Jem and the Holograms Outrageous Annual: a review

Okay, you’re reading Jem and the Holograms, right? You’ve heard that it’s the glammest, brightest, girliest thing on the shelves at your local comic book store, and that made you want to run out and give them all your money right away. Yeah?

… fine, technically speaking that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe you don’t look at this, see Jem’s spiraling pink hair taking up a full third of the cover space, and think “YES”. I’m here to tell you that whatever your first impressions, you still want to be reading Jem. Probably the fastest, easiest way to get a taste is to buy the first issue, or check out the first issue preview. But I recommend the recent Outrageous Annual as a better jumping-off point, one that gives a sense of each of the Holograms in turn and the conflicts they face individually and as a band.

Jerrica Benton and her sisters, Kimber, Aja, and Shana, play amazing music, but Jerrica’s stage fright keeps her from performing in front of anyone but the band – until she discovers Synergy, the hologram-generating AI the girls’ late father left them as a legacy. With Synergy’s help, Jerrica takes on the persona of Jem and the band, renamed Jem and the Holograms, rockets to stardom. The Outrageous Annual starts immediately after issue 6/the end of the first trade paperback, though the preceding issues’ context isn’t necessary. The whole band is way too pumped to sleep post-concert, so they’re having a movie night! … or so they think until they all conk out “six minutes later”. The rest of the annual shows us the girls’ pop-culture-tinged dreams. First Jerrica plays out the double life of “Jem Wolf”, then Aja drives into the wilderness “Beyond Thunder-Rotunda”, followed by Shana training her mystical powers in a swamp, and finally Kimber dreams up a much cuter and littler version version of the Holograms’ rivalry with the Misfits. In order, that’s Teen Wolf, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Muppet Babies – all 80s classics with current-day sequels or reboots. (Jem and the Holograms, of course, is also an 80s classic, so this is a neat bit of self-reference.)

These dreams dramatize the various conflicts faced by each member of the band. Jerrica resents and fears her doubled self Jem: does anyone like or want to see the real Jerrica, or do even her sisters wish she would disappear within her hologram? Aja struggles with identity as well; she both longs for and fears individuality and solitude, and doesn’t seem certain who she is when she’s on her own. Shana knows exactly what her quest is – to become a fashion designer – but feels her loyalty to her sisters and her band pulling her away from that dream. Kimber just wants the Misfits to stop being such complete assholes so she can have a fun time with her girlfriend. The pastiches of the dreams allow the narrative to essentially state these conflicts straightforwardly, without becoming boring. The interest comes in the cleverness of the allusions and the suggestions about how the Holograms will resolve their difficulties. For example, Aja and her sisters take off together in a Fury-Road-inspired big rig at the end of her dream – but Mad Max is alone at the end of each of his movies, so we still can’t be sure whether Aja will be striking out on her own or not.

Focusing on each major character of the leading team in turn is a time-honored technique in comics and TV shows, usually serving to allow each character time for development away from the demands of the plot. An annual is a particularly good choice for this: the events occur beside the main plot of a comic, and a double-sized issue allows space for all four of the Holograms. The major drawback of this sort of structure is that it may slow down the story or may seem like filler, if the characters’ depth doesn’t come across well or doesn’t seem well-integrated with the plot. But the Outrageous Annual, in addition to giving shading to each of the Holograms, manages to sneak in a few highly tantalizing plot notes in the elements which repeat between the mini-stories.

As the cover suggests, Synergy ties all the Holograms’ dreams together. The AI appears in each dream as a mentor or authority figure: an elder werewolf to Jem, Aunty Entity to Aja, Yoda to Shana, and Nanny to Kimber. (I’m personally especially fond of her Aunty Entity look. Drapey fabrics and body chains clearly suit her.) In each appearance, Synergy at some point utters an ominous cough or sneeze. These coughs have two intriguing and worrying implications.

First, obviously, Synergy is sick. The title of the storyline following this annual, “Viral”, more or less confirms that the AI is in danger. I’m very excited to see how the Holograms deal with the hyper-calm, hyper-powerful Synergy showing weakness and possibly being in danger or putting them in danger.

Second, maybe even more troubling, Synergy can influence the Holograms’ dreams. I admit this point is debatable, but I don’t see a better explanation for the evident fact that the Holograms are dreaming of a side of Synergy they’ve never seen and have no real reason to imagine. It might be plausible that the whole band was dreaming about their AI independently, but given the coughs, I think Synergy somehow caused the dreams, or at least purposefully entered them. Psychic powers would explain Synergy’s evident ability to generate “holograms” pretty much anywhere (at one point in the first volume, for example, she projects Jem entering a cab about a block away from Jerrica). She may be influencing the Holograms’ audience’s brains directly, rather than creating images. In addition, it seems from the last few pages of the annual that Synergy is aware of the personal conflicts each of her girls have been facing in their dreams.

The Jem and the Holograms Outrageous Annual offers a variety of stories, genres, and art styles, and represents the full range of Jem’s charms: from over-the-top musical cuteness to intense personal angst, from one-off delights to slow-burn narrative. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes comics, girl power, or just wants a fun story to read!

#ownvoices on Twitter respond to that ableist SF Signal post

After writing up my thoughts last night on Amy Sterling Casil’s ableist post on SF Signal (which, for what it’s worth, SF Signal apologized for), I started seeing discussions on Twitter about how Jim Hines’s post, one in which he seems to position himself as not disabled, was the primary response getting linked to and read. Hines’s post is fantastic and I’m very glad he made it, but with disability as with other axes of oppression, the voices of those who experience the marginalization directly need to be centered. Unfortunately, most of us had expended a lot of spoons last night discussing Casil’s ableism on Twitter, or even just reading the article. (Here’s the original post on spoon theory, and here’s the tl;dr version at Wikipedia, in case anyone’s unfamiliar with this metaphor.) One of the painful ironies of disability advocacy is that advocacy itself can use up the precious energy we need to go through our lives, resulting in abled people speaking for us when we prioritize living over fighting. I was lucky enough to have an abundance of spoons today, though, so I put together Storifies of some of the powerful words tweeted by disabled people yesterday and today. S. Qiouyi Lu also contributed a Storify, the first on this list. Please read these tweets and follow and support these incredible writers and advocates.

Responses to Amy Sterling Casil’s Column on SFSignal – S. Qiouyi Lu’s Storify, mostly collecting Rose Lemberg and Bogi Takács

My Storify of India Valentin’s tweets

My Storify of Bogi Takács’s tweets

My Storify of Lev Mirov’s tweets – cw for abusive Christianity as well as ableism

My Storify of Kayla Whaley’s tweets

Human flaws and disability: NOT the same thing

Earlier today, SF Signal put up a sickeningly ableist post by Amy Sterling Casil, which you can see at this link, courtesy of Rose Fox (obviously, trigger warning for ableism, especially against autistic people). The fact that SF Signal’s already taken the post down and I have to show it to you as a screenshot should give a sense of how they’re reacting to the outrage of disabled SFF fans – they’re desperately trying to cover their tracks. (ETA: SF Signal has now published an apology. I don’t stand by the previous sentence anymore, as they evidently aren’t attempting to hide the fact that they posted this thing.) The whole situation is an embarrassment to the SFF community. Jim C. Hines has a great post about it here. This paragraph from Hines’s post spoke to me:

“Everyone has limits and flaws, yes. That doesn’t mean everyone is disabled. Claiming otherwise dilutes both the terminology and our efforts to make the world more accessible to those with disabilities. Who needs accessibility policies if we’re all disabled?”

I’ve seen claims like Casil’s before, that imply or outright state that everyday limitations are identical to disabling conditions. The special, stomach-turning twist in Casil’s essay is that rather than rooting that nonsense in evident hatred of the disabled, she drapes it in supposed empathy and care for us. Typically, someone who pretends there’s no difference between abled and disabled people is trying to say that the disabled are faking, as a prelude to arguing that the services that keep us alive should be cut or even that we should be publicly shamed for existing and taking up space. Casil is essentially saying the same thing here – “no one really needs special care more than anyone else” is the necessary corollary to the central point of her essay. The fact that she manages to pretend that this violent lie stems from her empathy and even her maternal love makes it far more dangerous. I can actually imagine an abled person who cares about me reading an article like this and thinking it somehow enhances my dignity, and that horrifies me.

Casil has immersed herself fully in a flawed understanding of disability that I tend to think of as the “character balance” fallacy. In a tabletop RPG, character types are generally written to be balanced, so that each player will have a fun and interesting experience. A swordfighter might be better at up-close combat but vulnerable to magical attacks, for example, while a mage might have the ability to shoot long-distance firebolts but be unable to wear much armor. Ideally, characters have equal advantages and disadvantages. Some games even have systems where you can “buy” advantages with disadvantages. Want more points to spend on more impressive spells? Find something that will make your character’s life more difficult, and maybe you can make that work.

That’s fine for a game. But human lives don’t work like that. We, the disabled, do not receive special bonuses to make up for our suffering. Some of us do find meaning or community in our disabled experiences, but these positive aspects of disability do not somehow add up with the negative to make zero. It can be incredibly hard to accept this, hence the cliche “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. I personally constantly find myself wishing I had Daredevil-esque superpowers to make up for the “normal” abilities I lack or struggle with. But I don’t. And I know that I don’t. Only someone who does not live with the reality of disability firsthand could imagine that every single disabled person’s life is somehow enhanced by their disability, and that therefore disability is the same thing as character complexity.

It’s sad and painful to accept the realities of human suffering. It’s comforting to imagine that God never really allows anyone to experience disability, only struggle through which we grow as people. When abled people write these unthinking reactions to disabled people’s lives as though they are fact, they are heard and believed. That has to stop. I cannot accept the silencing, suffering, and death of people like me just so Amy Sterling Casil can pretend everything is okay.