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Review: ‘Jem and The Holograms: Showtime’

jem coverJem and The Holograms: Showtime
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Artist: Sophie Campbell
IDW Publishing; $19.99

Jem and The Holograms began life as a 1980s Hasbro toy line with an accompanying cartoon series from Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions, the same trinity of companies responsible for other ’80s toy/cartoon juggernauts G.I. Joe and The Transformers. Where Jem differed from its sister franchises was not only in its target demographic, but in the fact that, unlike G.I. Joe and Transformers, there has never been another version of Jem. After the last new episode of the cartoon aired in 1989, there was none of the constant rebooting, retooling and reinvention that the two boy toy franchises experienced.

Until now, anyway. This month sees the release of a live-action movie based on Jem and The Holograms, as well as the release of the first collection of the Jem comic book series. The latter was actually first out the gate: The Kelly Thompson-written, Sophie Campbell-drawn comic began its serial publication in comic book form in March.

There are likely several reasons why it took over 25 years for someone to take a crack at a new Jem story of any kind or in any media, but a big one is no doubt how of its time the original Jem was. Born of the blossoming of the music video in the early 1980s, Jem was about as MTV as a kids cartoon could get–music videos were actually incorporated into each episode.

The challenge facing anyone trying to do Jem now, the challenge Thompson and Campbell met and seemingly effortlessly overcame, was decoupling it from the era of its creation and finding a way to make it relevant for a generation who has no memory of a pre-reality television MTV.

They do this in part by dropping as much of the suspension of disbelief-defying elements of the cartoon as possible. Our heroine Jerrica still transforms into Jem via a sophisticated, artificially-intelligent, hologram-projecting computer named Synergy built by her late father, but she no longer has to balance running a record label, an orphanage, and a band. Rather, the adopted Jem identity isn’t just there to create secret-identity style melodrama; the stage-frightened Jerrica needs her holographic Jem disguise in order to perform in front of an audience at all.

Rio, Jerrica’s purple-haired, purple-wearing boyfriend now has a role to play beyond “boyfriend”; he’s a music journalist covering The Misfits, and, because he’s a journalist, Thompson plays him like a sort of gender-flipped Lois Lane, suspicious of this Jem character and why she’s never around when Jerrica is (although unlike Lois, Rio prefers the mousier version with a first and last name over the more colorful, fantastical identity).

As for The Misfits, they begin the story in a place of power over Jerrica and her sisters. In the cartoon, they were rival bands, with The Holograms always prevailing. Here, The Misfits are an established, successful band, while The Holograms are up-and-comers who come into conflict with their rivals only because of an online “The Misfits Vs.” sponsored marketing event. Rather then always winning by virtue of their innate goodness and thus superiority, The Holograms are now the underdogs, and there’s a real sense of struggle to their conflict.

More immediately noticeable than Thompson’s revision of the basic narrative, however, is Campbell’s design. The glam revival style of the 1980s actually fits in pretty perfectly in a pop culture in which the likes of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj have been household names for years, and Campbell keeps all the Crayola-colored hair and wild fashions, she just explodes them to more extreme levels and tailors the costumes and the specifics of the fashions to seem more 2015 than 1989.

Campbell, an excellent designer who has had plenty of practice drawing young women immersed in music and counter-cultures in her adult series Wet Moon (created under the name Ross Campbell), has also done a fantastic job of differentiating the characters.

The original characters all had the exact same bodies and faces and were mostly differentiated by their hair and clothing. They looked like interchangeable Barbie dolls, but then, that’s basically what they were: Hasbro had two basic molds, male (for Rio) and female (for the rest of the line). Campbell has about a dozen female characters in the first six issues of the series (if you count Jerrica and Jem as two different people, and, of course, in terms of design, they are two different people), and no two of them look exactly alike. Different in height, weight, build, muscle mass, facial construction–they are as different as any dozen women you could find in the real world.

If girls of the 1980s had trouble finding a Hologram or Misfit that looked something like them, teenage girls of 2015 shouldn’t have that problem. And that is the target audience, teens, rather than little girls. While Thompson and Campbell’s narrative is certainly all-ages friendly—the only swearing comes in the form of the giant green skulls that sometimes fill hot-headed villain Pizzazz’s dialogue bubbles, the romance never progresses byond hand-holding and kissing, and there’s no alcohol or drug use or anything unsavory–it’s a fairly complicated narrative, more CW than Disney Channel.

Not that it’s only for teens, of course. Smart tweens and adults with fond memories (or barely-there memories) of the original Jem cartoon should find a lot to like here. Heck, I’m not far away from 40, and this is one of my favorite comics currently being published.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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