Interview with Christy Marx, Writer for '80s Cartoons Jem, G.I. Joe, Spider-Man & Many More

(This interview was originally published May 11, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Christy Marx. You might not recognize the name, but she is quite an accomplished writer who '80s fans might know best as the creator and head writer of the animated series Jem and the Holograms. Previous to that, she had written for both G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends among other shows. Find out more about her, writing for those popular and memorable animated series and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Christy Marx...

Q: When and why did you know you wanted to be a professional writer? When and how did you get your own start in that industry? What attracted you to comic books and animation in particular?
Christy: I became obsessed with comics from the earliest possible age. I was madly in love with comics, loved reading comics, loved collecting comics and wanted to grow up to draw comics. Unfortunately, I didn't have the artistic ability to do that, but my passion for creating characters and telling stories through a visual medium was always there. I got my break when I was living in L.A. and Roy Thomas, who was the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics at the time, also moved to L.A. I met him when he was speaking to a small gathering of fans, showed him a Conan story I'd written, he bought it and that became my first published story. Roy bought other stories from me for 'What If...' and 'Red Sonja.'

As for animation, it never occurred to me that animation had writers, nor was I especially interested in animation. Up until that time, most animation was comedy and I don't write comedy. I had gotten to know a group of comics writers and artists and a friend from that group told me about a studio that was making a Fantastic Four animation series. They were looking for writers who had done FF stories and the 'What If...' story I'd sold to Roy happened to be a FF story. On the basis of that, I got an interview and was hired to write an episode of the series.

Q: As a kid, I always loved when my favorite comic book characters were brought to life in the cartoons. Thus I fondly remember watching Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. How did you come to write episodes for that show? What can you tell us about the show in general and your experience helping create those five episodes?
Christy: That came about as a direct result of writing the FF episode. That FF series, a Spider-Man series and 'Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends' were all produced by the DePatie-Freleng Studio. I was in the door via the first script. Animation writers were rare at the time and they obviously liked my work, so they hired me to write for the next two Spider-Man shows.

It was great fun and I learned a lot about my craft from working on those shows. I also had the pleasure and privilege of working with Stan Lee. We had a strong collaboration in creating the origin story for Firestar ('A Firestar is Born'.)

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends ran on NBC as a Saturday morning cartoon from 1981 to 1983 and then as repeats for three more years after that. The show featured Spider-Man, Iceman, and original character, Firestar. The third superhero was originally intended to be the Human Torch, but licensing issues led to him being replaced by Firestar who had similar powers but created specifically for the series. As she mentioned, Marx helped create the origin story for Firestar with none other than Stan Lee himself who also narrated episodes for seasons 2-3. It was definitely one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons back then and I especially enjoyed when other Marvel superheroes (like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and others) made guest appearances.

Q: Then it appears you went on to write for the very popular G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon series which help feed the success of the action-figures toy line. What can you tell us about the show in general and your experience helping create those three episodes (including two 2-parters)?
Christy: I moved from writing for DePatie-Frelengto writing for Sunbow Productions, who made G.I. Joe. It was one of the best times of my career for a number of reasons. Sunbow treated writers extremely well, even to the point of buying me an expensive computer. I gained Steve Gerber as my mentor and then dear friend and got to know many wonderful writers that I still call friends after all these years. Steve was ahead of his time and made every writer create their scripts on a computer, send them via a modem and communicate on a BBS... all of which was nearly unknown outside a small circle of technophiles, so he was responsible for putting me ahead of the curve in using computers.

Joe was a challenging show to write for. The bible of characters and vehicles filled a massive three-ring binder. For each episode, you were told to use a certain set of characters and certain vehicles and you had to come up with an exciting story built around them. Steve Gerber loved my first episode ('Countdown for Zartan') so much that he happily assigned me the following two-parters ('Synthoid Conspiracy' and 'Captives of Cobra') to do. And I loved doing them because I could really stretch and tell an epic story focusing on more characters.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero ran in syndication from 1985 to 1986. It was based off of two 5-part mini-series that ran in 1983 and 1984 and, of course, the very successful Hasbro toyline. Like most cartoons back then, the primary purpose was to promote the toyline and this one did that especially well. Each episode ended with a PSA to impart safety tips and/or ethical behavior to children.

Here's a clip from Marx's "Synthoid Conspiracy"...

Q: Looking back now, I appreciate the "Now you know and knowing is half the battle" PSA messages that each show included. Jem also provided girls with a strong successful female role model to see. What are your feelings at including positive messages in the cartoons especially aimed at children? Was that something you consciously considered when writing those shows?
Christy: I wasn't even aware that Joe had PSAs at the time. They played no part in writing the scripts, they just added them in at the end. I only became aware of their existence when Sunbow asked me to write the PSAs for Jem. I didn't mind writing the PSAs, but I viewed it mainly as an extra bit of paid work.

But with the Jem series itself, I was following my natural inclinations to tell strong, positive stories. It's simply a part of who I am. I felt a responsibility never to write down to kids and to give it my best quality, no matter what subject I tackled. I wanted the show to say worthwhile things without preaching. Kids know when you're preaching to them.

Q: Speaking of Jem, how did you get involved with Jem and the Holograms? What role did you play in the development of the characters and the series? Did your role change over the course of the series?
Christy: Jem was produced by Sunbow Productions who loved my work on Joe. We had a great working relationship and I was their top female action writer, so they turned to me when they needed someone to develop the Jem series. It was a tremendous opportunity for me and my break into doing development work. I'd done a bit of development work at DePatie-Freleng, but it had never gone anywhere.

Hasbro had prototypes of the dolls. They had product names (which kept changing almost day to day!) such as Jem, Rio and Pizzazz, etc. So the two girl groups existed as dolls and they wanted the Jem/Jerrica secret identity, the holographic earring and computer, the sister named Kimber and the boyfriend named Rio. That was their set-up and everything else came from me. I developed the full characters and relationships, the Starlight Foundation, Starlight Music, the Starlight girls, Eric Raymond and all other secondary characters.

It was basically a soap opera for kids. We knew we would be doing 65 half-hours, so I had to make sure there was plenty of character richness to carry that many episode stories. I wrote 22 of the 65 episodes and was too busy developing and writing to do much else until we were near the end of the series. For the last batch of shows, I also acted as co-story editor with Roger Slifer, who was the over-all story editor. It was also my first credit as a story editor.

Jem ran in first-run syndication for 3 seasons and 65 episodes from 1985 to 1988. Marx was crucial to the development of the series by creating most of the characters and writing many of the episodes. The show follows Jerrica Benton, manager of the Starlight Music company, and her alter-ego Jem, the front-woman of the rock band Jem and the Holograms. Jerrica turns into Jem through special micro-projectors in her earrings. The Holograms have two rival bands, The Misfits and The Stingers. Many people remember the theme song which features the lyrics "Jem is truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous." Here is the opening theme to the Jem television series...

Q: Did you have any feeling at the beginning that this show would become a hit and go on to last 3 seasons like it did? At what point, did you recognize that the show might become something special?
Christy: At the time, it was a standard practice to do 65 half-hours because the shows were being sold in syndication, which is a different thing than a network show. Syndicators wanted that number of shows because they could later "strip" them, meaning show them five days a week as a strip of shows for a long run. So this wasn't a matter of the show becoming a hit; it was a matter of how the economics of syndication production worked at the time. If the toys had sold better, we might have had a pick-up for additional episodes beyond the 65, but the dolls didn't do well enough.

The first time I knew the show had special impact was when we aired the two-parter dealing with runaway kids and we ran a hotline number at the end of each part. The hotline was inundated with kids calling for help. It was astounding and gratifying. The second time was when I found myself remaining in contact with a group of dedicated fans for a decade, and then two decades after the show aired, and even still to this day. And most recently, I have heard numerous stories of parents introducing their kids to Jem all over again via the DVDs or the reruns on the Hub, and having those kids respond as strongly as their parents had before them. That told me that Jem had a reach that transcended its time.

Q: Were you involved with creating the songs or music at all? What can you tell us about how the music was created and integrated into each episode?
Christy: The writers would include the idea and placement for a song in each of the three acts of an episode. The producers would indicate how to balance out the number of Jem songs vs. Misfits or Stingers songs. When I was doing it, I would weave the song into the storyline, indicate what the theme of the song was, possibly give a title idea and some lyric guidance, and I would give a one-paragraph description of what the visuals should be. The writers had no further involvement in the creation of the music beyond that one paragraph in the script.

The music was a big contributor to the show's appeal. Over the course of the 65 episodes, the show included 187 music videos with 151 unique songs! No official Jem "soundtrack" was ever released; however, many of the songs from the first season were released on cassette with dolls or play-sets.

Jem was the #1 Nielsen rated syndicated cartoon show in November 1986 and in 1987 it was the third most watched children's program in syndication with 2.5 million viewers weekly. Despite the success of the show, the dolls didn't seem to retail well enough and, as mentioned before, the main purpose for most cartoons in the '80s was to sell a toyline. Hasbro discontinued the Jem toyline at the end of 1987 after it failed to meet sales expectations, but despite this, the show continued production and aired until 1988.

Q: Any other interesting stories or facts about making Jem that you can share with us? What are some of your best memories from making Jem?
Christy: While we were making Jem, I was living way up in the mountains north of L.A. at 5,000 feet near a ski resort town. My contact with the Sunbow people in New York was mainly by phone or snail mail. In spite of that distance, I have warm memories of working with them. They were wonderful people and they treated me like a queen. They flew me to New York a couple of times, put me up in great hotels, took me out to excellent meals and really looked after me. It was a vibrant creative process. I had little contact with Hasbro, oddly enough, and never received so much as a single doll from them. They took three of the Starlight Girls I had created and turned them into dolls and I never even saw them. The only Jem doll I ever had was one that my very proud mother bought for me!

Q: What are your feelings about Jem now almost 25 years after the last episode was created? You touched earlier on the positive reaction you've gotten since the HUB network began airing the show more recently and it was released on DVD. How does it feel that the show seems to still inspire and connect with young girls all these years later?
Christy: I feel that 'Jem' is some of the best work I ever did, and much of that is due to the creative freedom that Sunbow and Hasbro gave me. It was one of those rare combinations of multiple talents in the art design, storyboards, writing, music, singing, and acting that all came together and meshed beautifully.

And I feel that the way we approached the stories gave them a quality that makes them work today even though the look and sound dates to the '80s. The themes of love, friendship, trust, heartbreak and personal struggle are timeless. It gives me a feeling of the deepest satisfaction to know that the heart and soul of the show continues to reach new viewers.

Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s animated television (or pop culture in general)?
Christy: I don't especially relate to the culture of the decade. I think we are all shaped most strongly by the decades during which we're in our childhood and teens and I pre-date the '80s. But the decade of the '80s was significant in my growth as a writer and creator. I was working on terrific animation series and lots of them. It was the decade in which I published my creator-owned comic book series, The Sisterhood of Steel, and began designing adventure games for Sierra On-Line. I had the opportunity to write for the live-action TV series, 'Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.' It was a decade that saw many "firsts" in my career.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Christy: Starting in 1988, I concentrated on designing adventure games for Sierra and spent several years doing that. In the '90s, I did quite a bit more work in live-action television writing for 'Babylon 5' and doing development and writing on 'Hypernauts' for ABC. While working on a 'Babylon 5' video game, I met my husband, Randy Littlejohn, and we became a creative team, working on animation and games together. As a freelance writer, it helps to have a variety of skills to fall back on. The reality for freelancers is that it's about survival. You're always looking for the next job and seeking ways to advance yourself. That's pretty much a constant.

My goals have been to keep working and make a living at it, while working on projects that I enjoy and can believe in, whatever the medium happens to be. I was delighted to create an Elfquest Graphic Novel, working in close collaboration with Wendy Pini, a friend I greatly treasure and a tremendous talent.

One of my proudest career moments was receiving the WGA Animation Writing Award [in 2000]. It's means a lot because it's awarded by my peers for both achievement in animation writing and for working to advance the profession of animation writers. I was involved in helping to organize animation writers, which led to establishing the Animation Writers Caucus within the WGA.

Q: What else is Christy Marx up to nowadays? Writing and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?
Christy: The biggest change is that I gave up the freelance life and went to work full-time in the video game business. In 2007, Randy and I moved to the Bay area and worked on an MMO (massively multiplayer online game). I developed what was intended to be a transmedia IP for that project. Sadly, like many such projects, it was cancelled. For the past two plus years, I've been working as a Senior Game Designer/Narrative Designer at Zynga, which has given me the opportunity to learn the exploding area of social and mobile game design. I love being on the cutting edge of game development.

I've also been able to return to my great love - writing for comic books. It so happens that the ABC development exec I worked with on 'Hypernauts' became the VP of DC Comics. He offered me the opportunity to write the 'Amethyst' reboot comic (under the anthology title 'Sword of Sorcery'). Sadly, the 'Amethyst' book ends with issue #8. Meanwhile, I've begun writing the 'Birds of Prey' series. It's tough trying to write a monthly comic while working full-time, but at least I'm earning a living doing things that I love. How many people can say that?

I am so pleased that Christy was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. You can keep up with her on her website. I want to take this occasion to again thank Christy Marx for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Jem and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well. She is truly outrageous in our book, too!

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