I planned to write these every week, but unexpected complications related to a move, health problems for a loved one, an insane workload and an event I’m planning contributed to the delay. So, here we go…
Sometimes I think that 2015 was the first year when stories in licensed comics felt more emotionally complex and creatively ambitious than the ones in stories published by Marvel and DC.
Although the stakes of Sophie Campbell and Kelly Thompson’s Jem and the Holograms series aren’t life and death, they feel meaningfully high. In the first arc, the reader lives and dies with the triumphs and setbacks of Jerrica (Jem’s alter ego) and her best friends as they try to launch their band while balancing their other personal and professional goals. The creators keep some core ideas from the 1980’s cartoon – the rivalry between the two bands, the love triangle between Jerrica, Jem and Rio (Jerrica’s love interest), the supercomputer named Synergy that helps Jerrica turn into Jem – but they tweak some elements to make the story feel more grounded. Campbell and Thompson transform Jerrica from a wealthy woman who manages a charity and owns a record label, she’s just a struggling singer-songwriter who feels anxious about performing in front of crowds. Pizzazz is more than a vain rich girl jealous of a more successful pop group, she’s a savvy star determined to succeed by any means necessary. In the cartoon, all of the ladies looked like stereotypical fashion models, the better to reflect the physiques of the Barbie-like dolls that were marketed with the show. They were ethnically diverse (one Hologram was Japanese and another was African American), but were almost identical in appearance. Campbell’s female figures are casually diverse in a way that’s rare in a mainstream comic. Campbell depicts queer women, straight women and transgender women as individuals, each with their own unique features, physiques and expressions. This approach complements Thompson’s approach to writing these characters as grounded women with different preferences, orientations and backgrounds. There are queer women and straight women and transgender women. She includes women with different preferences, orientations and backgrounds Campbell and Thompson aren’t telling a story about diversity, but a narrative in which diversity is a lived reality for the characters. I’m not sure if this reflects the world we live in (though it’s certainly true for some), but it’s an extremely attractive vision of an inclusive world.
It’s interesting to read the origin of the conflict between Jem’s Holograms and Pizzazz’ Misfits, but the most moving part of the first arc was the burgeoning romance between Stormer and Kimber, the respective keytarists for the Misfits and the Holograms. In the beginning of the story, the two are familiar with one another’s work, but have never met in person. Kimber’s a fan of Stormer’s work and finds her attractive, while Stormer follows the less established Kimber’s blog. The two meet in the second issue when Kimber goes to get her Misfits album signed at an album promo event. Stormer is alone (her band mates ditched her), so the two have an opportunity to chat over coffee.
Campbell relies on body language and facial expressions to lay the foundation for their star crossed romance. The absence of dialogue in the two panels turns a conventional meet-cute scenario into something that feels more natural and sincere. We’ve all seen and read a million stories about couples meeting for the first time in amusing ways. After a while, the banter feels more predictable than witty. Sophie Campbell shows readers all we need to know through Kimber and Stormer’s facial expressions and body language. She trusts that we will fill the blanks. Words feel unnecessary when Kimber and Stormer make their romantic connection, and they feel inadequate when the rivalry between their two bands pulls them apart in the first arc.
If you haven’t read the first arc, here’s what you need to know for the page at the top of the post. Kimber isn’t sure that she can trust Stormer (after someone affiliated with the Misfits sabotages a Holograms show) and stops returning her texts. Stormer is torn between feeling guilty (by association) and angry (at being denied the opportunity to explain herself). She can’t confide in her band (who view Kimber as the enemy) and Kimber won’t return her calls. So, Stormer does what any of us would do and writes a song. The lyrics are the kind that feel like an assortment of familiar phrases until they’re brought to life by a heartfelt performance (“all totally cliche ’till it applies to me and you”…). Campbell slowly moves us closer to Stormer in the top four panels until we see a close up of her face. We’re not sure if she’s reliving her last encounter with Kimber or straining against the conventions of pop songs about heartache (or both), but she is definitely suffering. I love how Campbell uses Stormer’s hands to suggest her emotional state. Campbell’s always excelled at body language, particularly when depicting people struggling with deeply felt emotions. Her work on Jem made me forget that I was reading a licensed book featuring Hasbro characters from an almost forgotten cartoon series from the 1980s.