Streaks of light and pink-haired model's face with Jem makeup and earring and text "The Story Behind Jem."

The Story Behind Jem: An Interview with Christy Marx

By Preston Burt

On Saturday mornings in the mid-’80s there was no other show that offered as much toe-tapping, earworm-inducing entertainment as Jem. With constant music battles between Jem and the Holograms and their ever-meddling counterpart band The Misfits, glamor, glitter, fashion, fame were on full display to glue kids to their television sets for 30 minutes. Despite only three short seasons, Jem is an ’80s pop culture powerhouse that owes much of its success to the show’s writer and creative visionary, Christy Marx. With a long career that spans comics, television, video games, and more, the “truly outrageous” Christy Marx graciously took time to answer my burning questions for Retrofied:


Can you tell me a little about how you got your start as a writer and how you landed your first gig in television?

Christy Marx: It took me a while to figure out that writing should be my career path. I had moved from Illinois to L.A. I landed a job working at a TV production company, which was a valuable way to get first-hand training in the realities of TV production. From there I broke in as a script reader. Meanwhile, I was studying scriptwriting and trying my hand at short stories and screenplays.

My break came when I met Roy Thomas at a fan gathering and asked what I could write for him. He was interested in a Conan story told from the woman’s point-of-view, so I went home and wrote a short story about that. It was my first comics sale. Roy bought Red Sonja stories from me, and used a rough outline I wrote for a “What If…” Fantastic Four story.

I began to network with comics people and one day Don Glut told me that a studio named DePatie-Freleng was producing a FF animation series and was looking for people who had written for the FF. On the basis of that one FF story, I was able to get a meeting with David DePatie who hired me to write my first animation script.

You’re credited as the creator of Jem. Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for the show came from? Was it totally inspired or was it a calculated desire to fill a programming void?

I need to correct the record. I didn’t technically create Jem. The underlying idea came from a toy designer named Bill Sanders, who came up with dueling boy bands, the holographic computer, the Roadster, and other toy elements. I knew nothing about Bill Sanders until years later after doing some research. His concept was acquired by Hasbro for a girl toy line and Hasbro developed doll prototypes that they hoped would compete with Barbie.

Hasbro hired Sunbow Prods., who were producing the G.I. Joe animation series, to come up with an animation series for this doll line. Sunbow loved the episodes that I wrote for G.I. Joe, so they came to me for this girls’ property development. Hasbro was still pinning down the product names of the dolls when I was hired to create a 15-segment limited series. It fell to me to come up with: the structure of the show; the identities, full names, personalities, and interactions of the characters; the backstory; the bad guys (other than the Misfits) and to develop it into a series. I was given minimal guidance and had a great deal of creative freedom. Starlight Music, the Starlight Girls, Eric Raymond, Techrat, and so on came from me.

We’re really interested in the behind-the-scenes production of the shows we grew up with. Can you tell me about that process? How did Jem go from concept to creation to our television screen, and who were the key players involved?

I dealt primarily with Joe and Jay Bacal, especially Jay as the producer. Whatever information came from Hasbro was filtered through them. They were in New York; I was in California. This was before the worldwide web, so although it was possible to transmit scripts using a modem, nearly all communication was done via phone, and the occasional in-person meeting.

I wrote an initial bible for the series as I worked on those short 15-segments that were part of a half-hour called Super Saturday or Super Sunday (depending on the market where it aired). That show consisted of a six-minute segment that was a boy-oriented action property, then the middle six-minute segment was Jem, and the last six-minute segment was another boy property. They were deeply concerned about keeping the boys from turning the dial when Jem came on, which is why those segments each ended in a significant cliff-hanger.

Then the decision came to turn Jem into its own half-hour series. The initial mini-series was repurposed into the first five half-hours and we were off and running. Roger Slifer handled the story-editing while I was busy writing a big chunk of the shows. I didn’t interact with Roger on shows that were written by other people, with a couple of rare exceptions.

Basically, we worked out what story ideas I would work on, I would go off and write them, and move on to the next one. Production happened elsewhere. They would courier VHS copies of my finished episodes to me, but not the other episodes, so in truth, there are many Jem episodes I have never seen to this day. I had no involvement in the production end. I didn’t even get any of the dolls from Hasbro.

Portrait of Christy Marx in front of Jem illustration.

Were there any key changes from your initial concept to what finally made its way to our screens on Saturday morning?

Changing it from a limited mini-series to a 65 half-hour series was the biggest change. The short segments weren’t quite long enough to fill out the half hour, so I had to go back over the short segments and come up with tiny bits of “filler” (extra dialog or a super-short scene) to expand the first five shows.

You wrote 23 episodes of the 65 episodes of Jem. What was the easiest part of the writing process and what was the most difficult?

Everything about writing for Jem was a pleasant dream. I wasn’t able to get every story idea approved that I wanted to do, but in general I was given enormous freedom to simply have fun with it. The hardest part up front was that they kept changing the names of the dolls and changing which instruments they played. That drove me nuts until it settled down into the final product names.

What are your favorite contributions you made to the show?

Being able to develop independent, take-charge female characters. Being able to do rich, deep stories that didn’t write down to the audience. Being able to do episodes that dealt with issues such as runaway kids or valuing what is important in life. The Jem/Jerrica/Rio love triangle was a key element I introduced and was an important part of the character interactions. And giving Stormer more depth than the usual “bad girl.”

Tying into the popularity of glam rock and music videos at the height of the MTV era really made the show stand out from the competition. Did you write any of the songs, or was that outsourced to musicians? Got a favorite song from the show?

I’m not a songwriter! LOL! I was given the guidance to add one music video per act (three acts per half hour), balancing them out between Jem and the Misfits. I would indicate in the script where the video should go, what it should be about, and ideas for visuals. That went to New York where it went to the composers, Ford Kinder and Anne Bryant. The lyrics were written by Barry Harmon, who sometimes drew directly from words I used in the script.

I’m only familiar with the early batch of music because they sent me cassette tapes. I liked “I’ve Got My Eye on You” the most out of those songs.

In the era where things were marketed strictly to boys and strictly to girls, are you surprised by the crossover appeal of Jem and how many male fans of the show there are?

Delightfully surprised and pleased. The strict division between what was considered a “boy” toy or show versus a “girl” toy or show bugged the hell out of me. I disliked seeing toys segregated in the toy stores with everything for girls coded in some form of pink, a color I’ve disliked since childhood, while boy toys were color-coded in “harder” colors. It’s gotten slightly better these days, perhaps, but there’s a long way to go.

I think the problematic questions of identity that came up in Jem—the secret she kept, her fear of losing Rio because of that secret—had a wide appeal, especially to gay boys in a time when such a thing had to be kept secret.

Not to be too prying, but can you tell us about what led to your departure from the show?

I didn’t depart the show. We were committed to do 65 shows, which was a standard full run of syndicated animation. Toward that end of that run, we were waiting to hear whether Hasbro would continue the show beyond the 65. Unfortunately, the dolls didn’t do as well as Hasbro had hoped, so they decided to stop at the 65. We finished the last of those shows and that was the end of it.

 Jem was a project early in your career. What’s something that you learned during this project that you were able to carry with you and apply to future creative endeavors?

Jem was a huge break for me because it was my first credit in developing an animation series. Toward the end, I insisted on doing some of the story-editing in order to have a story-editor credit. I learned a lot about developing a series, what worked and what didn’t, how much detail was enough or was too much. I had a great relationship with both Sunbow and Hasbro, which led to developing other series.

The popularity of Jem went beyond the cartoon and led to other merchandise including toys, books, and more. What was the most interesting product you ever saw with Jem on it? Do you still have any mementos as a keepsake?

I rarely saw the merchandise until long after the fact. The only reason I had one of the original Jem dolls is that my mother bought one for me because she was so proud of what I was doing. I keep finding out from Jem fans what sort of interesting or odd merchandise was out there.

It was lucky that I sold my dolls (including the one my mother bought for me), action figures, and other toys and memorabilia from across my career to the Strong Museum of Play in New York when I moved to Magalia, CA. Magalia is a small community north of Paradise, CA. Everything else I had in the world—every script, file, memorabilia, personal papers, photos, games, comics, books, all my personal possessions—were destroyed in the Camp Fire in November of 2018.

You have a long list of credits in entertainment, but I imagine Jem is one that you still receive the most questions and fan interactions about. What’s something else in your career that you want people to know more about or that you’re really proud of and wished it received more attention?

The vast bulk of my career was spent developing and writing for licensed IP. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I worked on things that I loved across comics, animation, TV, and videogames. I have a varied fandom across those forms of media.

The credits that mean the most to me are the ones that are entirely my original creation. In comics, that would be my creator-owned series, The Sisterhood of Steel. It was an 8-issue mini-series published by Epic Comics (a creator-owned line of comics from Marvel in the 1980s), and a graphic novel sequel that I co-published with Eclipse Comics. The graphic novel is harder to find, but the comics are still around and readily available from places like mycomicshop.com.

In games, though I don’t own them, I loved creating my two adventure games for Sierra On-Line: Conquests of Camelot (King Arthur) and Conquests of the Longbow (Robin Hood). Both can be played on gog.com.

And there’s my book: Writing for Animation, Comics, and Games.

I was surprised to learn that there were only 65 episodes of Jem as it seemed like there were hundreds. Regardless, it made quite a cultural impact in its 3 short seasons. What do you think contributed to that impact and what do you consider to be the show’s lasting legacy?

As I mentioned earlier, 65 was a typical syndication run at that time. It allowed stations to “strip” the show, meaning to show episodes five times a week for thirteen weeks.

As the years passed, I became more and more aware of what a pop culture phenomenon it was and is. People who watched it as kids are introducing it to their own kids. The show continues to resonate with each new generation, in spite of becoming outdated in the fashions, music, and technology. Jem may have been set in the 1980s, but the underlying themes are universal.

I believe that it’s because all the elements of Jem came together to create a whole greater than its parts. We had characters with depth, excellent stories, fantastic art design, wonderful music, and terrific voice and singing talent. Everything meshed, everything worked together beautifully. In the end, stories have power and live on. Good stories endure, so Jem will endure.

[This interview was originally conducted in March, 2021 and originally published in issue #2 of Retrofied Magazine. You can purchase your own physical copy here.]