Lost in Transition: ‘Jem and the Holograms,’ Blaze and the Misfits, and Idols and Their Pedestals
Hi, I’m Charlotte Finn. I’m a lifelong comics fan and I’m transgender.
Coming out as transgender means reassessing a lot about your life, your place in the world, and what that world’s been telling you about yourself before you even realized who you really were. In this occasional series, I’m going to be applying that reassessment to comics that feature people like me, or close to being like me, and look them over with a fresh set of eyes.
Are they good? Are they bad? Are they somehow both, at the same time? In this series, I’ll offer my thoughts.
Jem and the Holograms
Story: Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Art: Sophie Campbell
Colors: M. Victoria Robado
Letters: Shawn Lee, Tom Long, Robbie Robbins
Editor: John Barber
Publisher: Ted Adams for IDW Publishing
Jem and the Holograms created by Christie Marx
Jem and the Holograms is bananas.
This will come as no shock to anyone who’s watched the series through adult eyes, but not everyone has, so again: Jem and the Holograms is bananas. It’s the equivalent of a low-key superhero universe where there’s a lot less crimefighting, a lot more women with agency, and everything is kept exactly as colorful and melodramatic as before. That we made it to issue 12 and only just now are getting a mind control plot speaks volumes to the restraint of the creative team. I imagine that the Holograms will have to shrink down to repair Synergy before too long.
Jem and the Holograms is about an all-woman glitter rock band and their quest to rise from the ranks of the Sufficiently Outrageous to become Truly Outrageous. (I look forward to the Brit pop spinoff and their endeavors to become Quite Dashedly Outrageous.) The group has run into a problem: the lead singer, Jerrica, is terrified of singing in public. Thanks to Jerrica’s deceased father, though, they also have a solution: a holographic supercomputer that helps Jerrica create a stage persona that lets her get over her phobia.
There would be a lot of resonant storytelling with me if it just stopped there, since having decided to start my new identity out online to start with, I know a thing or two about how a persona you can put on and take off can make things easier –- and harder. Like Jerrica, I also have a secret identity (there’s that superhero stuff again.) However, sometimes solutions just free you up to tackle new problems, and the new problem that plagues Jem and the Holograms is their rival band, the Misfits, who claim that their songs are better and that they are going to get her.
What stands out about this book overall is how well designed it is, thanks largely to the efforts of the series’ chief artist Sophie Campbell and colorist M. Victoria Robado. They paint a world where music is a tangible force and where glitter and neon are the fourth and fifth states of matter. Every woman looks different, with a wide array of body types beyond the stock outlines, to the point you can pick them out based solely on their silhouettes.
Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell also avoid the impulse to just make it a nostalgia play by having everything updated to reflect a more contemporary sensibility, with a diverse array of racial backgrounds, and with Kimber and Stormer in a tumultuous relationship strained by them being members of rival bands. One such result of this sensibility is Leah Dwyer, AKA Blaze, who debuts in issue #3 and is a new character created for the series. She’s the backup singer for the Misfits, replacing Pizazz after her car accident, and was revealed in issue #12 to be transgender.
Right off the bat, several interesting parallels are set up with Jerrica/Jem – they’re both lead singers, both struggling with fears related to their identities, and both unsure who to trust with them. They both have secret identities of a sort, and keep them secret so that they can be more comfortable in situations that make them uncomfortable. There are also interesting contrasts, in that Blaze is the newcomer to the Misfits, whereas Jerrica is very much the core of the Holograms.
The actual reveal to the Misfits, however, is somewhat clunky. To explain why, I'll have to outline for anyone who might not be familiar with it what being open or secretive about one’s identity means for trans people.
Blaze is living in stealth, which in transgender terms means that she does not usually let on that she’s transgender, and as far as anyone’s concerned she is a cisgender woman. It’s like having a secret identity, and guarded just as carefully. Not all transgender people live in stealth --- not all have the option, since not all of us can readily pass as a cisgender version of our gender identity --- but all transgender people have the right to live in stealth, if for no other reason than because trans people are still subject to elevated levels of violence and mistrust.
(As an aside, I do love how, at her most anxious, the linework making up Blaze exceeds the panel boundaries. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but it works very well.)
So who to trust with one’s identity as transgender is a personal choice, and under most circumstances, a trans person is justified in not letting people in on it. Blaze feels that in order to be a part of the Misfits, she has to let them know, and talks it out with her sister.
Within three panels, Blaze’s sister goes from saying Blaze doesn’t have to reveal being transgender to insisting that she has to, and the train of logical argument that leads from point A to point B doesn’t seem very clear. The argument that she should tell them is given a counterpoint that feels weightless, so it falls short as an examination of the pros and cons of stealth.
And yet: I’m not sure if this is actually a flaw --- or rather, if it’s a flaw that diminishes the book. Flaws in storytelling and flaws in characters aren’t the same thing, and if Blaze is a transgender character who feels insecure in her identity to the point she feels the need to do something no trans person really has to, I can sympathize with that. I’ve been there myself, even in instances where I made a different choice than Blaze did. It has the ring of truth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sophie Campbell was drawing from her own experiences with being transgender.
(The comic lists Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell as both contributing to the story, and while I’m not sure what the precise creative breakdown would be, it would literally be impossible for this sequence to have made it into print without Campbell’s approval. I’m comfortable believing that there is something of Sophie Campbell in Blaze.)
So, if Blaze isn’t a well-versed education vector on the appropriate times to come out as transgender, then that raises the question: does she need to be?
The lives and needs of transgender people is a hot zone in the ongoing culture wars, so any time fiction wanders into the line of fire there will be intense pressure to pick the right side and shoot straight. That the pressure is there is obvious; whether or not the pressure is fair is another story. To have every trans character come out with a fully formed, widely agreed upon perspective on the rights of transgender people is a good educational tool, but I can’t help but think of Juliet Khan’s essay on how women in comics aren’t allowed to be flawed in the way that men are, and how that notion intersects with transgender characters among other intersections of marginalization, and gets magnified by them.
Jem and the Holograms is a comic about fame (also: glamour, glitter, fashion). Being famous means you influence people, and so there is pressure on you to be perfect --- or at least, if you’re flawed, to have the “right” kind of flaws. Sellable, relatable flaws that fit a stereotype of whatever category you fall into. That careful quota of imperfections is a box all its own, restricting what a marginalized person can say, do, and be. I’m not sure if Blaze’s insecurity is the kind of flaw that’s allowed inside the box or not. But the real problem is that the box exists.
In a world where there were an ample supply of transgender characters, from all the walks of life that trans people take, some could be great advocates and some could be bad. Some could be paragons, or screw-ups, as the story demands. But that’s not the media landscape in general, or the comics landscape in particular, that we live in right now. So the characters that we have are under pressure to be the perfect advocates. They're turned into idols and put up on pedestals, even though it’s unfair --- because it’s that unfairness that creates the necessity in the first place.
It’s even more unfair for Blaze the fictional character in our world rather than Blaze the singer in hers. Blaze the singer at least chooses to pursue fame, with all its demands. Blaze the fictional character has it thrust upon her, with all our expectations for what a trans character can be thrust along with it. Her sister can lie, cheat, sabotage, scheme, and even attempt murder --- but Blaze herself can't be an imperfect advocate.
I’m not sure what the way out of the box is, other than to create more transgender characters and make sure some research goes into them, so the scarcity of representation that’s at the root of this problem is lessened. Blaze’s creation does all of this, so in the end, I’m glad that Blaze exists and I want to read more about her. Advocacy aside, Blaze is a girl who gets to be who she really is, and do what she always wanted to do, and to do it with hair the color of candy corn. There’s nothing wrong with straight wish fulfillment, and she really is a great compliment to Jem’s status as that kind of character.
I’m going to keep reading in the hopes that they someday team up to fight Synergy’s evil computer-twin, Disharmony, from the mirror universe.
(Thompson, Campbell: you can have that one for free.)