Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Dark Jem by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell

Cover of Dark Jem, featuring a menacing white woman clutching a microphone. She has pink hair and wears a dress that seems to creep up her shoulders.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

DARK JEM [Amazon | The Book Depository] is the third volume of JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, writer Kelly Thompson and artist Sophie Campbell’s take on the 80s icon. I must confess, I’ve been a bad Jem fan--I missed most of Volume Two, VIRAL. As per the comics tradition, though, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of DARK JEM. Yes, I’m sad I’ll have to read those vol 2 issues later than I might’ve done, but the story itself works perfectly well without them in the mix because Thompson and Campbell carefully seed their story with reminders as to the series’ overall premise and what’s happened in the recent past. I caught up easy-peasy and settled in to enjoy the ride.

Which is GREAT. Like, super-great. Like, all the Jemerrific goodness I loved in volume one with an extra dose of “let’s play with the wider comics tradition” in the mix. It delighted me and made me gasp in horror; my most favouritest combination, made all the better because it happened within one of my favourite comics.

The basic story is as follows: something’s wrong with Synergy, the AI the Holograms use to craft Jerrica’s stage persona and all their special effects. Really wrong. “Hey, let’s brainwash everyone,” wrong. Eep! Jerrica quickly falls under Synergy’s spell, and the other Holograms aren’t far behind her. With their new sound, they look set to infect everyone with Synergy’s pernicious virus and turn the world into a dark yet orderly hellscape.

Unless they can break Synergy's hold, round up a few helpers, and save everyone.

I had so much fun with this volume. Tropes bring me a special sort of joy when they pop up in less expected places, and Thompson and Campbell deliver their own spin on a ton of tropes without sacrificing the sort of character-centric drama I’ve come to expect from JEM.

Dark Hero storylines are a longstanding comics tradition, seen most often within a superheroic context but easily transferrable to musical drama. The Holograms’ Dark Selves set out to change everything their normal selves have built up without damaging their prestige. They dye strategic chunks of their hair black, wear (extremely cool) torn clothes, and behave coldly to everyone, including their closest friends. It’s a dramatic shift from the everyday, which makes it both fun (yay, new angles!) and scary (will they alienate everyone and/or destroy their fanbase before they snap out of it?).

I trust I’m not spoiling anything for y’all when I say that yes, they do manage to snap themselves out of it. And that’s the kicker: they either save themselves or get help from Jerrica instead of being rescued by their boyfriends and girlfriends, all of whom are on hand (and do provide Jerrica with some assistance in rounding everyone up). It’s a girl-power fix, as all devoted Jem fans knew it would be, and the ultimate solution to the Evil Synergy problem rests in another of my favourite superhero tropes: the Unlikely Team-Up. Whee!

Which brings us to the Misfits. The Holograms are the main characters and their battle with Synergy’s dark side forms the backbone of this volume, but Thompson and Campbell are also interested in recent changes with the band’s greatest rivals. With Pizazz still recovering from a car crash, the Misfits need a new lead singer fast. They settle on Blaze, their lackey Clash’s friend, who it turns out has an awesome set of pipes on her. Blaze, however, is worried they’ll kick her out of their all-girl band when they learn she’s trans. She gets a coming out speech that hurt my heart, peppered with “here’s who I am and I understand if you don’t want me around even though you’re really really wrong to feel that way,” and her new band members’ reactions are right in keeping with the series’ overall themes.

I love it when even the people we’ve been set up to see as antagonists, if not outright villains, aren’t transphobic. Hurray for safe, inclusive comics!

The art is fabulous as always, of course. Campbell’s character designs make my soul sing. Everyone is adorable, and it’s explicitly stated that they’re attractive no matter their body type. Women and men alike range from very skinny to very fat, and their admirers find them super-duper cute with no alterations required.

I also feel like Campbell has upped her visual musical game since volume one. She was great to begin with, but now does a truly phenomenal job of showing the discordance in the mind control music, in particular. Even the regular songs are so evocative that I felt like I was listening to them instead of reading them. I love her work so much that I was tempted to type, "SOPHIE CAMPBELL IS AWESOME" fifty or sixty times and let that stand as my review, but I figured y'all might prefer a few reasons to back that statement up.

JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS has officially secured its place on my list of stuff I recommend to every sighted person. Once again, I’m tagging it YA because there’s some scary stuff in here, but I see no reason fearless children (or children who recover quickly from frights) couldn’t also read it. The women are never sexualized, and all the (super sweet) romances stay in the physical realm of kisses and hugs--at least on the page. And Campbell’s art really is the cutest thing ever.

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