Pizzazz Is The Hero Of Her Own Story: Kelly Thompson Talks ‘Dark Jem’
Jem and the Holograms has been one of the best comics on the stands ever since its debut, and one of the things that really makes it work is how it expands on the original cartoon in ways that make perfect sense. Jerrica’s stage fright, Stormer and Kimber’s super-cute relationship, and the recasting of Rio as a music reporter put off by Jem’s standoffish nature, have all helped to build Kelly Thompson, Sophie Campbell and Emma Vieceli‘s story into a great, fleshed-out world.
Now, with “Dark Jem” kicking off this week, they’re turning that world upside-down. The Misfits have lost a lead singer, the Holograms are going dark, and something’s wrong with Synergy. To find out more, ComicsAlliance spoke with Thompson about the direction for the next arc, the challenge of making Pizzazz and the Misfits sympathetic, and why the current arc has an awful lot to do with The Karate Kid.
ComicsAlliance: Before we get into “Dark Jem” itself, I want to talk for a little bit about the end of the last arc, specifically what happens to Pizzazz.
Kelly Thompson: Everyone loves Pizzazz!
CA: It’s true. I loved how that all went down. Like a lot of what you’ve done, it has the feeling of something that would’ve happened in the cartoon — there were a lot of cars going off cliffs in that show — but taken one step past that to something that works really well with those characters. Literally taking away Pizzazz’s voice is something that seems so obvious in retrospect, but I never expected it to happen.
KT: Yes! I’m so glad that landed that way for you. That’s definitely my favorite kind of writing to experience as a reader — the kind that surprises you, but in retrospect seems totally obvious. 10 points to Slytherin! (A highly scientific quiz I took tells me I’m Slytherin.)
Pizzazz’s voice is her whole world — not just her asset that has made her famous and adored and respected, but also the thing she uses to dominate people — in both admirable and less admirable ways. Taking it away seemed like the obvious way to force her to grow. And grow she shall! But she’ll always still be Pizzazz.
CA: It’s her defining characteristic, not just as as a singer, but as a character — the first thing you think about when she comes to mind is Patricia Alice Albrecht shrieking “Eric, doooo something!” — or just, you know, shrieking in general — and I loved seeing Sophie Campbell figure out a way to show that visually in the first arc. Taking that away puts the focus on her as a tragic figure in a way that’s really interesting. Was that always something you wanted to do with her?
KT: Yeah, we always intended to dig a bit deeper into all of the characters. Slowing down the arcs so that a traditional “battle of the bands episode” takes six issues, and eliminating or cutting back on some of the other stuff in the periphery (the Holograms running a ‘home for girls’, Jerrica running Starlight Music, etc.) allowed us to do that in a more realistic way I think. And Pizzazz, as leader of our rival band and a fascinating character in her own right, was always at the top of the list to dig into more deeply.
I’m a big fan of two things that meant fleshing out Pizzazz was imperative. First of all, your heroes are only as interesting as your “villains,” and secondly, nobody is just “evil” for the hell of it. There’s a reason behind everything, and really digging into Pizzazz’s issues, why she is like she is, just makes her far more interesting and relatable.
You know that whole adage of nobody is the villain in their own story… that really resonates to me for Pizzazz. To her eyes she’s the hero of her story and Jem are clearly the villains.
CA: What’s really interesting about it is that you have this story where the Misfits are literally dressed as the bad guys from The Karate Kid, but the next issue humanizes them in a way that’s usually reserved for Stormer.
KT: Yeah, I mean, obviously we’re playing with that, but we also sort of literally put it on the page in a meta way with the characters arguing about those costumes and whether they’re really the villains or not. Like Stormer sees them that way and so doesn’t want to be dressed that way as she doesn’t see herself as a villain… but the others are more flexible talking about villainy being a matter of perspective.
Also, I mean, this is sort of deep Karate Kid baseball, but there’s a whole funny alternate theory that presents Johnny as the hero in Karate Kid… it’s got some holes but it’s hilarious and hits on a few points pretty well, which feels very Pizzazz to me, getting scope-locked on how she has been slighted the wrongs committed against her…while ignoring the awful stuff she does.
It was a bit of a fight with Emma getting those costumes in there. She wanted to draw cute fun stuff I think and I was like no. This is important. [Laughs]
CA: Okay, listen: I really want to talk about Dark Jem, but you can’t just drop “Johnny is the hero of The Karate Kid” on me and not elaborate on it.
KT: Ha, here’s a link (there are many). It’s basically just a dissection of the movie to show that in a way, Daniel was the real bully. And I’m not saying I subscribe to it — like I said, it’s got holes — but there are some great points… the best of which I think is that Johnny’s opening dialogue is that he’s trying to get his life on the right track. And then Daniel inserts himself into a fight between Johnny and Allie… and no doubt Johnny was being a jerk, but let’s be real, who among us can say we haven’t been a jerk to an ex?
The other great bit of evidence is that when there seems to be “peace” between them — Daniel starts everything back up himself by turning the hose on Johnny in the bathroom at the Halloween party… thus instigating the war all over again.
So yeah, Karate Kid as metaphor for Pizzazz and Jem/Jerrica is pretty spot on to me. It’s easy to see how Pizzazz sees herself as Johnny — talented, popular, running s—… and then this nobody comes in and starts messing up her life.
CA: To be fair, Johnny and his friends literally try to murder Daniel while dressed as skeletons. Wait, does that make the guy who says “he’s had enough” the Stormer of the Cobra Kai dojo? He’s the one who apologizes for sweeping the leg, too!
KT: Yes! Stormer is totally the Bobby of Karate Kid. See, we’re on the same page now. You can see why it was so important I get them in those costumes! [Laughs] Like I said, I don’t subscribe to the theory myself…but I can absolutely see how Pizzazz would!
I also had a friend in college that set up a club called the Cobra Kais when she was in junior high… and I was all “you were the villains?!” so obviously these ideas have been rolling around my head for a long time… glad I finally got to put them to use in Jem this past year!
CA: So you have this arc where the villains become extremely sympathetic, something that we see through Rio’s eyes as he tries to do his best to protect them from the media that he’s a part of, and then you immediately go into a story where the heroes have a darker edge to them.
KT: Yeah, I suppose it’s all connected under that blanket of everyone have layers. Nobody (not even Jerrica… or Shana) is 100% good all the time, it would be impossible, so exploring those edges, the layers that make human beings so complex is important to me — showing the sympathetic layers of the Misfits and the darker side of the Holograms.
But more specifically to the Dark Jem arc, I think you just can’t expect to tell a story that involves a highly advanced AI and not address the possibility of that AI “going bad” or “going wrong.” There have to be repercussions to having something that powerful at your disposal. Nothing in life is free, kids!
CA: Right. On the show, Synergy is originally presented as something that’s at least a little scary — she shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm and terrorizes a grief-stricken Jerrica for a minute — but she very quickly just becomes Friendly Computer Aerobics Mom.
KT: Yeah, and she is that for us to I suppose…until now. Dun dun dunnnnnn.
CA: How did you approach setting that up? I know that it’s been building for a while, like the dream sequences in the Halloween Special where Synergy appeared “sick.”
KT: Yeah! I was so happy when I saw some readers were getting that in the annual — her little coughs in each of the dreams of the Holograms. So I think that was the first time we put anything in there to specifically tip the hat to readers that something was up. Sophie and John and I have known we were doing Dark Jem as arc three since early summer I think, but that was the first time a tease of something being wrong was on the page.
And then we followed up with Techrat trying to hack the Holograms and coming up against Synergy but not really knowing what he was seeing (since AI doesn’t really exist yet) but him being savvy enough to know that there was something wrong with it — almost like a virus. It’s no accident that that arc is called “Viral,” which works on a couple levels for us.
CA: Not to get too spoilery, but does that mean this is something that happens as a result of Techrat’s tinkering, or something that was within Synergy all along?
KT: I think it was in her all along… but maybe Techrat’s trying to get in/messing with her sort of pushed it to the forefront, or released it or something? Like it probably always would have happened, but it’s now happening sooner because Techrat was messing around and trying to get in. So a little bit of both.
CA: A podcast that I listen to — and that I’ve been on — the Jem Jam, has pointed out that Synergy seems to have a weird malevolent streak in her even on the show. Jerrica will give her these very vague instructions, like, “I need a distraction” and Synergy will interpret that as, “Terrorize my enemies with bears or dinosaurs.”
KT: Haha. Yeah, the Jem Jam is so great! I’m terrible about listening to podcasts — I should be writing! — but I have listened to all their reviews of our book and a few of their show reviews — so fun. And yeah, I think that Synergy, by design or for convenience’s sake — to up the stakes and keep some exciting tension — ends up seeming a little dark in how she “problem solves.”
I think as people it’s impossible not to imagine that AI would have to go wrong. As people we have so many layers, and if something has sentience it will surely have layers as well… the very experience of being sentient would mean you develop layers… and then AI has all these powers, whether they’re super strong robots or beings that can create perfect holograms… that power becomes pretty scary in the hands of something flawed and “human.”
CA: You’ve mentioned the ideas of “going bad” and “going wrong,” and it makes me wonder if Synergy is malevolent or well-intentioned. When we see… whatever it is she does to Jerrica in #11, it’s something that only becomes sinister with the “Oh, you do not like it” panel.
KT: Yeah, I mean, I think that we use “going bad” as a shorthand, but, and again, this goes back to how I approach villains, as readers will see, what Synergy (and eventually Silica) wants is something that’s terrifying to us (control), but to her just makes sense. She wants people to “be the same.” She basically wants to use her sound, which she believes is beautiful and “right” to affect change in the world.
Early on, Sophie and I talked a lot about not wanting the “dark designs” to be seen as “bad” or “evil” — that we weren’t making a comment on whatever this sound was and the effects it had on people as being bad because of the way it manifested in a look or change, but just because it wasn’t who the people really were inside… that they were being overridden by something else. And that something else wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t who they really were. So the way Dark Jerrica looks for instance is… quite frankly… amazing, but it’s not her and that’s what makes it wrong.
CA: Hang on: Silica?
KT: Ha, Shoot… now I don’t know if I was supposed to say that. No, I’m pretty sure that’s out there in the solicits already… so I can say it:
Jem and the Holograms #14: Dark Jem, Part 4
Kelly Thompson (w) • Sophie Campbell (a & c)
The HOLOGRAMS reluctantly try to disconnect SYNERGY to stop the DARK JEM infection from spreading—but it’s far too late. SYNERGY is gone… and what’s taken her place isn’t under anyone’s control. In fact—SILICA is striking out on her own!
CA: I have to say, “Silica” is the perfect name for a doll that would’ve been released around Season 4, if it had ever happened.
KT: Haha. Yeah. Sophie and I went back and forth on several names… I think Silica was Sophie’s name, but it was perfect and we both knew it. And it’s not just a great sounding name… given what effect her music has on people, the definition is a great match… like it makes sense that an AI would name herself Silica to me.
CA: So we’ve got Jem and the Holograms seemingly possessed, Synergy evolving and going rogue, and the Misfits being down a singer just in time for their West Coast tour. Is there anything else we can expect from “Dark Jem?”
KT: Yessss. So much. God, what can I say that’s not going to ruin things and get me in trouble?
You’re going to see an awesome Dark Jerrica design in the first issue, one of my favorite designs Sophie has done actually! And coming up in the arc you’re going to see a kind of fascinating moment with Jem/Jerrica and Rio, PIzzazz totally out of her element having (temporarily at least) lost her band. Blaze stepping into the spotlight, the Holograms making some tough choices… and maybe even Holograms and Misfits working together? Can it be? We also have a pool party… because if I could put a pool party in every issue I would.
To be honest, it was really hard and borderline emotionally gutting to write the Holograms as “dark” versions of themselves. It wasn’t something I thought much about, that it would be difficult to do, emotionally. I was just thinking about the plotting and how it was going to push our stories and characters forward, but when it came time to write them it was… really sad. They are such loving and caring, funny, smart girls and to write them as sort of cold and disaffected… man, it gutted me. And Sophie, even though she enjoyed designing them, hated drawing them that way.
A couple times I thought she was going to just flat out refuse especially in the Kimber/Stormer scenes. Kimber is so open and vibrant, so giving and kind. She drives you nuts but her heart is an open book… so seeing her be cold to Stormer… gah. It was too much for either of us! But I think it will be worth it. I hope so!
CA: You mentioned Blaze, and that’s something that we see starting in #11, too. When she steps up, how does that affect her relationship with Clash and the Misfits?
KT: Well, I think everyone knows that Blaze can’t replace Pizzazz… well, everyone but Pizzazz knows it, but she folds pretty easily into The Misfits, she’s not the diva that Pizzazz is, and so it’s a pretty easy transition. Her relationship with Clash has always been complex and it remains that way in both good and bad ways. We see a huge moment for their relationship in issue #12 that I love.
CA: I know that Blaze was a character that you and Sophie created for the comics, so was it always the plan to have her step into the spotlight like this?
KT: Yeah, the original idea, before we even came up with Blaze, I think, was Sophie saying she wanted a “Fifth Misfit” and then eventually it sounded like “FIFTH MISFIT! FIFTH MISFIT! FIFTH MISFIT!” so I had to give in. [Laughs] I thought the idea of a fifth Misfit was really cool, but I thought it might be more interesting to have her take Pizzazz’s place instead… which makes it sort of dramatic and awful for everyone and thus a better story for me to tell.
So then Sophie and I started developing Blaze (mostly Sophie though) and it was obvious she should be the “fifth Misfit” or Pizzazz’s replacement.
CA: Final question: How great did it feel to finally write Rio kicking a plant, and will “Dark Jem” include Jerrica turning herself into a surfboard?
KT: [Laughs] It felt so great to have Rio kick that plant… but even better to have him then apologize and put it back. And Dark Jem will not include Jerrica turning herself into a surfboard (my favorite of all the show Holograms!) but I think I’ve found a way to work it into a future arc. It will be my greatest moment!
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