The road that brought us to DC’s latest Prez reboot is an odd one. Created by Captain America co-creator Joe Simon and artist Jerry Grandenetti in the early 1970s, the original incarnation of the character was pitched to audiences as a charismatic Caucasian lad named “Prez” Rickard, who improbably becomes the first teenage president of the United States. The series failed to catch on, not least of all because of its garbled, vaguely-but-not-quite-radical-enough political bent. In the ‘90s, Prez saw a brief resurgence as a brief, darkly comic side-story in Neil Gaiman’s seminal Sandman and again in a 1995 story written by a then-green Ed Brubaker for DC’s Vertigo comics imprint. Frank Miller even made Prez a sinister hologram in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Nobody cared about Prez. He was a joke character on par with comic oddities like Animal Vegetable Mineral Man or Brother Power the Geek, occasionally trotted out by some enterprising creative team for a page then discarded. So, with all this in mind, it’s remarkable that not only is Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell’s 2015 reimagining of Prez a great comic, it’s the best satire comics has seen in years.
Set 21 years in our future, Prez has proved eerily prescient of national news over these last few months. The titular Prez, reimagined as teenage fast-food worker Beth Ross, is elected to the presidency through an arcane series of events after a video of her burning her hair in a deep fryer goes viral. Even ignoring that we currently have someone famous for acting stupid riding through the primaries on a wave of irony, Beth’s unwilling candidacy for high office via the “Corndog Girl” YouTube video was mirrored in actual reality when 15-year-old candidate “Deez Nuts” famously surged in the polls. A week after the New York Times published its scathing exposé of white-collar worker conditions inside Amazon, Prez No. 3 opened with a suspiciously Jeff Bezos–esque Boss Smiley (Prez’s primary foe in the Simon comics, here largely unchanged except that his trademark smiley face is a hologram obscuring his face at all times) demanding his retail-goods factory workers submit to reviews of the tiniest aspects of their daily work before ascending to the sky to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Beth has a “Sickstarter” campaign to pay for her dying father’s outrageously overpriced medical care — how many of us have contributed to a sick friend or loved one’s GoFundMe? With Prez, Russell brilliantly distorts the very real-world issues you and I face in the news every day with funhouse-mirror weirdness.
The book’s major theme, the humiliating commodification of human life, is appropriately unsubtle: Groups of men stand in the rain forming a living PAYDAY LOAN sign, and the poor are made to wear “Taco Drone” ads on their clothing in exchange for government-subsidized fast food in a program that’s proposed to replace SNAP. A character is fired for taking a bathroom break that’s several seconds too long. That’s not even getting the fact that the book features Middle Eastern children getting shot in the streets by military robots remotely operated by snack-munching slobs in beanbag chairs. That all of these things feel only a little far-fetched in reality speaks to the book’s genius.
The staggering level of complexity and detail series artist Ben Caldwell (and, in issue No. 4, Dominike “Domo” Stanton) builds into the world of Prez is astonishing, especially for a monthly comic. The book is full of bizarre background gags, like the “Corn Dog Pleasure Analytics” screen in Beth’s boss’s office or the fact that Lil Doggie’s House of Corndogs makes employees wear hats that constantly scream “ASK ABOUT OUR SPECIALS.” Beyond being funny, Caldwell’s use of visual signifiers adds a whole new level to certain sequences. When Senator Thorn and spineless Democratic presidential candidate Tom Downey debate “The Predatory Pork Act” on a pseudo–Fox News program, we watch their up-votes from viewers go up or down in “real time” via onscreen icons. We get used to these background details, so when Caldwell throws a curveball at the reader (like a Honduran child waving from behind the walls of a human zoo in issue two), we’re floored. And you can’t talk about Prez without talking about how the book uses color. Jeremy Lawson’s palette for the book accentuates the mundane whites and grays of daily life in future America with the hot pinks and pale blues of the books’ ubiquitous holographic displays and ads.
A big part of why Prez works is “Corndog Girl” herself. The book takes its time letting us get to know Beth Ross. As of the first issue, we know her favorite band is Trans Vaginal Mesh, that she’s stuck in a dead-end job, and that her father is dying of cat flu in a budget hospital. Despite being elected to high office against her will, Beth is an intelligent person who wants to do the right thing. Her inauguration speech in issue three is the kind of powerful character monologue Aaron Sorkin loses sleep wishing he could write:
“I know I don’t deserve to be here. That this whole situation is backwards. I suppose I should feel guilty about that. But then, so much of this country is backwards. People with real problems don’t have the money to fix them. And the people with money don’t have any real problems. Our wealth has gotten bored. It’s gone on permanent vacation at offshore banks and in China, while the work at home remains undone. We’ve turned our economy into a lottery and tell ourselves its okay because occasionally someone wins.”
The shadowy cabal running Prez’s America — faceless corporate avatars in suits with names like Pharma-Duke and Grizzly Tobacco — is at first threatened by Ross’s status as an unknown whom they can’t manipulate or buy. After her inauguration speech, it becomes clear she’s also an intelligent and capable opponent. Beth Ross feels like a real person rather than an obnoxious author stand-in, whose righteousness and anger feel like a natural extension of who she is: one of the millions of working poor hurt by the broken status quo maintained by Boss Smiley and his cronies. Whereas the original Prez (a version of whom appears in the series as a sort of Joe Biden–esque mentor to Beth) was imagined as an unflinchingly noble teen president, much of this comic centers around the inherently decent Beth struggling to do the right thing in the face of her own doubts and a seemingly unbeatable political machine. It’s Beth’s nobility that gives the book a grounded, vigilant optimism amid heavy farce such as the marijuana-dispensing helper robot Carl, the-End-of-Life Bear.
Just as Simon’s original Prez comic was a strange little mutant among the capes-and-tights comics of its day, the unapologetically political Prez is
a stark contrast to not just DC’s current slate of books but to anything mainstream comics are publishing. It’s hysterical, it’s sad, and, most important, it doesn’t pull any punches. Here’s hoping for a second term in office after this six-issue mini-series (ominously, it was originally slated for 12 books) concludes.