We Talk Jem and the Holograms with Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson might be new to the medium of comics as a writer but she has a lot of experience with both comics and creative writing, having previously worked in reporting on the medium, as well as working on creative writing projects.  She joined us to talk about her new series Jem and the Holograms.

jem001Graphic Policy:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the new series?

Kelly Thompson:  I was already talking to IDW about some work for hire and potential creator-owned work and so when Jem got announced my name was put forward as someone that might be interesting for it. I was of course all over it and since Sophie Campbell and I had been looking for something to do together for a few years and I knew she was a super fan of Jem it seemed like the perfect project to do together. We started working on our pitch right away. There were a lot of secret texts…sometimes just an all caps out of nowhere “JEM!” text…we were pretty excited.

GP:  Were you a fan of Jem as a child?

KT:  Yes, I was a big fan of Jem. Original creator Christy Marx did such a great job of making the show all about women. They had screen time and agency in a way that not many other women in cartoons at the time did. I’m sure as a kid I didn’t realize that was what I was responding to, but I knew there was something special about it, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it.

GP:  The original cartoon series often featured (relatively sedate) action sequences to appeal to a wider audience (boys).  Do you think that culture has moved to a place where we don’t need this any more?

jem002KT:  Well, I’m not sure how sedate it was! Right off the bat you have a car chase along a cliffside with The Misfits throwing instruments out of a moving vehicle and running Jem and The Holograms off the road. That’s pretty high-octane. There were also people falling off of cruise ships and getting trapped on deserted islands, volcanoes, people trying to run people over with steamrollers, fighting a bear! Quite a bit of action…I don’t know what kind of action you like but I’m not sure it was sedate!

That said, I think your larger point that the action elements were included in Jem specifically to appeal to boys and that it’s not necessary to do that these days to appeal to boys is interesting. I think for a cartoon in 2015 you’d still probably take that approach – i.e. making sure to include some action, but part of that is just because some action is cool and fun and creates natural drama and stakes. I think for the purposes of our comic there will definitely be less action both because we’re aiming for a slightly older audience that maybe doesn’t need that element as part of its draw and also just because of our medium change. Not that comics can’t handle action of course, some would say it’s what they do best (shameless Wolverine joke) but just that our panel time is extremely limited so having prolonged action sequences means other stuff has to get cut or pared back. There will be some action, but it’s definitely less than the show.

jem003GP:  The idea of an alter ego for a pop star is interesting considering the effects that fame can have on people, but do you think that fame is an unfortunate effect of success in pop culture, or part of the appeal?

KT:  Well, obviously this is a generalization, everyone is different, but I suspect for a lot of people fame may start out as part of the appeal and quickly become a really painful downside. Even people that get into it FOR the fame probably find out that it’s a real monster, a machine that constantly has to be fed and one that ultimately demands very high price for its rewards – like having zero private life. Sophie said at one time in our talks about Jem something like, Jerrica creating Jem is in fact a kind of ingenious solution to the insane demands of celebrity. I love that and think it’s both really accurate and fascinating for our storytelling purposes.

GP:  It can be hard sometimes for writers to switch between mediums, and you kind of have to delve a bit into songwriting.  Did you have a hard time coming up with lyrics for the songs?

KT:  It was definitely the thing I was most afraid of when I took this project on but it turned out to be one of the easier things to do. Like anything, if you’ve built your characters correctly, they’ll do most the work for you. So I just did a lot of research looking at music lyrics and song structures and then got into the head of whatever character was writing the music (mostly Jerrica, Kimber, or Stormer) and thought about what they were trying to say and it just started flowing.  I guess time will tell how well the readers think I handled it, though.

jem004GP:  Part of the appeal of the original series was the music, with each episode delivering new music videos.  Comics obviously can’t do this, but do you feel a need to compensate in some way?

KT:  Yeah, I think music is obviously the biggest hurdle we have in that we just cannot possibly duplicate actually hearing the music like the original show. As you’ve seen from the first issue we’re trying to approach the music in a really visual way, using color, icons, and movement to convey sound as an actual physical thing on the page. We’re also hoping to cut loose with some crazy and hilarious visuals for the videos.

GP:  What some people forget is that while Jem is a story about a young pop star, that there is still a strong science fiction element due to Synergy.  Do you think that writers limit themselves with the use of science fiction in more traditional ways without thinking outside the box?

KT:  Well, I’ve seen and read a lot of great science fiction that blows my mind, so while I’m sure there’s plenty of it out there that’s also uninspired or mines familiar territory, that’s usually not my experience. That said, I think Jem’s take on sci-fi, i.e. as this almost matter of fact element that’s actually incredible and highly influential and sort of crazily dangerous if used with ill intentions is fascinating. I hope we can explore some of that, especially as it pertains to celebrity.

GP:  One notable difference is the depiction of Jem, for instance with a significantly higher hemline than in the cartoons.  Do you think that female stars are empowered or exploited by the need to reveal more?

KT:  I don’t actually find the hemline to be that much higher. Jem’s old skirt was more asymmetrical than the first cover image Sophie did so I guess that gives the impression of ours being shorter, but all those ladies in the cartoons wore pretty short skirts, which as far as I’m concerned is really normal and realistic – they’re pop stars. The same way that superheroines probably shouldn’t be in super impractical unzipped and high-heeled outfits, pop stars kind of SHOULD be in those kind of outfits. It’s all a performance and in Jem’s case it’s literally an illusion and so it can (and should) be almost impossible and ridiculous. I think that female celebrities are held to impossible and frustrating standards. Be thin but not too thin, be sexy but not too sexy, be gorgeous but don’t be too confident, it’s exhausting. That said, I think many of our modern female celebrities have made a real effort to rise above that junk and embrace the power they have and have taken real ownership of their image, which is both impressive and encouraging.

GP:  Can you give us a bit of an idea about where the series is headed?

KT:  Well, for this first arc we’re exploring a fairly classic “battle of the bands” idea but with a modern update. Though some of our stories are obviously going to break further away form the original, the core idea remains to look at some of the classic storylines through a 21st century lens. One of the most fascinating things about Jem is how music, technology, and celebrity have changed since the 1980’s. So that’s the sweet spot to me, figuring out what those original stories would look like in a new context.