The comic book Jem and The Holograms, based on the popular '80s cartoon about a woman living a double life as both the owner of a popular music company and a mega pop-star, tackles modern narrative themes like queer relationships.
In the newest issue, the series' first transgender character Blaze finds herself thrust into the limelight when offered the chance to sing lead for The Holograms' rival band The Misfits. After turning it out during a stellar audition, Blaze panics at the idea of actually joining the band, something none of the other girls quite understand.
Blaze's concern has nothing to do with any anxiety she has around actually singing with the band, but rather about the fact that none of them know that she's trans. While Blaze herself is more than comfortable with her gender identity, she explains, she's worried about how her new bandmates might respond if they discovered her birth gender.
Blaze's dilemma is plucked directly from the recent conflict between the organizers of the (now defunct) Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and members of the trans community.
Because many trans women spend a significant amount of their lives being identified by society as male, the festival's organizers reasoned, their womanhood was fundamentally different than (and at odds with) biological women. Given that the festival was meant to be a safe space for "women-born-women," trans women were barred from attending.
Blaze voices similar concerns to herself, specifically that her trans-ness might make the other Misfits uncomfortable given their reputation as an girl group. Ultimately, she decides to come out and everyone's more than accepting. All they care about, Stormer explains, is Blaze's punctuality.
The moment's meant to be tense, yet lighthearted and reflect the band's open-minded progressiveness, but it falls somewhat flat.
Blaze's coming out is grounded in the very real stories that many trans-identified people have shared from their own lives. The internal struggle, worry, and fear are all too real, but, as Emma Houxbois wrote for Comicosity, Blaze's story is less of a thoughtful examination of the feelings and ideas at work and more of a performative moment of inclusion.
"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," Houxbois wrote. "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."
Houxbois's point is well taken, given the fact that Jem writer Kelly Thompson doesn't identify as transgender and the comics industry as a whole has an awful track record of casual transphobia.
"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," Houxbois points out. "But a portrayal like that needs to be carefully coordinated and vetted, which clearly did not happen here."
Sophie Campbell, the co-writer and artist for the issue, is a transgender woman and she took to Twitter to share her thoughts about the public's mixed reaction to Blaze's coming out. Blaze's specific experience, Campbell explained, was largely based on her own.
"Kelly doesn't deserve all the criticism, it takes two to tango and I co-wrote the scene and suggested the basic idea for it," Campbell tweeted. "We should've played it more broadly than personal. Blaze is basically a self-insert in that scene."
As a comic book, Jem and The Holograms is a triumph for many different reasons including its decision to portray a broad range of queer narratives. Like any work of art, though, Jem, isn't perfect because it can't be.
Houxbois isn't wrong when she says that Blaze's story is written in a simple, straightforward way that might not speak to the nuances of every trans person.
To that same end, though, Campbell is well within her right to write for Blaze from a deep, personal space that reflects her own life. Jem and The Holograms #12 was just an introduction Blaze. Her debut may not have pleased everyone, but that's not to say that her arc cant take her (and her fans) on a journey worth reading.
Editor's Note: an earlier version of this article failed to include comments from Sophie Campbell, the artist and co-writer for this issue of Jem and The Holograms. Given Sophie's role in the creation of the book, we felt that it was important and necessary to include her voice. The headline has also been updated to more accurately reflect the conversation around the story.