It seems all of the big rock bands of the 1980s have had, or are planning to have a reunion tour; why not Jem and the Holograms? This March, IDW Publishing is getting the girl group back together for a new comic series that promises to be as “truly outrageous” as the animated series, but with new layers of context and identity issues.
IDW Senior Editor John Barber stated that when he first came to work at IDW, “Getting a Jem and the Hologramscomic going was a top priority for me,” and this March, he will see this dream come to fruition with the release of Kelly Thompson and Ross Campbell’s first issue. This issue will mark Thompson’s first comic series she’ll be writing; however, fans fans will no doubt recognize Campbell from his past work on Wet Moon and IDW’s ownTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Newsarama: Some creators pitch an idea to a publisher while other times, editors will approach specific creators with a request for a pitch on a particular property or story idea. Kelly, Ross, how did your relationship develop with IDW and Jem and the Holograms?
Kelly Thompson:I guess it was a little bit of both. I was already talking to IDW about some other projects and my name was put forward as someone that might be interesting for Jem and the Holograms, and I knew immediately if I was going to pitch it should be with Ross. Ross of course has been doing lots of work for IDW with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and has his own editor there so we kind of started working it from both sides. We started working together on a pitch even before we got the okay. We've wanted to find something to work on for a few years now, but Ross is so busy that it was just never possible, but this one seemed very meant to be. Once we go the okay to pitch and had a clarifying conversation about what IDW was looking for we hit the ground running on finalizing our pitch, including Ross doing two illustrations for the pitch. IDW really liked our approach and, happily, Hasbro agreed.
I will say, it's the happiest I've been with a pitch yet. When you turn in a pitch it's kind of absolute torture to wait to hear back. You spend a lot of time second guessing what you've done, no matter how hard you worked or how well it turned out, but with Jem and the Holograms...I was still anxious about whether we would get it, but I knew we could not possibly have done a better pitch. The rest was up to IDW and Hasbro and whether it was what they were looking for.
Nrama: What were your associations with Jem and the Holograms? Were you fans of the cartoon as children?
Thompson: Yeah, I was a definite fan of Jem and The Holograms; I was pretty young but loved it. I was a big cartoon watcher anyway - G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Dungeons & Dragons, I loved all that stuff - but JemJem and the Holograms was different from all of it in that it was just wall-to-wall with female characters. All the cartoons I watched were good in that they had at least one female character for me to latch onto as a kid but Jem and the Holograms was all about women all the time. It was awesome.
Ross Campbell:I liked the old show, yeah! I didn't watch it religiously, I wasn't a big TV watcher when I was a kid, but I was into it. I got more into it as an adult, though; I can appreciate it more now than I could when I was a kid.
Nrama: I know I recently experimented with watching the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe television show with my 5-year old and it didn’t hold up particularly well. What elements of this 1980s classic continued to hold up and lend themselves to a comic adaptation – or are you finding yourself in a position where you need to reinvent the character and the general background to make it appealing to a contemporary reading audience?
Campbell:I personally think Jem and the Holograms holds up really well, but I like the silly 80s stuff so maybe I'm biased. I like how it holds together even when it's at its silliest. That's the biggest part for me, the characters, that's what I'm invested in and what carries over the most into the new comic. I think they're strong enough that there isn't much tweaking we have to do. The rest of it is a bit trickier, since the show never had much continuity or even much of a story, so we're doing a more modern serialized thing.
Thompson: For me, Jem and the Holograms is still really enjoyable as an adult but mostly in a campy way. I think you have to remember that it was geared toward a young audience. So yeah, when you begin taking it apart in a critical way, as an adult, it doesn't hold up so well in some practical terms. There are some gaps and leaps that need re-working if you're trying to retool it for a new generation and one that's a bit more savvy, what with the ability to Google everything on phones at the drop of a hat. And also a 26-episode cartoon season has totally different story demands than a single story arc that playing out over six issues/months. So as a creator, there was definitely some need to take things apart and put them back together in slightly different ways, both so they could make more sense and so that they could work in a more relatable modern context and for a new medium. But for me, what Jem and the Holograms is about are the characters - creative modern women living their lives, and all of that is completely unchanged, they just live in 2015 now, not 1986.
Nrama: Now, the original show seemed to lean pretty heavily into the younger female audience. Do you see the story and general aesthetic of this updated version of Jem and the Holograms taking similar cues, or will it appeal to a broader audience?
Campbell: I'm definitely taking cues from the show but skewing a bit older, I think. My artwork has always been kind of niche, though, no matter how big the licensed property I'm working on is, so I'm cautious about any kind of big audience to begin with, but that's hopefully just me being self-deprecating.
Thompson: Well, I think Jem and the Holograms really transcended just the young girls it was aimed at - though to be fair, Jem and the Holograms really did have a pretty serious action-adventure element, as well as the obvious sci-fi/fantasy component which suggested they were always going after more than just young girls (though obviously girls are often interested in action-adventure and sci- fi/fantasy - I know I certainly was). And I think Jem and the Holograms was repaid in kind for that with a pretty varied audience, there was something for everyone when it came to Jem and the Holograms. For our book, I think we're aiming for older than the original show, but it's not going to be an "adult" book either - I think we're saying something like 12 and up as a sort of vague guideline? I don't think there's anything off-putting really for audiences younger than 12, but maybe the stuff we're dealing with would be slightly above the interest level for a younger kid? I don't know, I'm actually awful at the age range question! That said, I think what we're doing is definitely new-reader friendly, 100%. You can know nothing about Jem Jem and the Holograms and pick up the first issue and just jump in. At the same time I hope that fans of the original show can dig in and still find their beloved characters and ideas, just in a new, modern, re-contextualized way.
Nrama: Kelly, You originally made your mark in comics through your journalistic work, especially in your many articles about the all-too-numerous examples of gender inequality in the comics industry. And it seems that comics publishers within the mainstream are starting to make some inroads with representing previously marginalized and misrepresented groups. Is it a case of two steps forward, one step back … or are there still some significant road blocks to diversifying what sort of books are available to comic readers?
Thompson: It definitely continues to be a struggle and some days it’s very frustrating but I have to say I’ve seen a real push in just the last year or two toward highlighting female characters especially. There are so many more books available starring interesting complex women today than there were just two years ago. Unfortunately they don't always last, so we've still got a ways to go on both growing a consistent and loyal readership to support those books and also getting publishers to understand that you have to let books - especially if they have to compete with legacy character books that have been around for decades - have some room to grow and develop an audience.
Perhaps more importantly the internet and digital reading seem to have really changed the conversation and made it that conversation and fandom as well as actual books available to new readers in a way that has been lacking in the past. I was certainly not alone in writing about women in comics when I started writing my column “She Has No Head!” five years ago, but it was a much less crowded field...now you can't turn around without running into people writing (and talking) about women in comics - and that's a great thing - that really helps change the conversation and it's so much noise that publishers ignore it at their peril.
Nrama: Tongue planted firmly in cheek here, but are we “there” yet?
Thompson: Unfortunately we've still got a long way to go on the diverse creator front. Obviously I've got skin in that game, but I've always been a firm believer in diversity in creators naturally creating better more diverse books. Women have long been making comics in a variety of ways, but at the bigger publishers I'd really like to see as serious a push on female creators as we've seen on characters.
Nrama: Ross, as an artist responsible for depicting characters in a comic, how concerned or aware of these issues with representations are you when you sit down to design a character or begin rendering them on the page?
Campbell:I try to be very aware at all times.
Nrama: What were the difficulties – if any – that you faced in (re)designing these characters?
Campbell:I've only drawn two covers, that's been the extent of my designing so far, I haven't had much time to do design sketches or anything like that because it's all happening so fast, but so far it's been very smooth sailing. I think the hardest things for me have been figuring out Roxy's hairstyle and what kind of dress Stormer should have on the cover. I get super fussy over the hair and outfits and sometimes that can go from fun and exciting into a frustrating slog in a second.
Nrama: In looking at some of the preview art for the front cover, Jem has a slightly more revealing look from what she used to have during the 1980s. Walk us through your design process. How does Jem's public image (when compared to Jerrica's more subdued private persona) jive with messages of self-confidence and the hyper-sexualization of pop music?
Campbell: This is something Kelly and I talked about a lot. We talked about how Jem and the Holograms could be a bit of a critique on how in pop music (and everywhere, really) female artists are held to a narrow standard of beauty, I can't even think of any super popular pop star female musicians who don't in some way fit that mold. No matter how great or talented someone is, they'll never reach those heights of fame unless they look like Beyoncé (not to slam Beyoncé because she is great!).
So we thought what if that was Jerrica's thing, and in order to succeed in that world she creates an idealized alternate identity with which she can meet the impossible super sexualized pop star standards, as well as cut loose on a personal level, much like Peter Parker cuts loose when he's Spider-Man. The self-confidence aspect is kind of messed up, which it's meant to be. Ideally, Jerrica would be confident as herself and that would be the end of it.
Unfortunately, things aren't that simple. To achieve confidence, she uses Synergy to help her, but then it’s kind of a false confidence. Even though Jem is an extension of her, it's not really "her.” I think I said to Kelly in the beginning that Jerrica's decision to do that is like a sane response to an insane world.
Nrama: Kelly, this is your first foray into the writing a comic series having spent most of your time writing about comics or writing fiction with a certain comic flare to it. How is Jem and the Holograms the next, natural step in your progress as a writer?
Thompson: Well, Jem will be my first published comics work (except a four-page short in IDW's Womanthology) but I've been working for more than a year with Dark Horse on my first graphic novel (with artist Meredith McClaren) so I'm not exactly unfamiliar with the process. I also actually have a degree in comics from the Savannah College of Art & Design, so I have some actual training too. But I have to say, Jem and the Holograms does feel like the perfect book at the perfect time (and with the perfect co-creator in Ross) for me and I'm really excited about that. I've taken my time coming back to comics, having written some novels and scripts, and spending a lot of time on the “journalism” side of comics, but it mostly feels like coming back home, comics is a first love, so I hope I can kill it.
Nrama: Final Question: You both have Jem and the Holograms with IDW, but are there any other projects on the horizon you can tell us about?
Campbell:I'll have some news about my comic Shadoweyes coming up soon, and hopefully I'll get to continue my web comic Can't Look Back. I don't know how intensive Jem and the Holograms will be yet, but I hope I have some free time to do it.
Thompson: I have the next book in my Storykiller series coming out in the spring or summer. I also think my graphic novel with Dark Horse will be out in the fall of 2015, though we don't have a firm release date set yet. I’ve got a lot of other stuff brewing comics wise but I’ve only got one I can give a firm release on and that’s a short story in Dark Horse’s Creepy #20 this coming April. Hopefully I'll have more I can officially talk about soon.