Jem: A Love Letter (Jem: The Misfits Volume 1 by Kelly Thompson, Jenn St-Onge, M. Victoria Robado and Shawn Lee)

Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Jenn St-Onge
Colours & Lyrics Lettering by M. Victoria Robado
Letters & Design by Shawn Lee

The “retcon” (retroactive continuity) has been inherent to the comics medium ever since the first creator decided that they needed a superhero, be they the absentee Captain America or the actively deceased Professor Xavier, back in the fold. The medium swallowed the concept with relish and it soon became one of the core concepts that the mainstream would keep returning to; the revolving door of death depreciates the impact of mortal peril because readers know that it will always be undone at a later date.

However, there are retcons that modify the past in order to tell a better story in the present. The most egregious example is the one character that has managed to come out the other side: Nathan Christopher Charles Dayspring Askani'Son Summers (a.k.a. Cable). As his tangle of names might suggest, he’s been through his fair share of twisted timelines, but has managed to collate all of the modifications into a far more interesting character than all of the retcons would suggest.

The Misfits are a band that has no experience with the convolution of time travel, although the upcoming anthology series might change this (IDW, call me), but there is no doubt that the miniseries Jem and the Holograms: The Misfits sticks its hands deep into the characters’ pasts and makes the entire Jem universe the richer for it.

On the fateful day when I picked up that first Jem and the Holograms volume, it was my first exposure to this dazzling, spectacular and whimsical world and I immediately fell in love. Kelly Thompson’s sharp wit and clear character voices paired perfectly with Sophie Campbell’s astoundingly dynamic art to create something that I knew that I wanted to be part of.

Quickly transitioning myself laterally to the original TV show, I found that all of that richness of world and diversity of character that made the comic so appealing was a modern invention; it was the first instance of an idealised retcon. Despite that, I pushed through and, like so many people, admired the tenacity and the unrepentant awfulness of television Misfits.

When it was announced that these Misfits, these beautifully belligerent Misfits, were to be receiving their own comic book, I knew immediately that I needed to buy it.

I mean, their songs are better - it was the easiest decision in the world.

This volume begins with The Misfits on their last legs. Following a falling out with two of the hottest music acts in their world, they found themselves the pariahs of the industry and the owners of a reputation as being difficult to work with, around and for; there is no component of professional decorum that The Misfits have not disregarded.

Their front-woman, Pizzazz, takes the first issue to parse the options for their future alongisde the band’s manager, Eric Raymond, and comes to the decision that she’s not going to let her family, that she’s painfully constructed over the years, crumble because of her pride. The remainder of the miniseries deals with the fallout from this decision, as the band attempt to live in a world not of their own choosing.

Pizzazz is one of Thompson’s greatest success stories. 

For those who are unaware, in the original TV series, Pizzazz (a.k.a. Phyllis Gabor) is the definition of a nightmare; she’s unreasonable and unlikeable, but altogether the definition of a delight to watch. One particular line from the cartoon encapsulates the character for me where, for perhaps for the first time, I shared a sentiment with the skeezy Eric Raymond: “You let Pizzazz loose with a laser gun?!”

Thompson has taken a character with very few sympathetic qualities and manifested a nuanced, while still heavily flawed, human being. Jem: The Misfits continues this trend, putting Pizzazz at the epicentre of the entire series, using this previously irredeemable character as a sounding board for the rest of the band and providing a strong sense of internal cohesion.

The most important detail of this modification to her character is that all of those qualities that made her unlikeable are still there. Pizzazz is still ready to snap at the slightest provocation and will do anything to get ahead, but we now see the side of her that does all of that to fiercely protect the people that loves.

The original Jem comic series has been through its fair share of artists, each with their own style and perspective on the world. The portion that work best, which I wholeheartedly group series artist Jenn St-Onge into, are those who embrace the manic energy that Pizzazz and her likewise rambunctious cohorts imbue their surroundings with; these are women who overreact to the ninth degree and that needs to be reflected in the art itself.

St-Onge has a naturally cartoonish component to her art that highlights the incredulity of the already exaggerated situation, creating something of a positive feedback loop that makes the story perpetually stronger than it was before. People dramatically declaim to the air while a blazing fire roars behind them and it makes even the most everyday situation buzz with energy.

However, it’s important to stress that this doesn’t prevent the book from feeling grounded in reality. In order to exaggerate, you must first define your sense of normality. The subtlety in the natural body language of each of the Misfits gives them each their own sense of self without the need for words; their personalities blossom in a way that the original TV series never allowed.

Pizzazz and Stormer both received something resembling a characterisation in the 80s cartoon, so to see the remaining OG Misfits, Roxie and Jetta, receive a focal issue is intriguing. Allowing Thompson and St-Onge free reign to frolic in the backstories of this characters makes each passing issue feel significant.

Roxie is a character that has been around since the very first episode of the show, but has never truly gained any agency. We know from the Jem series that the most important things to her are her relationship with fellow band member Jetta and bagels, but, before her focal issue in this miniseries, I could not have told you anything significant about her beyond the colour of her hair.

We learn about her troubled backstory, growing up in a struggling household with her father and that, due to her learning disability, she was mocked and alienated by her classmates. We see that there is a desperation to belong within Roxie, bolstered by her father’s belief that his daughter can be and will be something greater than he ever was. The connection we form with Roxie is intense and quick, but it’s very genuine.

That’s when we get the page turn heard around the world.

I won’t divulge the content of that page turn, but it demonstrates without a doubt the level of craft that goes into each page and each panel of this series. Lesser creators might have put this shift in status quo on the opposing page for your eye to accidentally flicker over, but for this creative team to use that page turn as a soft reset and land with maximum impact shows how comprehensively structured the entire book has been.

Roxie’s best band-mate, Jetta, similarly receives an addendum to her continuity. The strength of the bond between the two has been played up for years in the main Jem & the Holograms series, but it’s this miniseries that takes it to the next level. We get the chance to see what the Misfits are like off-stage and this reveals something about Jetta’s backstory that, I think it’s safe to say, nobody could have seen coming.

This reveal is the wholesale definition of retroactive continuity: it inserts information into a story that was never intended in the original telling. Fortunately, it also demonstrates exactly how to retcon right.

One of the most appropriate rectons from mainstream comics continuity that springs to mind is the modifications that Alan Moore introduced into the Captain Britain mythos back in the 1980s. He took a disparate, and largely unremarkable, set of stories and concepts and, by tweaking the character’s origin story towards the supernatural, connected all of the previously dangling threads; he used what was there before and created a slew of storytelling opportunities.

The previous motivations and characteristics of Jetta remain unchanged, but we have simply been given more information about why the character behaves the way she does. The best retcons build upon what came before, using what can sometimes seem like the burden of continuity as its strength. Nothing is lost from Thompson’s rummaging behind the scenes of this universe; we only feel enriched from the additional context.

This brings us to the single issue, starring one of the original Misfits, that was the absolute best of the bunch. 

One of the strengths of the cast that Thompson has introduced is the casual diversity that she’s introduced into what was otherwise a standardised thin, white woman aesthetic. The varied storytelling opportunities that it has introduced serves as a perfect example to those few remaining people who see those qualities as a default.

Stormer’s size has never previously been mentioned; it’s simply been the size that she is, exactly as it should be. However, the second issue in this volume uses Stormer as a lens through which we can see the impact that putting yourself out into the public eye can have on a person’s self image.

This issue is where St-Onge’s work hits its peak. St-Onge’s magnification of the emotive responses from Stormer enhance both the positive and the negative emotions - a talent that also permeates throughout the rest of the book - making Stormer’s journey feel far larger than the 24 pages on which it exists. This is a series that has been designed from the ground up to be one of the best on the stands.

A review of a Jem book wouldn’t be complete without a resounding celebration of Robado’s overall design and musical lettering. You might think that comics could not support a franchise that so heavily revolves around audio, but you haven’t met M. Victoria Robado yet.

The fluidity between the regular panels is already inherent to St-Onge’s art, but the addition of the glowing, graceful lyrics cause your eye to glide across the page, absorbing it with abandon and turning the gorgeous splash pages of the bands performing into honest-to-god rock concerts.

Not content to stop there, Robado demonstrates their versatility by leaning into the musical contrast between the two main bands in the book. When lettering The Misfits, the lyrics take on both the colour and the aesthetic of their lead singer, Pizzazz: they’re harsh, jagged and laden with passion. With the second band, Blaze’s new project, The Lunas, the tone switches, taking on Blaze’s softer, but no less fervorous, style.

It’s magnificent short-hand for the style of music without us actually having to hear the songs; it takes the oft-ofterlooked art of lettering and uses it in a truly unique way. Robado works with the same toolset as everyone else, but demonstrates a skill with lettering that transcends the medium in the way that only the best art can.

Jem & the Holograms is a franchise that captured me from the moment that the very first bright pink spine of the titular series caught my eye. The overwhelming spectacle partnered with the undeniable nuance creates a contrast that takes you on a roller-coaster through the highs and lows of the emotional spectrum. It took a glitzy, but slightly ill-defined, set of characters and made them into something far more glamourous.

Jem: The Misfits is a volume that continues this trend, with the entire team bringing their A-game and demonstrating exactly why there is still a market for this world. The Misfits were spectacularly spiteful in their original incarnation, but with Thompson giving them their voice, St-Onge their personalities and Robado their sound, this retroactive continuity sits at the absolute pinnacle of the craft.

I still have the Jem & the Misfits: Infinite miniseries event in my future, but, after that, the Thompson-helmed Jem universe will take on a new form. The recently announced anthology series sounds positively delightful, with stunning creative teams already attached, but part of me will always remember just how damn perfect this entire run has been.

The show’s nearly over, Synergy, but I’m not ready for it yet.