This isn’t the America he fought for in World War Two. It’s not the America that he personified, along with Jack Kirby, in the pages of Captain America. Richard Nixon is embroiled in the Watergate scandal. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been gunned down. Tens of thousands of American men are dying in Vietnam. The establishment has failed.
Maybe, thinks Joe, it’s time to give those kids a turn.
* * *
Our elections are being bought and sold by monolithic corporations. Robotic assassins, piloted from hundreds of miles away, stalk the airspace in the Middle East. Religious extremism is sending spasms of violence across the world. The establishment has failed.
Maybe, thinks Mark, it’s time to give those kids a turn.
[divider]A Review of Prez, Then and Now[/divider]
Prez (both the original and the relaunch), at its core, is a comic about a kid who becomes the President of the United States. Both of them came at a time when faith in the American government was at its lowest point. Both of them make the case that it’s “the grownups” that have caused all the problems, and the solution for the country’s problems is a leader that’s decent, honest, and, most importantly, young.
In Prez ’73, that leader is Prez Rickard (when he was born, his mother said “Someday this baby will be president.” Impressive foresight that my parents didn’t share, or my name would be Unemployable), a hippie who gets the attention of Boss Smiley, the world’s most powerful political fixer. After some ensuing hijinks, Prez, along with his new Chief of the FBI, an American Indian named Eagle Free, makes it to the White House. By the way–Boss Smiley will haunt your nightmares.
In Prez ’15, Beth Ross, star of a viral video in which she accidentally sets her hair on fire, stumbles into the Oval Office after Anonymous stages a Twitter campaign to have her as a write-in candidate.
Beyond the structure, the books couldn’t have a more different aesthetic. The original is sincere, but hysterically goofy, featuring, in ascending order of wackiness, a gang of gun-rights advocates dressed as Colonial-era minutemen:
A parody of Bobby Fischer, who wears a king costume during games:
And Dracula, who, for reasons that are never adequately explained, scoots around on a wooden board like Eddie Murphy in the beginning of Trading Places:
And that’s just the first three I found.
The relaunch, in a move that will devastate those of us who would buy a weekly Crippled Dracula series, tones down the bonkers insanity in favor of razor blades made out of satire. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with the fact that Joe Simon’s brand of genius was rarer than a blue steak. Whatever the reason, it has the happy side effect of making Prez the best comic DC published in 2015.
Prez is brilliant. First of all, it’s gorgeous; Caldwell’s pencils are energetic in a way that doesn’t detract from the earnestness of the story. His designs for the story’s near-future tech, from taco-delivering spy drones to Carl, the End-of-Life hospice bear, not only look cool, but also have a rock-solid plausibility, as if they’ve evolved through several consumer models. They’re the kinds of things people would stand in line for on launch day for, is what I’m saying (much love to inker Mark Morales and colorist Jeremy Lawson–I’m sorry I don’t know enough about your craft to adequately compliment you).
Russell’s script is funny, poetic, and heartfelt. He’s certainly not the first person to use news broadcasts for exposition, but he’s definitely one of the best at it, using talking heads and social media to build a world and weave together a complex plot that involves a transgender robot, a cult of bacteria, and an Oscar-winning supercomputer. Beth is portrayed again and again as the lone voice of compassion, a good-hearted girl who seems to be the only person who realizes just how horrifying her world is.
Prez is also mean. It’s “Hunter S. Thompson going after Nixon” mean. It points fingers. It names names. It’s a raw, unflinching indictment of the current American mood, from politics to entertainment, and it demands accountability in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the more serious Daily Show monologues. Prez depicts Congress as a bunch of whiny children nestled comfortably in the pockets of big business:
Drone pilots as fat jocks who kill children:
News outlets as brainless puppets:
And the “intelligence” community as cheerful sadists:
If you don’t know why that’s utterly, toad-lickingly crazy, if you don’t know why this is a Big Deal, you probably don’t remember Action Comics #869. That’d be this one:
The one that depicts Clark and Pa Kent, leaning against a fence, drinking some root beer. Well, if you have that issue, you might stand to make about $50 off it, because that cover was recalled. The issue that was sent to the shelves looked like this:
Yes, it was declared that the world was not ready to see Superman, who, for 75 years, has been a fully-grown adult male (and, I hasten to add, killed thousands of people in his latest film adaptation, a movie so dark and gritty it looked like it was filmed through a stocking full of gravel), drinking a bottle of (root) beer with his old man. And yet Prez is allowed to unleash biblical levels of vitriol and invective on an entire country.
Both the ’73 and ’15 versions have a lot to say about the shape we’re in as a country, and Russell & Caldwell place a lot of the responsibility on a population too lazy, selfish, and jaded to care. But, most importantly, both books have an explicit message of hope: that the new generation can repair the damage caused by the old. And if you think any different…
Russell & Caldwell’s Prez is funny, smart, and sad. It’s also
cancelled going to be a long wait until the next storyline. It was too much to hope for that something like Prez would last, but we should be thankful that it existed at all.
UPDATE (12.8.15): I incorrectly stated the Prez had been cancelled. I was happy to have been informed this is not the case.