Interview: Jem and the Holograms Creator Christy Marx on Her Truly Outrageous Series

You’re going to read this in a second, but when I notified my social networks that I was talking to Christy Marx – the animation veteran who’s worked on G.I. Joe, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and most notably, created ‘80s music toon Jem and the Holograms – they all freaked out. The series, which ran for three seasons, and has been off the air for decades, returned to the Hub to massive ratings, and now, the complete series is coming to DVD with a chock full of extras.

Clearly, the fan base for Jem is still there. And luckily, the charming, funny Marx is still totally into the truly outrageous series as well… as I found out, she’s got ideas for a rebooted version of the series, and more than anything, she still loves the show just as much as the fans do:

MTV Geek: When I was getting ready to do this interview, I posted on Twitter, Facebook, etc that we were chatting, to see if anyone had questions for you… And people freaked out—

Christy Marx: [Laughs]

Geek: I know! But it wasn’t just people nostalgically remembering the show, it was people really, honestly liking the show. What do you think it is that’s been so lasting about Jem?

CM: It’s interesting that people have such an incredibly strong connection. I’ve been on an e-mail list with a group of fans, and I’ve heard a lot of different personal stories from people about the show. It just connects with people on real, basic human, emotional level. I think that’s because I would never write down to anyone. Just because the show was for kids, I would never write down. I would write the kind of deep, rich story that I would like to watch – just trusting it would communicate to the viewers, and it did. The characters were rich, and deep, and had a lot of life to them, a lot of threads… It was like a big, grand soap opera for kids.

Also, I’ve found that the basic sense of someone who has two identities… That resonated with a lot of the viewers. There was just something about that fundamental essence of figuring out who you are, and being torn between two identities – particularly, I would have to say for a lot of gay viewers. I think it struck a very, very strong note for a lot of young gay people who were struggling with their own identity at the time.

Geek: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the rich world you created because, I believe, this started with some toys. You were presented with the products first, right?

CM: Yeah, there were some dolls that were presented… They were in prototype stage.

Geek: It feels like it would have been easier to say, “Oh, its some girls who dress up in fashion.” How did you broach the subject to the company, and say, “No, I want to do something a little more complex.”

CM: Actually, it was never even anything like that. They came to me because I was one of the few women writing animation at the time, and especially one of the only women writing action animation, and they knew they wanted to have some action in the show. I had been writing G.I. Joe prior to that, so they knew me, and they liked my work a lot. So basically, they came to me and said they were going to create a series based on these dolls. The basic premise is, there’s these holographic computers in her earrings, she’s got a sister, she’s got a friend, she’s got a car. [Laughs]

Just taking that basic premise, they gave me wide open freedom, as long as I fulfilled the basic guidelines of, there’s got to be fashion, there’s got to be romance, there’s got to be action, there’s got to be glamour… I got the car into it! [Laughs]

They gave me a lot of freedom, and it was a tremendous thing. It was my first chance to develop a series. Prior to that, I had been writing a lot of animation, but it was first opportunity to create something. So I just created what felt good to me. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t think twice about it, it wasn’t a matter of evaluating, “Oh, can I get away with this?” It was a matter of, “Oh, this is what I want to do. This is going to be fun.” This is going to be cool, and I threw this in and this in and this in, because I knew we were going to be doing a lot of episodes, and so you have to make sure you build in a deep foundation, so there’s a lot for everybody to draw from.

Geek: I’m curious, as you said you were one of the few women animation writers at the time… What was it like for you, getting the job, and how do you feel things have changed for women writers over time?

CM: When I started out, I was a comic book fanatic. I grew up reading comic books, and I was absolutely insane about them. I still am, I still read comics. And so my big goal in life, actually, was to write comics. So when I moved to LA, I started to connect with all of these comic book people. It was because of the Fantastic Four being done as animation that I actually ended up stumbling into animation writing. It wasn’t like I went after animation writing, or wasn’t even aware that much, because writing for animation was a pretty new thing – even having a writer do a script for animation was a pretty new thing at the time I got into it. Prior to that, it was mostly done by storyboard artists.

So I sort of stumbled into animation via my love for comics and superheroes. So I was writing for Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man, and then I got into writing G.I. Joe. So I naturally progressed following my love for superheroes with action adventure and that kind of writing. I never once stopped to think about, “Oh, I’m a woman who’s doing this.” So when I got Jem, they did say, “We should have a woman doing that,” but… There weren’t a lot of women doing this, and I had all of the qualifications they were looking for.

It makes me a little… Odd? [Laughs] I’ve always been a little outside the norm, because of my love for comics… Until now. Now, its as though the entire pop culture media has finally caught up. And now there’s lots of women doing this, and its common for women to be doing this, and accepted. I can’t tell you how much I love that, and love seeing that its opened up so much for women and girls – and girls don’t have to feel odd about loving comics, or loving action adventure, or loving whatever they love.

So it has changed since I’ve begun doing this, and it’s changed in a way that’s absolutely positive.

Geek: Jem recently premiered on the Hub, and I believe it got their highest ratings ever – what was it like for you to see this huge interest, after all these years?

CM: It was obviously just fantastic that it could reach a new audience. I felt strongly that it could, that even though its rooted in a very specific time period, and it doesn’t have the most modern technology… The underlying elements, that fundamental human element that makes the show work can communicate across any generation, I think. It’s about the dilemmas of the characters. Its not about the technology, its not about the holograms, its really about what’s going on in the hearts and minds of these characters, and that’s something that can always communicate.

I was tremendously gratified to see it was getting such a good response. I actually got – and this is rare today – I actually a hand written fan letter from a sixteen year old girl in Nebraska, who had discovered the series, and loved it so much, she hand wrote me a letter. Nobody does that anymore! [Laughs] It was just so cool.

Geek: The music was a huge part of the show, obviously. What was it like for you, working on a musical every week – as opposed to, say, a G.I. Joe, or Spider-Man?

CM: The part that I would do is that – when I was writing the script, and of course, the other writers as well – we would know that we would have a song per act. We had a three act structure for a half hour, and we knew we had to have, say, two Holograms songs and one Misfits song. So basically, as you constructed the stories, and as you went through the acts, you looked for, “Where’s a good place to insert a high school, MTV music video?” Where would that fit? Somewhere in this eleven minute, twelve minute segment per act, you’ve got to find a spot to put that in.

So its just part of the thinking process as you develop the story, and the plot. You think, this would carry a nice emotional beat here, or my visual montage here. And then I would indicate in the body of the script what that video should be; a certain sense of what the lyrics would be talking about, a certain sense of what the visuals would be, and that would be about a paragraph chunk in the scripts. Then it would go to the people in New York who would take that paragraph out of the script and figure out what the music was, and figure out what the lyrics were. We had tremendously, wonderfully talented people back in New York, a team that worked on the music, and a team that – I forget exactly how many – that worked on the lyrics.

So that all happened back in New York – I only got the end result. So I’d just say what it was, where it would go in the script… And some time later I’d get a tape in the mail! And there would be this wonderful song!

Geek: Do you have a favorite song from the show? Or is it too tough to pick?

CM: Hmmm… There are a number of them I liked a lot. “I’ve Got My Eye On You,” is certainly one that I liked a lot. “Like a Dream,” which was one of the early ones. It was just a lot of great music, they did a wonderful job on it.

Geek: Music is, of course, something that’s constantly changing… Did you have to tweak the style of the music in the show at all over the course of the three seasons? Or do you feel it stayed relatively constant, because its an animated world, rather than the real one?

CM: I think the nature of animation is such that they remained fairly constant. I was obviously aware of who was hot at the time, and what was going on in the music business. We certainly weren’t trying to tell a realistic story about the music business! [Laughs] But nonetheless, I was certainly aware of the popular people, and who was hot at the time, and drew upon some famous celebrity names for some of the characters that we did. I didn’t base any of the main characters on anyone specifically. Sometimes, people say, well, did you base Jem on so and so, and I’d say, “No.” I really did not pay attention to that aspect of when I was creating the characters; I was just looking at, what makes them an interesting mix of characters, what can I do with these characters.

But then we did a show like "The Jem Jam," a two-parter where there were guest stars, and there would be people based on Mick Jagger, and Tina Turner. You’d look at some of the people out there who would be fun to draw.

Geek: A few more questions, and then I’ll let you go… This has nothing to do with Jem whatsoever, but given that the thirtieth anniversary of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends just passed, I was curious to get your thoughts on working on that show – and what inspired you to write the classic episode, “A Firestar Is Born”?

CM: It was a fun show. It was one of the earliest shows that I wrote for, so I was learning my craft, and really learning my way around animation writing while I was working on it – so it was a lot of fun. I continued to be amazed at how popular it is with people thirty years later. It speaks to the fact that those of us who worked on the show really thought about the characters. It wasn’t just about the action or the plot, it was about the characters. What was the second question?

Geek: What inspired you to write “A Firestar Is Born”?

CM: Oh! They wanted an origin story for her. They let me have that juicy assignment. I worked with Stan Lee, and the story editor on the series. We went back and forth with a bunch of ideas, and I was just the lucky person… Again, I think it was because I was THE female action writer. And so consequently, it was like, “Oh, she’s the girl. She can write the girl story.” I suspect that’s what it was. They never came out and said that. I just got lucky.

Geek: As a comic book fan, what was that like: sitting there, writing for the Spider-Man cartoon show, with Stan Lee?

CM: Oh, fantastic. A dream come true. Stan’s a delightful person, it’s been a great joy to know him now for a very long time… I can’t say I know him like a deep close friend or anything. But I’ve had a number of occasions where I’ve had a chance to work with him on projects, and he’s such a delightful person. But as a comic book geek, the way I grew up, the opportunity to work on those really iconic comic book characters, it was just an amazing experience.

I’ll tell you one other story, I don’t know if you want to touch on it or not. There’s a very famous voice director named Wally Burr. He directed G.I. Joe, Spider-Man, all these shows I worked on. Jem, even. He’s a cool guy. So one time I was at a party, he comes up to me and says, “I just want to tell you, you’re a great writer. You write like a man.” [Laughs] It was like the best compliment he could give me, and I knew exactly how he intended it, so I took it for what it was, which was a compliment. It was just kind of interesting that it was his way of saying he was a good writer, a strong writer, because I write like a man. Nowadays, hopefully someone would be able to put that differently, but it was funny at the time.

Jem and the Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series will be released on DVD on October 11, 2011 from Shout! Factory at stores everywhere.

Check out a rockin' video-clip from Jem below!

Jem: 'Jerrica Meets Synergy'

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