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!

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.

Mantis Wives: a review.

Before I get down to my review of “Mantis Wives”, a couple of quick pieces of housekeeping. First, welcome to anyone who got here from Rush-that-Speaks! I hope I can keep up with the high expectations Rush’s readers must have. (And thank you so much for the link, Rush!) Second, a note: I’m not going to avoid spoilers in this review as I have been doing so far. Personally I really dislike getting spoiled for things, but I also find it much easier to say interesting things when I feel I don’t have to worry about spoiling people. So my plan for works that my audience can read quickly for free online, such as “Mantis Wives”, is to write whatever seems interesting in the assumption that if you care, you can go read it first.

***

“I doubt that enough feminist scholars and theorists have taken the pains to acknowledge the societal forces that wrench women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values. These forces, as I shall try to show, range from literal physical enslavement to the disguising and distorting of possible options.” – Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, 1980.

“Mantis Wives” is one of the most hauntingly queer stories I’ve ever read. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. The story is obviously quite unusual; it has essentially no plot or characters, only the barest sketches of a setting. It’s more like some kind of historical or instructional work than like a story, but it is also powerfully lyrical. I could reread that prose for days; it is as intricately crafted an artwork as the killings it describes. My real joy in “Mantis Wives”, though, comes from the queer sexuality that it articulates in between the lines of the lives mantises can imagine.

The story does a disturbingly good job of making us understand the beauty and the necessity, and yet also the needlessness and horror, of mantis sexuality. The narrator (whoever it is – more on my suspicions below) clearly knows that her readers will find it hard to believe that torturing one’s lover to death could be good, or good art. And so she justifies it to us over and over, often with rhetorical questions: “What else could there be between them?” She claims that mantis men desire these outcomes as much as their wives, despite the occasional resistance they seem to offer. (Given that mantis women do not ask their husbands about their experiences, we are left to wonder how a single speaker came to be so certain that both genders’ desires are for this violence.) There is, in the imagination of this narrator, probably no other way; several possibilities for kindness turn out to be nothing more than another variation in the infinite listing of artful deaths, and anything not within this framework “may be a trap”.

I hope that by now you’ve worked out where I’m going with this. There is in our society a structure of sexuality that appears to offer as many variations as it has participants, that is ideologically tied to the furthering of the species, and which it often seems impossible to question. Adrienne Rich called this “compulsory heterosexuality”; in other words, not just heterosexual sex, but the whole culture that makes heterosexuality in a very particular form seem beautiful, natural, and inevitable. The difficult thing is that with something like conventional heterosexual romance, a culture-wide belief that it is beautiful, natural, and inevitable more or less makes these things true. In “Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson demonstrates how the process of interpreting biological drives into cultural production can inextricably link beauty and violence. It’s a deeply important argument, and one I’m thrilled to see getting as significant an acknowledgment in the SF community as a Hugo nomination.

“Mantis Wives” appears to offer no hope. In this way it reminds me very strongly of Tiptree’s short stories, which also often make tragic feminist commentary without offering utopian solutions. (Tiptree also has a deft hand with deeply alien minds and cultures; “Mantis Wives” is clearly powerfully indebted to “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death”.) In my opinion, however, “Mantis Wives” is not actually saying that mantises (or people) can never truly love each other without doing horrific things. This is where the unusual structure comes into play. Most narrative prose elides the question of who is telling the story and to whom. “Mantis Wives”, written as some kind of informational work, suggests strongly that the narrator is one of the people in this world, and is speaking to people who are real to her. My interpretation is that the narrator is a female mantis explaining the facts of life to a younger female, helping her understand what she will do soon and why it has to be this way. But our narrator is very concerned that we might not be convinced. Why else would she be so careful to tell us that the queer other life we have been dreaming of may be a trap? And yet, if she herself has never dreamt that dream, why does she only say “may”? Queer mantis sexuality, in which the distinctions between husband and wife are dissolved and the dreamer is only “a mantis”, is the only option for survival. Even as the explicit text claims that living, too, is dangerous, the structure of the story makes the reader’s mind insist that it must be possible.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance: a review.

I’ve been a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I first encountered The Warrior’s Apprentice in my mom’s friend’s house, about five years ago. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Bujold’s latest book, is a delightful science fiction romance, the latest in her thirty-year-career-spanning Vorkosigan Saga. Science fiction and romance can easily be a bad combination – either genre can end up feeling like an afterthought – but Bujold is a master of that mixture. Human relationships and emotions are frequently a focus of her work, and though I think only three Vorkosigan books count as romance novels per se, far more of them could easily be called romantic novels.*

In many ways, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance resembles the earlier A Civil Campaign (which may be all the recommendation Vorkosigan fans need). Its central plot is the developing relationship between Captain Ivan Vorpatril and Tej Arqua, the circumstances of which are sometimes dramatic and sometimes comic, but always light. The Vorkosigan Saga in general tends to unfold at an intense pace, with the turns of the plot sometimes making one dizzy, but where this style makes some of the novels military thrillers and some of them harrowing explorations of character, in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance the impression is one of farce. The secondary plot, which involves intergalactic intrigue and various clever/harebrained schemes, is exciting and funny and interesting, but never eclipses Ivan and Tej; the really important thing about all that machination is how it gets in the way of the couple.

What distinguishes this novel most clearly from Bujold’s other work is its focus on characters who have so far been secondary players in others’ lives, not heroes. Ivan is the cousin of Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of the books in the series that bears his name. In his first appearances, Ivan seemed friendly but very shallow, mainly interested in avoiding trouble and having a good time. By Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, however, he’s almost twice as old as he was in The Warrior’s Apprentice (and Bujold has been writing him for thirty years), and he’s become more complex with time. Bujold takes this opportunity to show us that competence does not only come in the explosive, impressive form Miles usually displays; after lots of Vorkosigan books about incredible badasses whose failures are as heroic as their successes, it’s an interesting experience to read about the dedicatedly average person who’s been living with those kinds of people his entire life. There’s a really lovely moment in which Ivan thinks to himself that he “like[s] flowcharts—nice and clear and you could always tell just where you were and what you should do next, everything laid out neatly. … Why couldn’t life be more like flowcharts?” Few protagonists would ask themselves that question. And this wish for a simple life isn’t just an enlightening way of thinking about Ivan; one of the most compelling aspects of the developing romance is the pair’s mutual realization that with each other, they can just be ordinary people, rather than being expected to excel and conquer the world.

I don’t really want to go into too much detail about Tej, because the reader begins the book completely in the dark about her, and many of the book’s plot reveals consist of the discovery of secrets about her and her history and family. Her position in her family has been much like Ivan’s, as mentioned above; while her relatives are clearly the heroes of their own important dramas, she’s mostly thought of herself as their assistant. Bujold loves to show us a female character coming into her own and learning to respect herself over the course of a romance, and Tej is a worthy addition to this theme. (Note I say “over the course of”, not “through”: she doesn’t come to appreciate herself simply because Ivan does.)

The couple’s interactions are just frankly adorable. I’m personally especially charmed by the way they talk about sex – though they’re both reasonable adults about it, Ivan can’t hide the fact that he’s from conservative Barrayar, and galactic-born Tej shocks him more than a few times. (It is probably going to become increasingly evident, readers, that I love it when books are interesting and intelligent on the subject of sex. Bujold is especially excellent at this – not only do her characters have different, and yet equally reasonable, ways of approaching sexuality, their thoughts about it genuinely reflect the cultures they come from, which is no mean feat.) The very beginning of their acquaintance is, as is correct for a romantic farce, really unpromising; Ivan tries to pick Tej up at her workplace, and later ends up knocked unconscious for his pains. So of course their bliss by the end is correspondingly wonderful.

The only real caveat I have to my recommendation of this novel is the obvious fact that it’s the latest in a series that is now over fifteen books long and counting. There is some exposition (fairly neatly structured) toward the beginning, so the plot doesn’t depend on anything that isn’t mentioned in the book itself. But there are still two major problems with reading Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance alone. First of all, for me, a lot of the pleasure of this book was in seeing how Ivan had grown and changed since I first met him. If you’ve never read a book with Ivan Vorpatril in it before, you won’t get that, and I think the book will still be fun but less so. There’s also the fact that this book can’t help but spoil some of the previous ones. Lots of characters from other novels appear, of course, and so you learn what their general life situations are, meaning that you learn about events of previous books. As a lover of the Vorkosigan Saga, I think people shouldn’t do things that will spoil them on any Vorkosigan books, but I recognize that not everyone who reads Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is planning on reading all the rest of the books in its series, and also not everyone minds spoilers in general. So consider yourselves warned, and choose wisely!

* Some of you may be asking yourselves what the difference is. Romance fans generally consider a book a romance novel only if romance is the focus of the plot and the leads end up in a happy relationship. So, for example, a novel with a significant romantic subplot that is nevertheless obviously a subplot probably isn’t a romance novel.