As television shows go, Jem and the Holograms and Miami Vice couldn't possibly be more different. The former, which aired from 1985 to 1988, was a children's carton that also functioned as an extended ad campaign for an accompanying toy line, while the latter, which ran from 1984 to 1989, was an hour-long adult police drama.
Other than their medium and the decade in which they were produced — and, perhaps, how readily they embraced and celebrated the pop culture of that era — a viewer would have trouble finding a whole lot of similarities between the two.
Now, more than 25 years after both shows ended, they have something new in common: They're being adapted as comic books released by IDW Publishing.
It's significantly easier to find commonalities between the two comics than the shows that inspired them. Both are rather good (perhaps surprisingly so, given their junk-culture origins), and both are rather thoroughly transformed by the presence of an incredible artist who brings a highly distinctive look to the characters -- so much so, that you might recognize the books as the work of Sophie Campbell or Jim Mahfood before you recognize them as adaptations of Jem or Miami Vice.
The former is probably the more anticipated of the two, thanks to the closeness of the creators to comics readers, and the fact that the Jem characters are rather close to the hearts of many in the comics community.
The cast of Jem has been completely redesigned by Campbell, whose sizable catalog of work includes the creator-owned Shadow Eyes and Wet Moon, as well as Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Rob Liefeld's Glory. Anyone who's read those books knows Campbell excels at character design, particularly when it comes to drawing attractive women with diverse, individualized looks and alternative fashion styles.
She is, therefore, perfect for the task of updating the '80s characters for the 21st century, as well as moving them away from the single, shared body-type of their original incarnation (remember, they were first designed to sell a line of dolls, and so the seven or eight principals all shared the same Barbie doll body-type).
The characters introduced in this first issue — just those in the title — all look like themselves in terms of their hair color and fashion sense — but are also all greatly updated, fitting what one might expect a 2015 rock band to look like and what one would expect the cast of a 2015 comic book to look like.
Perhaps Campbell's most radical act of design is to make Jerrica, Jem's secret identity, look tiny and mousey compared to the others, even her little sister Kimber, so that when she turns into Jem it's as if she's becoming a completely different person. (On the show, it was more of a Superman/Clark Kent change, and Jerrica didn't really require a hologram so much as a pink wig and change of outfits.)
The premise doesn't seem to have changed too much from that of the cartoon, at least what little of it is in the first issue. The Holograms are a struggling band, and lead singer Jerrica's anxiety about singing in front of people seemingly spells doom for them. She gets the answers to all of her problems when she discovers Synergy, the sentient hologram-generating computer her late father built her. Thanks to some high-tech earrings, she can disguise herself as Jem, and, presumably, gain the confidence she lacks as Jerrica to sing.
Campbell's partner on the book is Kelly Thompson, a writer-about-comics turned prose novelist turned writer-of-comics (note: Thompson is a contributor to ROBOT 6's sibling blog Comics Should Be Good). There's not a whole lot to the first issue to go on in terms of judging the story they're crafting, but on the plus side Thompson's work at differentiating Jerrica from Jem into an almost Billy Batson/Captain Marvel or Jen Walters/She-Hulk kind of real-person/wish-fulfillment ideal is pretty inspired.
On the downside, Thompson commits at least one mistake common to new comics writers with a background in prose: too many words spent on telling readers the story rather than simply having it unfold. See Kimber's two-and-a-half-page info-dump on her sister in the book's second scene, for example, although it's a sin likely borne of having to cram a lot into a first issue.
That's not a problem veteran writer Joe Casey has in his script for Miami Vice: Remix #1, which is finally hitting stands in a tree-killing format thanks to an alliance between IDW and digital comics publisher Lion Forge, which produced the content (and holds the licenses for plenty of other television shows of the era).
In full recognition that the show was always more about style than substance, Casey offers up a script that is equal parts cop-show cliches with outrageous subversions, leaving it up to Mahfood to explode every panel with over-the-top cartooning. The tiers of each page scroll by with a weird, jittery energy that looks more like stills from experimental animation than police procedural. Think MTV's Liquid Television as much as NBC's Miami Vice.
The book opens with four panels of establishing shots recalling scenes from the fairly iconic show opening, before plunging into its story. Sonny and Rico — neither looking all that much like the actors who played them, but certainly dressing in their costumes — lead a phalanx of police cruisers in a chase and end up being chewed out by their boss. While chasing a lead to a major player in the drug trade, the pair stumble upon a van full of gun-toting zombies.
Not Night of The Living Dead zombies, but White Zombie zombies. They're what happens when someone takes the new street drug "Miami Bath Salts," which are concocted by a drug dealer who speaks to the loa and has his office decorated in a Hollywood voodoo aesthetic.
That particular conflict — as well as the way in which the zombies are disposed of, and a crazy-ass psychedelic scene in which we see what it looks like when someone tries the drug — is impossible to imagine on TV ... certainly on a major network. Along with the language and violence, this is a Miami Vice that would have never aired, or ever have been pitched.
Mahfood, whose work is colored by Justin Stewart in neons so bright they would have sent viewers scrambling for their tint dials, fills his backgrounds and foregrounds with ridiculous amounts of chicken fat. Everything is excess and exaggeration, bordering on (and often leaping over) the line between "too much" and "just plain silly."
Given how incredibly talented both Campbell and Mahfood are, it's tempting to wish they were working on their own creations and concepts rather than on recycling old ones of dubious merit. That said, it's hard to imagine either of these comics being worthy of much attention without their participation, and there's certainly something to be said for allowing artists to follow their bliss.
After all, both are clearly into their subject matter here, and the results of great artists drawing stuff they're really excited about speak for themselves.