Happy Birthday, Jerrica!
Jem turns 30 this year. The animated series, a joint collaboration by Hasbro, Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions, aired its first episode on October 6th, 1985. Jem and the Holograms, a live action movie based on the series, will be released later this year.
To celebrate the animated icon’s 30th, I connected with series creator Christy Marx. Beyond creating the series, Marx wrote more than a third of its episodes. Before introducing Jem to the world, she had been a staff writer for G.I. Joe and Transformers.
Jem, however, is just one accomplishment of many in Marx’s impressive career in television, comic books and video games. She has written for Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and during the first run of the show, Marx also created and wrote the comic series Sisterhood of Steel. Since, she has written a reboot of DC Comics’ Amethyst. Marx has also been designing computer games for 25 years—since back when they were driven by users typing instructions into keyboards. She continues to work with games at Zynga.
I asked Marx about Jem, her storied career, nostalgia culture and her thoughts on the upcoming film.
ALEX STEED: Who was Christy Marx in 1985? Beyond writing for cartoons, what were your interests? There is a Hitchhiker’s Guide in-joke on your website—were you especially into science fiction?
CHRISTY MARX: I’ve always had a love for science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and comic books. There was something about sequential visual storytelling that appealed to me from the earliest age, starting with newspaper comic strips. Nowadays, I’m reading a lot of urban fantasy.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a huge favorite of mine, especially the radio series. At the time, I was married to Australian artist Peter Ledger who introduced me to it. My taste in humor is firmly in the British camp with shows like Hitchhiker, The Goons, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Absolutely Fabulous. I appreciate the absurd.
AS: What about the absurd in particular resonates with you?
CM: Why does anyone like the humor they do? Some people think The Three Stooges are funny. I can’t stand them. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, or perhaps it’s simply the way my mind and personality are shaped. I’m delighted by clever wordplay, by turning the mundane upside-down and shaking out the loose bits, by nonsense that makes more sense than reality sometimes, by examining the foibles of the human race through satire and parody. I want to feel the sharp blade of wit lurking inside the humor.
Other areas that interest me deeply are photography and archaeology—the more ancient, the more I’m fascinated by it. My readings in archaeology have often been useful when writing fantasy and doing world-building for shows, books or games.
AS: In another interview, I saw you note that you have rather eclectic tastes.
CM: I think the best example of how my tastes are eclectic is the variety of music I’ll listen to: gypsy flamenco, Gregorian chants, Celtic, ethnic and global fusion like Afro-Cuban and Afro-Celtic, medieval, 1960s folk, Swedish/Norwegian rock/traditional fusion, and weird stuff that’s hard to categorize like Dead Can Dance, Vas, and Stellamara.
AS: Nostalgia is such a substantial piece of popular culture, and the 80s has been a favorite decade to revisit lately as all of the kids who grew up then are now adults. You have been a part of so many of the biggest franchises of that time—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe and Jem—I am curious about what it’s like to see all of these things come back in movie, commercial, comic form and more. They appear to have such an enduring quality.
CM: Yes, it’s interesting to see how they recur in cycles linked to how a generation ages. It seems like everything gets a reboot, some more quickly than others. A couple of years ago, DC hired me to do a reboot of a 1980s fantasy comic called Amethyst. Rebooting is all the rage and has been for a while.
But it isn’t limited to properties from the 1980s. Look at the various reboots and genderbending versions we’ve seen lately with Sherlock Holmes, the seemingly endless reboots of Batman and Spider-Man.
There’s another aspect to this that I began observing decades ago. Those of us who grow up reading or watching something created originally for kids have a natural tendency to want those characters and stories aged up along with us. We like to bring a more mature, adult slant to it and recreate it for our grown selves. This inevitably changes the fundamental nature of those characters and stories. Things that worked fine in a kid’s show can look ridiculous to an adult. The trick is to keep what we loved and not make it so adult that kids can no longer relate to it.
The enduring quality of Jem is in the characters and their stories. Interesting characters and good storytelling will endure.AS: I wonder which characters from your own childhood or upbringing you feel that way about—which you think about from an adult perspective? Do you use this as a mechanism for the way you tell stories now? Thinking about concepts or tropes from your youth through the lens of who you are now? I suppose fan-fiction has given many an outlet for imagining these worlds. This concept resonates with me. I’ve long wanted to see sequels or spinoffs from films that are entirely different from their original—a dramatic film about the back story of the lawyer who inevitably gets eaten in Jurassic Park that offers an explanation of how he became such an asshole in the first place, or a dark comedy about the poor psychologist from the Terminator franchise, who struggles to reconcile the fact that he believes he is going mad based on now having had several experiences with what is very obviously a cyborg.
CM: Even as a kid, I was far more interested in creating my own original characters and concepts than spinning off from existing work. I’ve never written nor been interested in fan fiction. I know of professional writers who enjoy writing fan fiction; I’ve simply never been one of them. I have so many of my own stories to tell that I haven’t felt a desire to draw from the work of others, with a few exceptions: when I was trying to break into comics, I worked on Conan and Red Sonja, because you must work on established books in order to build up credits; I broke into animation writing for The Fantastic Four and Spider-man for the same reason; or when I’m hired to adapt something, such as Bucky O’Hare or Amethyst.
There are favorite books that I would love to be able to adapt to a movie or TV series format, but in that case I’d want to remain true to the original work and to what I loved about it in the first place.AS: [Jem villain] Eric Raymond is such a smarmy character, the [Jem villains] Misfits are aggressively greedy, and [Jem villains] the Stingers are manipulative and so hugely egotistical. Were those roles all so definitively “bad” because it made the drama easier for kids to relate with, or were they based on people and experiences you had encountered while working in the entertainment industry at the time.
CM: None of the “bad” characters are based on any specific people I’d encountered, though I certainly had run into those types. However, I have a pretty firm rule that life is too short to work with assholes, so I avoided them as much as possible.
The characters have those personality types for the reason you put forward — it makes them larger than life, interesting, and easy to understand where they’re coming from. Though I firmly refuse to write down to kids, there isn’t much room for subtlety in TV animation. On the other hand, having a more nuanced character like Stormer, who had both a good and bad side, resonated like crazy for the viewers.
AS: It is really interesting you say that as our daughter is a big fan of the show now and she is nearly 6—she has a lot of questions about bad guys and good guys and what makes a “bad guy” and what makes a “good guy.” We try to clearly convey that a lot of the time, it’s not so simple, and in doing so have mentioned Stormer or the storyline with Riot and his father so that still resonates 30 years later.
Around the same time I imagine Jem was in development (1984), you and your husband at the time worked together on your comic Sisterhood of Steel, which told long-form stories, fantastical, complex stories about women. How much of your experience with that storyline and those characters made its way into your work on Jem? It was also a bit more adult oriented – not specifically targeted to children—and longer form, so I imagine it also gave you an outlet for stories you weren’t able to tell on Jem.
CM: Sisterhood was not intended for a young audience at all. It was part of Marvel’s Epic publishing line and one of the first mainstream attempts to create comics for adults. The required reading age was 18. It was also the first time Marvel published creator-owned material.
But any comparison between Sisterhood and Jem would be apples and oranges. Telling adult stories in comics is vastly different than the restrictions of telling stories for kids in animation. Sisterhood is my own original property that I own. It’s all mine. Jem was a work-for-hire situation for a line of dolls owned by Hasbro. As much as I loved creating and working on the Jem animation series, it’s not the same as owning your work. Aside from working with female characters, I can’t see much that translated from Sisterhood into Jem.AS: What I am particularly struck by, having revisited the show a great deal, is how adult the story lines are for a show geared toward kids. Some kids shows today have complicated or abstract and complicated lines—I am thinking of adventure time in particular—but Jem had these story lines about connecting with absent fathers, family drama, cold war politics, and so-on. Was that something you got any push back against at the time?
CM: I never stopped to think about whether the storylines were too mature or complicated. I simply wrote the stories that I enjoyed telling. As luck would have it, the viewers agreed. For the most part Hasbro gave us tremendous freedom in the stories we could tell. The only time I received push-back was when I wanted to do a story about a boy coping with an alcoholic father. Had I been willing to greatly soften what I wanted to do with the story, I might have gotten approval on it, but to my mind that negated what I wanted to accomplish, so I dropped it.
AS: I really appreciate your philosophy of “If I can’t do it right, it’s not worth doing at all.” Am I correct in my understanding that with Sisterhood, you were in similar position where there was a disagreement with the publisher regarding the content and so you moved forward to publish independently?
CM: There was an unfortunate disagreement over censorship. Because the concept of mainstream comics for adults was so new, there were some distributors who objected to certain words in one of the other books in the Epic publishing line, a book called Moonshadow. Rather than standing up to them, there was a general wave of censorship. I had to change some words in the script I’d just done and we had to redraw one panel—a panel that would seem quite tame by today’s standards.
I’ve always had a ferocious dislike of censorship and I didn’t hide it. The fallout from being vocal about that was the cancellation of my book. Because I owned the property, I was able to take it to an indie publisher who put out the graphic novel.
AS: Obviously the show was directed toward girls as I assume the intention was to sell the Hasbro lines, but it had this independent life granted by the aforementioned stories and characters. It had a cross appeal to boys and girls and in that way, it feels like one of the first shows to queer the gender line a little bit—particularly for kids. Was that an intention on your part, or an unintended result?
CM: I had no idea until much later how much of an impact the show had on gay boys. What’s interesting about that is that the toy designer who brought the initial concept to Hasbro—Bill Sanders—was a gay man, though his original proposal was for a boy-band. Was there something deep in the DNA of the concept that somehow survived to appeal to those boy viewers? I don’t know, but I was moved by the stories they told me of how they related to Jem, how it helped them survive the difficult transition of being a gay boy before it was easy to come out. They weren’t the primary intended audience, by any means, but a welcome one as far as I’m concerned.
AS: What are your fondest memories from working on that show?
CM: Pretty much everything about it. There was such an amazing wealth of talent working on the series: the writers, artists, lyricists, composers, voice talent and so on. Working with the people of Sunbow Prods. was a dream. They were wonderful people to know and collaborate with, and they treated me exceptionally well. It was a time of exuberant creative flow.
It was also the glory days of syndicated animation, when we had the luxury of doing 65 half-hours. You can do a lot when you have that many shows to play with.
AS: You mentioned in another interview that you were the only woman writer Sunbow had—and that they liked your writing—so they put you on this show. It’s sort of the opposite scenario of what we see happening with the Jem movie. On your blog, you wrote, “I see two male producers, a male director and a male writer. Where is the female voice? Where is the female perspective? Where are the women?” Even for a series that we ultimately developed around selling a line of toys, Jem has so many feminist elements.
CM: If I said I was the only woman writer, I should correct that. That’s not true at all. A quick look at IMDB at the credits for G.I. Joe shows at least eight other women wrote for the series, though that’s still a small fraction of the total writing list. Many of those writers, female and male, wrote episodes of Jem. I was near the top of the Joe writing list with five episodes to my credit, along with Carla Conway. Sunbow was good about hiring women.
I’m not sure I’d make a sweeping statement about the development of the Jem movie as representing some movement for men to take over feminist properties. There are those who would likely shy away from calling Jem by that label. While I think it was a show that is worthy of feminist ideals, I didn’t set out to make anything deliberately feminist. I’ve always been drawn to strong, independent female characters. I’m a strong, independent woman in my own right. So it only makes sense that I’d write Jem that way.
Nor do I think only women can write female characters any more than I think only men can write male characters. That would be a ludicrous limitation for any writer.
As [I previously said], the characters and stories reached beyond girls. I’ve been contacted many, many times over the past three decades by both men and women who wanted to bring back Jem. With rare exception, those were gay men who found their own messages within the show.
That said, I do remain mystified that no one reached out to me during the development of the movie. I’d already written a Jem movie treatment that would have updated the technology and other aspects of the show, without knowing that Hasbro had one in development. I would have liked for one of the key people, such as the writer, to be female. But it is what it is and I hope everyone will judge the movie on its own merits.AS: Would you mind talking a bit more about that treatment?
CM: I’m going to refrain because I nurture the hope of being able to do it at some time.
AS: Totally understandable. I hope for the same!
AS: Beginning with Conquest of Camelot, which you designed in 1989, you have been in video games for a long time. Would you mind talking a bit about what you are working on now? When initially became involved with the industry in the 80s, did you ever imagine it would come close to where it is today?
CM: Nobody dreamed we’d have games on tablets or mobile phones back then. My first game for Sierra On-Line didn’t even use a mouse. It was parser-based, meaning that people typed instructions using a keyboard. We only had sixteen colors to work with. It was downright primitive, but huge fun in spite of that. Things have come a long way, from a small business that could start in someone’s kitchen to the billion dollar industry of today across multiple platforms.
Slowly, very slowly, the industry has come to recognize the value of good storytelling and quality writing in games, but it needs much more improvement.
Because I’m experienced as both a game designer and writer, I use the title Narrative Designer to describe what I do, which is to mesh storytelling with gameplay.
Currently, I’m a Principal Game Designer at Zynga. I worked on Mafia Wars 2, Hidden Chronicles—a story-driven hidden objects game—and CastleVille Legends. Beginning last September, I moved into a higher level narrative department. Rather than working on any one game, I’m applying my expertise to multiple games in development.
And when I’m not doing that, I’m writing comics for DC.AS: It’s so interesting that looking back on parser-based games, which are, as you say, seemingly primitive in retrospect, were ultimately so story-driven and that’s where you started and it’s where you are today regardless of how lavish and graphically impressive/complex video games have become. In a way, we’re all returning to story-telling—it’s once again become a concept startups and entrepreneurs are focusing on—and with your comics, your television writing, and contributions to gaming, it’s where you’ve been able to thrive and exist for decades, as well as to push for its importance. Does that feel like as big a victory as it appears to be from the outside?
CM: Frankly, I consider being able to survive for decades as a writer and storyteller is a major victory in itself. Knowing that my work has made a difference or had an impact makes it that much sweeter.