JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS #12
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Sophie Campbell and M. Victoria Robado
Published by IDW Publishing
Release Date: February 24, 2016
In an issue that held all the promise of a blazing fire being ignited, nothing seems to spark.
The issue opens with the Holograms fully Dark Jem-ified, sporting intriguing asymmetrical designs that all play off themes of entropy and decay. It unfortunately comes to dominate their personalities too, as they join The Misfits for their joint West Coast tour. In an arc that seemed to promise an escalation of tensions between the bands, the Holograms have become listless and monosyllabic, unable to justify their presence — that is, until the exciting visuals that accompany their new style appear on the last page when they perform their first show.
As such, Kelly Thompson has the Misfits continue to dominate the story, which is an ambivalent development given that they’ve been the focal point of the most satisfying stories so far (but the comic is ostensibly meant to star the Holograms). Either way, this issue features the debut of Blaze — announced prior to the series beginning as being a trans woman — as the replacement for Pizzazz while she recovers from her car accident. It starts off well enough, with her nailing her audition, but stumbles and falls as she confers with Clash over how to come out to her new bandmates.
While it isn’t malicious or explicitly harmful, her coming out scene comes off as being clumsy, rushed, and written entirely in service to the cisgender audience, rather than as the genuine expression of a trans experience. Blaze tells Clash that she feels she owes disclosure to the band because they’re an all-female band, which, regardless of who’s drawing the comic, is absolutely not territory that a cisgender writer should be taking the lead on. Especially when there’s no explicit examination of that mindset. The way the scene unfolds does not challenge the idea that trans women should have to disclose that fact in order to enter female-oriented or exclusive spaces. That’s a dangerous thing to do in an all-ages title with a significant section of the readership having no real experience or understanding of trans issues. It’s particularly painful to see this logic presented in the voice of a trans woman without being challenged in a comic about rock bands given the notoriety of Michfest’s violent exclusion of trans women.
Issues of disclosure for trans women are complicated and deeply politicized far beyond the typical coming out narrative for a cisgender gay, lesbian, or bisexual person. As such, they need to be handled with precise language and an understanding of what’s at stake. The dominant media narrative around disclosure was, for a long time, focused on trans women disclosing their status to cisgender male sexual partners. These generally casts trans women as deceivers trying to trick cisgender men into having sex with them — a construction that continues to fuel massive violence against the community, but that isn’t applicable to this situation.
The mentality at issue in Jem #12 is that of cisgender women who construct the image of trans women as sexual predators who look to insert themselves into women’s spaces to prey on them. It’s what fueled the notorious exclusion at Michfest and the showdown that occurred when a group of Lesbian Avengers tried to take a teenage trans girl into the festival in 1999 — resulting in the demand from organizers that attendees be allowed to stand in front of the girl and scream abuse at her, including at least one death threat.
It’s the same mentality behind the push for so called “bathroom bills” that exclude transgender students from being able to access the washrooms that correspond to their gender, one of which has already passed in South Dakota. Blaze expressing a sense of having to disclose her trans status in order to be a member of the band plays dangerously into this rhetoric. The fact that Clash suggests she shouldn’t have to carries no weight here because Blaze follows through on it. There’s no framework for any of this, no broader discussion of the issues in play or any kind of reassurance that Blaze’s choice to disclose her trans status is hers and hers alone. Nowhere in the narrative is there a reassurance that she’s a woman sans-caveat and as such does not owe disclosure to anyone.
It isn’t inappropriate to portray a trans woman being unsure of how to assert herself or subject to internalized issues around the validity of her womanhood, but a portrayal like that needs to be carefully coordinated and vetted, which clearly did not happen here. Blaze’s trans status has been known to readers since before the first issue shipped. There’s been a year to properly plan for this issue, and in span of that year there have been numerous situations that prompted serious dialogue and calls for action regarding transgender representation in comics from Batgirl #37 to Airboy #2. Thompson’s intent seems to point to an attempt at portraying a situation where Blaze’s trans status is no more contentious than Kimber and Stormer being lesbians, but the language used projects cisgender entitlement to trans people’s privacy.
There’s also no engagement with the reaction from The Misfits either, who issue blasé support for Blaze. It comes off as tone deaf and arrogant, with no appreciation for what she struggled with in bringing it to them. There’s no reassurances that they’re there for her or actively supportive, just shrugs as if that’s all that needs to be said. If we’re supposed to perceive this as a character flaw in the Misfits, it doesn’t read that way. It’s easy for cisgender people to simply assume that they’re accepting of trans people and behave as if it should be assumed that they’re supportive. It’s not so easy for trans people to risk their employment, housing, and even their lives by disclosing their trans status, and none of that risk is communicated by the scene or appreciated by any of the cisgender characters. Instead, we get Blaze hugging Clash for convincing her to do it, not even giving her the credit for the brutal emotional labor she went through. I can say from years of personal experience that responses like the ones issued by the Misfits here, especially in workplace situations, are red flags that lead to a barrage of microaggressions and ugly confrontations.
Sophie Campbell’s art tells a much different story and reflects a lot of the concerns that trans women continue to air about how how trans bodies are cartooned for the comics page. It’s hardly surprising that her work carries the level of nuance that it does, as she has been a pioneer within her generation of artists for meaningfully pursuing body diversity since long before her own coming out. The common approach to drawing trans women seeks to accentuate features that a cisgender audience might use to identify or “clock” a trans woman. Broad shoulders, strong jaw, adam’s apple, whatever. It’s reductive and condescending at best, exploitative and othering at worst. But Campbell had already built, long before this issue, a framework for the body types of the characters that puts Blaze well outside of that range. It’s Roxy that readers are consistently presuming to be transgender because of, well, her jawline and broad shoulders.
The lack of care evident in the dialogue spoils what could have otherwise been a significant breakthrough for the depiction of trans issues in comics for an all ages audience. It’s been done in the past, most recently and notably in Lumberjanes, which has confronted both Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist rhetoric using mermaids and the frustrations of gender dysphoria in a heart to heart between Jo, a trans girl member of the group, and a scouting lad who could be experiencing the same dysphoria that she did at his age. What we see here instead is, sadly, just more of the same old failures.
The Verdict: 5.0/10