Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Jem And The Holograms #11. Written by Kelly Thompson (Heart In A Box, Captain Marvel And The Carol Corps) with art by Sophie Campbell (Glory, Wet Moon) and colorist M. Victoria Robado (Littlest Pet Shop, Fragile), this issue is an excellent jumping-on point spotlighting the vibrant visuals and rich character drama that have made this series so engaging. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
It’s been a bleak January. Winter Storm Jonas battered the East Coast, the Academy Awards’ all-white acting nominations were a loud proclamation of the entertainment industry’s diversity problems, and some remarkable artists passed away, making this month feel especially cold, grim, and hopeless. Readers looking for something to lift their spirits will find an oasis in Jem And The Holograms #11. Wishing for warm weather? The band throws a pool party in this issue. Craving more diverse representation in characters and creators? Jem features a multiethnic cast that is primarily women, and has a diverse creative team of women in writer Kelly Thompson, transgender artist Sophie Campbell, and Argentinian colorist M. Victoria Robado. Missing David Bowie? Jem channels the glam rock spirit in its bold character design, and it’s all about creative expression and transforming one’s self through art, specifically music.
Jem And The Holograms is one of a number of recent comics dedicated to all-female bands, and it’s the one that spends the most time on the actual music. Music is a side gig for the lead characters in The Radioactive Spider-Gwen and Black Canary, and while those books have benefited from the bursts of rock ’n’ roll energy, they’re still primarily focused on advancing superhero narratives. This week’s Black Canary #7 soars when it finds ways to incorporate musical influences into the superhero action, like a brilliant page that makes a music staff the battleground for Dinah and a rampaging monster, but the group feels more like a superhero team that uses sound as a weapon rather than an actual rock band.
That’s not the case with Jem And The Holograms, which certainly has its fair share of fantastic elements, but is much more concerned with the characters’ relationship to their craft. The entire concept of the series is built around lead singer-songwriter Jerrica being afraid of performing in public until she’s given the means to project a glamorous holographic image of herself as the pink-haired Jem, which is all just one big metaphor for creating a new identity through art. This week’s issue begins by checking in on the girl band The Holograms are mentoring at their local community center, setting up a theme of interpersonal tension that will carry over to all the bands in this issue. The mentoring angle is one of the smartest aspects of Thompson’s concept for this book, and reinforces the idea of sisterhood that has helped create strong relationships between the female characters.
Much of this book’s first year has focused on building those personal bonds, but now it’s time for them to be tested. This week’s issue kicks off the “Dark Jem” arc, providing a sunny calm before the storm in the form of The Holograms’ pool party, but the final pages (and this issue’s multiple design variants) promise a severe shift in the group dynamic moving forward. That discord makes its way to The Holograms over the course of the issue, starting with their young mentees, then traveling to The Misfits, the rival band that has become considerably more sympathetic in the comic than the cartoon. The Misfits’ lead singer Pizzazz has lost her voice after surviving a car accident, and the band is secretly auditioning a new member to take Pizzazz’s place on their upcoming tour. All the drama in this issue is very grounded, establishing the current emotional landscape of the series before the fantastic force of a corrupted Synergy changes everything for the rest of the arc.
Artist Sophie Campbell returns to the book after four issues away, and while the fill-in artists have been more than satisfactory, they’re not on the same level as Campbell, who is doing masterful work with character designs and expressions on this title. She’s an integral part of this book’s appeal, and Thompson’s scripts come to life when paired with the specificity, imagination, and nuance of Campbell’s art. She’s one of the best character designers in comics—read more about Campbell’s design process and philosophy in this Comics Roundtable from last year’s Comics Week—and this issue highlights her skill for reflecting characters’ personalities in their clothing, makeup, and hairstyles.
Campbell’s talent is evident in the very first panel showing The Holograms sitting in plain clothes, and she uses hair and wardrobe to immediately draw distinctions between the women. Aja, the sportiest member of the group, wears her hair down and is dressed in an unfussy ensemble of black shorts and a gray T-shirt with the sleeves pushed up. Jerrica’s cardigan/dress/tights combo is cute and casual (as are her glasses and pixie haircut), and she’s the most covered up, which is appropriate considering how much more emotionally vulnerable she is compared to her sisters.
The design becomes more dramatic with Kimber and Shana. Kimber’s black minidress and red mohawk emphasize her exuberant personality and willingness to put herself out in the world, which is an important part of her character as an out bisexual, and Shana’s intense passion for fashion comes through in her chic separates, elaborate hairstyle, and use of accessories. These kinds of strong design choices can be found in every panel, and one of the most exciting things about this book is seeing what new outfits and hairstyles Campbell will create for the characters. M. Victoria Robado’s coloring plays a big part in that excitement, and Campbell’s designs pop on the page thanks to Robado’s vibrant, varied palette.
Campbell’s design work is particularly impressive because of how much attention she gives to different body types, and creating clear distinctions in height, weight, musculature, and facial bone structure makes each character a unique entity in the cast. This is spotlighted by this issue’s big pool party, and having everybody in their swimsuits shows off the astounding range of body types Campbell depicts for both men and women. Everyone has their own individual body, and they use it in their own individual way thanks to Campbell’s focus on body language. Jerrica’s transformation at the end of the issue lands with a big impact because of the huge change in her style—her sexy single-strap shark swimsuit is especially effective as a contrast to her earlier look—but also because of how her posture is so much more confident and assertive. Thompson doesn’t have to do much to show how Jerrica has changed because Campbell’s visuals do all the heavy lifting, and her design variants for this issue reveal a lot about how the rest of the band will be changing in the future.
In a recent Comics Panel review of Boom! Studios’ Mighty Morphin Power Rangers #0, I wrote about how licensed comics are elevated when they use the medium to try something new with the property, and that’s exactly what the Jem And The Holograms creative team accomplishes. They’ve kept the soul of the original TV series intact while giving the concept, characters, and aesthetic a major modern upgrade, resulting in one of the best comics available for young female readers (although readers of all ages and genders can find something to appreciate in its pages). Full of emotion, style, and attitude, this series brings new substance to the Jem concept, serving as a sterling example of how to reinterpret a property for comics.