits, of course); I could practically the old Jem tunes in my head (“Winning is everything, winning is everything!”). Colorist M. Victoria Robado gets quite literal with the green in many of the Misfits’ sequences; panels featuring Pizzazz in particular are dominated by her green hair, illustrating the envy that consumes her.
I’d like to say this series ended up being everything I’d hoped, but it was actually better. I had been hoping for the type of junk-food nostalgia that would regurgitate my childhood back at me, doing nothing to enhance or detract from it. Instead I got an insanely fun, funny take on an old favorite through a 2015 filter. Thompson and Campbell have breathed new life into these old characters in a way I hadn’t even thought of, but would definitely like to see more of.