One of the brightest Saturday morning icons of the 1980s is ready to light up the stage again.
Created by Christy Marx for Hasbro in 1985, the neon-loving “Jem and the Holograms” carries with it a classic setup: When Jerrica Benton’s late father leaves her Synergy, a wickedly powerful holographic visualizer, she does what anybody would do-start up a band with her family and rock around the world! The franchise finally returns next month in IDW‘s “Jem and the Holograms” #1 by writer [and, full disclosure, CBR contributor] Kelly Thompson and “Glory” artist Ross Campbell.
Pioneering in its day, the classic show’s strong women had a profound influence on a generation of girls, including Thompson herself. During our conversation, the writer also revealed how her rebooted “Jem” will comment on the “narrow standard of beauty” women are held to today, her thoughts on the upcoming live-action film from Universal Pictures and more, while showing off some new, exclusive art.
CBR News: Kelly, fans have literally been waiting decades for more “Jem and the Holograms” adventures, and there are a lot of eyes on this project. What can fans expect from your first story?
Kelly Thompson: I think, broadly, this first arc is a classic “Jem” “battle of the bands” story updated for modern audiences with a 21st Century look at music, celebrity, fame and even social media, [and] how those things affect a young band just starting out today, what obstacles they face and how they meet those challenges. Since we’re “rebooting” Jem a bit, it’s also an origin story that will introduce the basic concept of Jem and all the great characters and relationships to new audiences — and hopefully recontextualize them for old fans. We’ve made some key changes to some relationships and motivations that better fit the audience we’re aiming for and the medium we’re working in, but the core characters and the themes and ideas of the show remain largely intact. I hope all the great stuff old fans like me love is still there, just with a modern spin.
What can you tell us about each member of the Holograms?
Do you have an hour? There are so many great characters! Jem is of course the lead of the book (and of the band). Jem is the holographic alter ego created by Jerrica Benton using something called Synergy — a holographic audio/visual technology that Jerrica’s father invented. In our version, Jerrica is a talented singer and songwriter in her own right and has been playing music with her sisters (The Holograms) for years, but crippling stage fright has kept the band from making the leap from talented musicians to talented musicians that anyone has ever heard of.
Jerrica’s sister Kimber is the youngest of the group, also a talented songwriter and the band’s Keytarist, and the most boldly ambitious and energetic of the group. Jerrica and Kimber’s foster sisters are Aja Leith, who plays lead guitar, and Shana Elmsford, who plays drums. Aja is a bit of a tomboy and arguably Jerrica’s best friend. She’s sassy and sarcastic, a little more hardcore than the other girls. Shana is the sweetest of the Holograms (which is saying something since they’re all incredibly good and kind women) and the most understanding and patient but a bit reserved and shy. She’s also the one with the most talent beyond music as she’s a burgeoning fashion designer.
So how do the Holograms’ rivals the Misfits come into play?
Ah, The Misfits. The yin to The Holograms’ yang. What good are great protagonists without fantastic antagonists? I don’t love calling The Misfits villains because I think they are a bit more complex than villains sometimes get credit for being, but I’m a huge believer in the whole idea of your hero only being as good as your villain, and The Misfits make for great complicated villains, especially Pizzazz.
What’s so great about The Misfits is that even though they’re kind of awful, you can really see why Jem and The Holograms get to them. The Misfits are a talented and hardworking band, and Jem and The Holograms kind of come out of nowhere and are instantly beloved. They’re a bit softer and more pop than The Misfits and thus more mainstream and accessible. They’re also really good people and they win the day every time. It really would drive you mad to watch them constantly win while you constantly lose — it’s like all the best kind of classic superhero/supervillain dichotomies actually.
How influential was the “Jem and the Holograms” animation on you as a child?
I was pretty young when “Jem” was on but it made a big impact on me. I watched a lot of those great ’80s cartoons as a kid, and “Jem” always really stood out as different from the rest, especially since it was so female focused. It was just wall-to-wall with female characters — even most of the supporting characters were female, and that was really refreshing. These were strong independent women that had real ambition but also huge affection for one another. I don’t know that they were specifically written as feminists at the time, but it’s impossible not to see them that way now when you look back. All of that, whether intentional or not had a real impact on impressionable young Kelly, not quite as much as superheroes would five or six years later, but I never forgot Jem.
Why do you think “Jem and the Hologram” has had such a lasting impact on culture that people are still talking about it decades later?
It profoundly affected a lot of viewers that watched it — a lot of fans felt really empowered by the stories Christy Marx was telling 30 years ago. Empowered enough that what it meant to them and how it affected them has never been far from their minds.
I think the show, despite being originally devised primarily to promote the Hasbro doll line, was really great at making sure it was about a lot of things. It was action adventure, it was Sci-Fi/Fantasy, it was fashion and music, it was romance — it really rolled so much into itself. As a result, it ended up drawing a more diverse audience than one might have expected. There was something there for everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from. And I think, especially for a lot of young women and many young gay men — groups that don’t always have as many role models, main characters, and concepts to identify with in media — the show especially meant a lot. “Jem” struck a powerful chord that stayed with viewers so that even 30 years later they are pumped to see this property revived. The genuine excitement and affection people have for “Jem” — even after so long — is seriously impressive and speaks volumes about what it meant to them, to all of us, really.
What themes are you exploring in “Jem?”
Well, there are obvious themes of duality and self, especially as pertains to Jerrica/Jem, but also in any scenario where you have a real life and a “performing life.” Jerrica is particularly superhero-like in the sense that she has created an alter ego to deal with the “super” elements of her life. The fame and celebrity aspects of being a rock star share a lot of themes with superheroes, so all of that is really interesting to mine. We’ll be looking at what fame does to you, or can do to you, especially if you don’t know who you are just yet.
One of the things I’m most excited to explore is the idea that Jerrica has created a hologram — a literal perfect woman — in order to cope with the stress and pressures of being a star. In order to be herself in such a public and exposing way, she had to actually create someone else to do it for her, like a crutch, and there are powerful, important, and somewhat dangerous things in those actions, all exciting stuff to develop and explore. There’s a very narrow standard of beauty that women especially are held to, and Jerrica’s response to those insane demands seems a little extreme on the surface but actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. What better way to protect yourself from all the horrible things that come with fame than to just be someone else? As I said, there are a lot of superhero parallels when you get into this stuff and they’re all very layered and complex. It’s a lot of fun to dig into and explore.
Visually, your “Jem” series has a very moden-yet-’80s feel. How did you and artist Ross Campbell develop the fresh new look of the band?
Obviously, Ross was mostly responsible for the look of the book and all the fantastic character design. Ross has an incredible fashion and design sense and a huge love for the original show, so he really nailed it when redesigning these women, keeping the spirit of the original looks but with an edgy modern twist. The Holograms (and The Misfits) were cutting-edge women — forward thinking, fashion risk takers, ambitious and talented career women who were constantly changing and evolving — so re-imagining them for a 2015 audience means you have to stay true to that, not leave them stuck in a time warp. To me, “Jem” is less about the ’80s specifically and more about being “modern and now.” Thirty years ago, being “modern and now” meant being quintessential ’80s. Today it means letting these women be the definition of 2015 — and letting them be women who define style, not women who follow trends. And that means that they have to be constantly changing and evolving. Ross is the perfect artist to do that, his sensibility is naturally in sync with the design aesthetic we need, and his love of the original allows him to blend the two almost effortlessly (though I’m sure he’d say there’s plenty of effort involved). I have to say, everything he has done so far has really blown me away…though we did argue over Roxy’s hair and Rio’s! Hair is important and super personal I guess. It will surprise nobody to learn that I lost both those battles!
What are your thoughts on the upcoming “Jem” film from Universal Pictures debuting later this year?
I’m really excited that “Jem” is seeing — nearly 30 years after it debuted — such a wonderful surge of interest and excitement that it’s got a film and a comic coming out the same year. I honestly don’t know much about the film as there aren’t that many details released thus far, but I’ll certainly be going to see it. I’ve grown so insanely attached to these women that it will be really fascinating to see them in a different way and larger than life.
What would you put in a soundtrack for “Jem and the Holograms?” And what was your personal soundtrack when writing it?
I definitely have Jem and Misfits playlists I listen to when I write — my own personal feelings of what each band can or should sound like, music that helps get me in that right state of mind to write for them, but I wouldn’t want to project that onto readers. The closest I like to come to pinning either group down I guess is to say that both bands would and should overlap musically (or else why would they even be competing for an audience?) but that Jem tends to skew more mainstream and accessible, more pop, whereas The Misifts skew a little darker and edgier, a bit more punk, a bit more complex and less accessible to mainstream audiences.
Could we get at least a couple bands from those playlists?
Okay, because you twisted my arm I’ll give you three bands/artists from my Jem Playlist, but that’s all you get! Icona Pop, Rhianna, and The Knife.
“Jem and the Holograms” #1 is out this March from IDW Publishing.