Trans Jem Artist on Coming Out and Creating Comics
Sophie Campbell’s polished and expressive artwork in the ongoing Jem and the Holograms comic book series from IDW is nothing short of truly outrageous.
Her beautiful images elevate rock-star writer Kelly Thompson’s story to another level, while the new comic continues to entertain new and longtime fans alike by respecting the popular cartoon’s cannon while moving it forward for a new generation.
The new series is also one of the most LGBT-friendly comics based on a beloved 1980s property being published today, as it features a budding romance between Holograms keyboard player Kimber and Stormer of the Misfits. Additionally, Campbell’s recent brave decision to come out publicly as a transgender woman — as well as comics publisher IDW’s support of her by reprinting comics under her new name — has helped visibility for trans comics creators to take a giant leap forward.
We had the chance to chat with Campbell for an exclusive interview and shine a spotlight on her love of Jem, her artistry, and living free as an out transgender woman.
The first few issues of Jem and the Holograms have been sensational. What does the project mean to you?
Thank you! I’m so happy you like the first two issues. I can’t believe how positive the reception has been. The project means a lot to me, not just because it’s Jem, but because I’m getting to collaborate with Kelly to build the new incarnation from the ground up. Before the comic, there hasn’t been another version of Jem since Christy Marx’s original show, so it’s really cool getting to come up with a whole new canon Jem world, not to mention doing so as my full-time job. That responsibility and opportunity is awesome.
What character speaks to you the most? Pizzazz is my favorite to draw, no question, but I feel a stronger personal connection with Kimber. Stormer too, because just like her, I often feel like people walk all over me and I can’t quite get out of it.
And Blaze, of course, she’s my baby! It’s so great getting to create a whole new Jem character. If all goes according to plan, there are big things in store for her.
How important is it for you to give readers the wonderful, varied body types that you’ve created for the Jem characters in this series?
It’s both important and not important. It’s important because of the obvious things like representation and how different body types in fiction break down the mold of narrow beauty standards that we’re smothered with, and it can truly help people to see themselves in fictional work, even when the characters are stylized and cartoony like mine are. That’s really important to me.
But it’s also not important because I don’t do it purely because of that, it’s not an agenda per se, not that there’s anything wrong with having an agenda, that just goes hand in hand with work being personal, but I’d be doing this even if I didn’t care about how it affected people. It feels natural and believable. It’s fun to draw. I can’t really think of doing it any other way.
The comic world knew your previous work under your birth name, Ross. Now you’ve successfully transitioned over to Sophie in your professional work as of Jem number 2. Is this a significant moment for you? It definitely is, it’s kind of surreal. Jem number 2 is the first printed comic with Sophie on it, but the bigger moment for me was seeing my name changed on existing works that IDW went in and updated, particularly the updated cover of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Volume 8: Northampton. Seeing that was just awesome. I can’t wait for it to be reprinted.
I feel like with Jem, even though the first issue says "Ross" on it, that I was already Sophie when I started working on issue 1, so it feels less like a big change, if that makes sense.
Do you feel your transition is something to be announced and celebrated? Something akin to Caitlyn Jenner? Or are you just happy to be the you you’ve always been? I think me coming out needs to be announced on some level, which is what I did, partly because in certain circles I’m a relatively public figure — I have published work and lots of followers online who I would like to begin using my new name and all that.
Coming out on Twitter or Tumblr is kind of automatically an announcement. I’m not sure about celebration, though, I know coming out as trans is scary and stressful, it was hard. It’s going to continue to be hard, and maybe that’s worth celebrating, but for me I don’t think I really feel that way.
I know I’ve made a lot of strides over the past year or two, but I don’t feel any pride or like I’ve succeeded at something. For me, it’s not over. To me it’s not like a birthday party. I just want to be me and keep going. Not that I don’t truly appreciate the amazing support, but it is what it is.
Did you have any unease or uncertainty at coming out or were you ready to just rip the Band-Aid off and let go? Both. I was definitely ready to rip the Band-Aid off. I was so sick of hiding and exhausted from keeping myself a secret, I felt crushed by it.
But it was also super scary. I didn’t know how people would react, my family in particular of course, and I was worried about being fired from Jem because I was scared that IDW or Hasbro would feel like this wasn’t what they signed up for. [I worried] I [would] be committing career suicide both by throwing away the “brand” I’d built for myself and creating the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to get work anymore. I was scared of opening myself up to discrimination and transphobic trolls. It was nerve-racking — I felt sick to my stomach leading up to when I was planning to come out.
It’s only been a couple months, but so far it’s been the opposite of what I was expecting. My family has been super great even though it’s tough for them, and as far as work goes, I’ve actually gotten more offers than I’ve ever had, and my publishers have been more than amazing.
Particularly IDW — I have to take the opportunity here to thank Chris Ryall, John Barber, Bobby Curnow, and Tom Waltz, they’ve gone above and beyond. And the fan support has been overwhelming, too.
All that said, it’s still scary, and I know it’s going to be tough and at times dangerous, but all the support really helps.
Now that you are out, do you find any newfound freedom in your artistry? I do feel that way a bit. My work started to be affected by everything I was going through. Things started to get bad around 2011, I think and I was really dragging myself through drawing. It hurt Wet Moon, work on volume 6 slowed to a crawl, and then I could barely bring myself to work on volume 7. Same with my comic Shadoweyes.
Doing work-for-hire jobs has helped, like Ninja Turtles and now Jem. It lights a fire under my ass so I have to work instead of lying in bed all day. I took several months off in 2014 and did goof-off personal comics instead, and as I came to terms with myself — at least in part, it’s a process — and what I was going to do, things got better, and I feel more excited about drawing again and doing art in a bit of a different style.
Having the break last year and working through things, I feel less stuck in an artistic rut, I feel like I’m blossoming stylistically and having fun again.
Any desire to work on a trans-related comic book series? A chance to tell your story? Yes! For sure. I’ve been looking for spots to put trans characters in Wet Moon and Shadoweyes, but I haven’t been able to yet, there’s going to be a trans girl in Shadoweyes eventually, but I also really want to do something new that has a trans main character and maybe a mostly trans cast. With a token cis character, ha ha.
And finally, your Rio is a dreamboat. Will we male gay geeks have any more hot male characters to get thirsty over? Definitely! We have Techrat, Eric Raymond, and Craig Phillips coming up soon, and rest assured, that they will be hot.