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!

Advertisements

Saga, Volume One: a review.

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, was one of the major comics sensations of 2012. I was excited to see it on the Hugo nominees list, since this would mean I’d finally have an excuse to make time to read it. The first volume introduces us to Alana and Marko, deserters from opposite sides of a vicious galaxy-spanning war. Despite the long-standing hatred between their peoples – humanoids with wings and horns, respectively – the two have fallen in love. Perhaps the most unusual element of Saga, though, and one that its first pages bring powerfully to the fore, is their baby. Saga is a story about love crossing battle lines, both romantic and parental.

Of course, now I feel a little ridiculous for trying to point out the “most unusual element of Saga“. This is a series that includes hostesses composed of enormous heads on legs. I still think, though, that it’s worth noting the unusual focus on parenthood. Few comics or speculative fiction (or popular culture in general) make raising a child an important part of the plot or thematic concerns, which is strange considering that parenthood is such a common and powerful experience. (I’m inclined to guess that this stems from our cultural tendency to assign parenting to women, and to focus on men’s stories over women’s, but there are undoubtedly other factors.) So the fact that Saga puts child-raising at the very center of its action-adventure story deserves significant notice. Vaughan and Staples are grabbing pop culture by the collar and saying “Hey! Taking care of babies is heroic! LOOK how badass these people are!” That’s basically pretty awesome.

Alana and Marko aren’t the be-all and end-all of Saga, though. They’re the central characters of a story that involves many more people, most of whom are trying to kill them, many of whom are sympathetic. Saga takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to speculative fiction, introducing us to robots, ghosts, and more beings who could easily be described as mythical creatures or aliens, but who fit best under the heading of “Saga characters”. (I’m personally especially enamored of The Stalk. You can tell how much fun Staples and Vaughan have with her.) The myriad characters and settings successfully give the impression of a big universe full of amazing things, without worldbuilding being much of a concern. With a few exceptions, nobody’s unilaterally bad; everyone is understandable and everyone is interesting. This is a great example of artist and writer working together as a team: there isn’t a secondary character in Saga whose dialogue and character design combined don’t make me want to know more.

These worthwhile antagonists are pretty important, because without that complexity Saga might be in danger of turning into an anti-war pro-tolerance tract. It’s pretty clear that the war between the wings and the horns is deeply pointless and cruel, and that the two sides’ hatred of each other is completely baseless, but so far there haven’t been any impassioned speeches for peace. (And if there were, you can bet they wouldn’t result in the enemy weeping and laying down arms.) We can tell, because we follow characters with a wide range of different involvements with the war, that there’s far more going on with this conflict than simple refusal to see reason. It’s supported by longstanding social custom and entrenched economic interests, just like wars in the real world. Alana and Marko, being generally practical types, aren’t trying to single-handedly make peace between their people, just to find a place to raise their daughter … but it seems that the two goals may be too entangled to separate.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks: a review.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a tricky thing to review. It’s the fifth part of what will eventually be a six-volume comics series. It would be completely silly to read Clockworks in isolation, and I would be nuts to try to write a review recommending it as though you were doing that. So I really have to convince you to read Locke & Key in general. But for all that it isn’t a stand-alone volume, Clockworks is a collection for good reason. The issues that comprise it belong in a book together: they’re structurally linked, and they form the intense crescendo that has to happen before the finale. This is really clearly the penultimate volume.

Okay, but what’s it about? Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family, whose lives are torn apart by the bloody, apparently random murder of Rendell Locke, husband to Nina and father to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. In the wake of this tragedy, the family move to Rendell’s childhood home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. (Yes, I know, the town is called Lovecraft. That heavy-handed name may be one of the series’ weakest points, and given what a minor complaint that is, it should indicate how highly I think of this comic.) But they can’t run away from their problems, especially not by going to Keyhouse, where an old and strange foe is hiding in plain sight. Tyler and Kinsey, a high-school aged boy and girl, find themselves having to cope with disasters and figure out what’s going on in some truly desperate situations. All the while, the reader knows where their enemy is and can only wait for them to realize what our omniscient perspective has already shown us.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Locke & Key as supernatural horror, but it would be missing a lot of the point. The supernatural elements are only a small part of what makes the comic disturbing when it’s disturbing, and often it aims for and achieves entirely different emotional tones. At its core, Locke & Key is exploring themes of family tragedy and growing up, and the awful things we do to each other when we’re going through such events. All of the Lockes are traumatized by Rendell’s death in different ways. Though the story primarily focuses on Tyler and Kinsey (and Bode, to a lesser extent), the serial format gives Hill the narrative space to explore other characters’ perceptions of events and their ways of coping. (The single issue that focuses most fully on Nina, “Beyond Repair”, is a piece of virtuosity that will break your heart.) At times the coexistence of supernatural threats and psychological issues gets a little awkward. When the narrative is really interested in the insides of the characters’ heads, the actual dangers that exist outside can seem a bit hokey or heavy-handed. In fact, by the end of volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom, the danger has begun to seem less pressing; the more times a threat shows up in an episodic structure, the more times the main characters have faced it down, after all. But Hill is ready for his readers to grow tired of his villain: the last few issues of Keys to the Kingdom heighten the stakes and change the rules of the game. Everything is clearly building toward a decisive confrontation.

The next issue is set in 1775. Clockworks begins by taking us back to the early days of the Locke family, who apparently can trace their roots to Revolutionary-era Lovecraft. This means that at the moment when dramatic tension is highest, Locke & Key suddenly introduces an entirely new set of characters and leaves the reader to twist in the wind wondering what’s happening to the Lockes we know. And it works. Much of Clockworks is concerned with a series of flashbacks, which fill in desperately needed information about the origins and nature of the strange things the Lockes have found in Keyhouse. What would have felt like stalling or exposition in another work becomes, in Locke & Key, the final few components of a terrible machine slotting into place. I am full of anticipation to see what this creation does in the sixth volume.

I would be greatly remiss to talk about a comic without mentioning the art, of course. Somewhat unusually for a comic published traditionally in print, Locke & Key has had a single artist throughout its publication. Gabriel Rodriguez does an amazing job of making the comic both visually enticing and, at the right moments, repulsive (and in a few extraordinary cases in Clockworks, both at once). The Lockes have a genuine family resemblance – they look alike, but not ridiculously so. In fact, Rodriguez gives all the characters’ faces a lot of individuality and character. I would definitely recognize any of these people on the street, and I doubt I would confuse them with anyone else. The most incredible panels, as in a lot of comics, are those where the writing and art come together to make an idea that could never have been expressed any other way.

The only reason I wouldn’t recommend Locke & Key to someone would be if I thought they would be bothered by the carnage. It’s a pretty bloody comic, from start to beginning. I wouldn’t say that the series glorifies violence or uses it for cheap shocks – the characters’ reactions show that the creators want to explore what actually happens when people whose lives are not violent suddenly have to cope with a lot of death and injury. Still, I know this isn’t for everybody; it definitely wouldn’t have been for me a year ago. But hey: even if you know you don’t like violence, give Locke & Key a try anyway. Seeing the Lockes come together is worth putting up with a lot.