As I mentioned in a previous post, there are a lot of odd or intriguing ideas in the world of comic books that sometimes slip through the cracks and fall into obscurity. Among these weird ideas was one that arose at DC Comics called Prez. Originally created back in 1973, the very short-lived series followed a teenage boy named Prez Rickard who is elected President thanks to a constitutional mandate made to cater to the youth culture of the baby boom. Most likely developed to cash in on the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1971, the series only managed to reach issue four before it faced cancellation. Since then, Prez and its central conceit of a teenage president has received mentions here and there but never received any further continuation. However, that has changed. Writer Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell have teamed up to create a limited series using this central premise. However, they are not simply continuing the adventures and trials of Prez Rickard. Instead, they use the central conceit of a teenage president as their vehicle to cast a satirical eye on the current state of American politics and culture. Such is the intention and approach with this new series, simply called Prez.
The year is 2036. The American political system is gridlocked by party ideology and sefish desires, with its elections decided by Twitter vote. Corporations have politicians virtually bought and paid for, using them to push agendas that will put more money in their company pockets at the suffering of others. Millions suffer and are willing to virtually kill themselves as they try to get by, justifying it with how there is sometimes that one who succeeds and achieves wealth and fame. One such person is Bethany Ross, a 19-year old girl trying to raise money to help pay for her father’s hospital bills. One day, Bethany ends up in a workplace accident, one that becomes a viral video and earns her the nickname of “Corn Dog Girl”. A few members of Anonymous seize the moment and cast votes for her, making her a presidential candidate. Not only that, but she actually manages to win. Now that she is president, Bethany decides to use her position to actually improve things in America and not just further the suffering. With the help of people like Vice President Preston Rickard and benevolent trillionaire Fred Wayne, she will prove that politics actually can help to serve the people. However, her plans make her an enemy to a shadowy group of corporations profiting off the misery. Leader among them is Boss Smiley, CEO of Smiley Enterprises and intent on bringing Bethany down.
Right off the bat, this series strikes hard with its depiction of the near future. Television debates offer instant stats on who is doing better, with the victor ultimately being whoever says what people want to hear regardless of if it is true or not. Politicians wheel and deal to squeeze every last prize from those who need anything from them. Politics is presented as having become a sheer spectacle, truly just serving those who are lining their pockets by abusing the system. Not only in politics, either. The world seems to be entrenched in a greed that profits off the poor even as they struggle. Hospitals offer an ad-free experience if you are willing to pay fifty dollars. News programs offer biased stories to grab your attention, solely designed to maintain viewers and push the agendas of corporate leaders. Some people even have to turn to websites like SickStarter in a desperate bid to raise the necessary funds for hospital bills. It is a sickening reflection, a what-if on how the world might go when corporate greed, money-gouging app tactics, and increasing political polarization intersect with our increasingly digital world on a regular basis. However, it is not simply the world itself that helps to make this series shine. It is also its characters.
Bethany Ross works well as a protagonist in this series. She is very much a normal person caught in extraordinary circumstances with this election, really just wanting some form of a normal life after being elevated into a viral video icon and eventually the president. However, when push comes to shove, she will do what is right. Seeing the pain that people go through in an economy that has become a lottery where most everyone loses, she seeks to set things right so others do not have to suffer like she has. Likewise, Boss Smiley is a great antagonist set against the honesty of someone like Bethany Ross. He has the sort of chilling confidence and manipulative nature that one can imagine from a truly crooked CEO. In fact, the series features a rather clever notion for Boss Smiley and his cabal of corporate leaders: none of their faces are shown. They hide their faces behind holograms of their company’s icons. It is an approach that works on two levels. Firstly, it serves as a visual reminder that it is not only individuals who pose a threat to Bethany, it is also their corporations that have been dragging down America and profiting from it. Secondly, it serves as a reminder of their dishonesty. Though they try to manipulate others with pleasing deals and nice-sounding ideas, their faces are ultimately hidden and obscured by the lies they spin. It is no wonder that it takes an honest woman like Bethany to challenge their crooked status quo.
Sometimes, it can be within the odd or the obscure that a great source of inspiration can spring up. In the case of Prez, it takes a concept from the ’70s about a teenage president and uses it as a lens to examine our current political and social landscape with a deft hand and sharp humor. The first part of the limited series has now been collected in Prez, Vol. 1: Corndog-In-Chief, which is available in stores now.