Looking Backward: Whitewashing in JEM’s Variant Covers

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

I understand the impulse.

If you are making a comic that is a reboot of an ’80s cartoon, I understand the impulse to engage in some nostalgia. I just want to make that clear before I go on.

There’s a Jem and the Holograms comic. It’s by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell, and it’s delightful. It’s cute and fun, the characters have personality, Kimber and Stormer: Rocker Girlfriends are now canon. It’s all good stuff. Plus Sophie Campbell’s awesome character designs provide characters with a variety of body types, which is always great to see.

When issue two came out a couple of weeks ago, I picked it up at my LCS. The copy that I got had variant cover E – one of the Amy Mebberson variants. I took it home, read this issue, felt my standard guilt over how bad the Misfits treat poor Stormer, and moved on. The next day, I saw promotions for the variant cover box set for issue two. That’s when I got…confused.

Come with me on this journey. Here are all of the covers in the set:

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Misfits IDW Variant Cover Box Set

When I saw them all together, I realized I had no idea who the woman in Cover E (bottom right) was supposed to be. I took it at face value by itself, but now I was seeing them all lined up. The other three in the row are clearly Roxy, Stormer, and Pizzazz. So Cover E must be Jetta.

Which…oh.

It’s ’80s confession time: I never really watched Jem and the Holograms as a kid. I love theme song, I’ve watched some as an adult, but there are a lot of episodes I’ve never seen. Of what I’ve seen, not a ton has stuck with me. Rio sucks, Kimber and Stormer should date, Pizzazz should be in jail, and…orphans? That’s about all I have. Jetta doesn’t stick out in my memory. So my only version of the character is Sophie Campbell’s design. A tall, black girl with epic dreads. She’s had roughly three lines of dialogue, but I already like her. The voice I’ve assigned her in my head is basically Estelle as Garnet on Steven Universe. I’m putting a lot of faith in this Jetta being a bad-ass.

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But this Jetta gets deleted from her own solo cover. She’s replaced with ’80s Jetta – a white woman. The moment when I realized this was uncomfortable at best.

There’s a risk to nostalgia, both in broader social context and in comics specifically. People will harken back to bygone decades with a casual dismissal of oppression that goes with it. In comics, leaning on “nostalgic” interpretations and “classic” lineups means the deletion of representation for a lot of people. It’s not a malicious action, but there’s still an unpleasant implication. If the characters that represent you aren’t the “core team” or the “iconic versions,” it can feel like you yourself are being told you aren’t quite wanted.

I’m a fan of Kelly Thompson, I’m fan of Sophie Campbell, I’m a fan of Amy Mebberson. I’m perfectly willing to give everyone here the benefit of the doubt on this being a total accident. I have no idea when variant cover concepts were even decided, and how that timeline relates to when the creative team decided to make Jetta black. I have no idea how much cross-communication there was between Campbell and Mebberson. Since Mebberson’s variants are based on the cartoon character designs, not Campbell’s modern ones, it’s not as though she’d need to check in. A bunch of people did their jobs, and thing happened, nobody noticed.

But there’s a new black character, and I have her solo cover, and it’s a white woman.

So I wish someone would have.

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