Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Prez, Volume 1: Corndog-in-Chief Review (Mark Russell, Ben Caldwell)

America, 2036. Beth Ross is a 19 year old college student working part-time at a corndog place, filming a training video where she accidentally burns her hair - which of course gets uploaded to the internet. The video goes viral and she becomes known as “Corndog Girl”. Regardless of being able to vote via Twitter, voter apathy is at an all-time high for the new election. Hacker collective Anonymous (they of the V for Vendetta masks) decide to put Corndog Girl up as a protest campaign - and she wins. Beth Ross aka Corndog Girl is… President of the United States!? 

Writer Mark Russell and his art team, headed up by Ben Caldwell and Mark Morales, revive Joe Simon (Captain America’s co-creator) and Jerry Grandenetti’s short-lived DC comic from the early ‘70s about teenager Preston Rickard who inexplicably becomes President. This time though the protagonist is a girl but with similar characters from the original comic, like the antagonist, Boss Smiley, who’s a CEO with a smiley-face logo obscuring his real face. It’s also part of the relaunched line-up dubbed DC You and one of the best new DC comics I’ve read in some time! 

The setup is clearly satirical and, like all great satires, the tone switches from comedy to pathos throughout to nail its targets effectively. It’s also a dystopian story, a genre which, while often set in the future, is always about the present, and the world of Prez is, sadly, all too familiar. 

The government are spying on its citizens, corporations hold far too much political clout, novelty candidates become serious candidates (Trump), healthcare is bankrupting families, the public can “like” a candidate during a televised debate, politicians are getting stuff they want in return for votes/favours, there are border problems and immigrants are getting screwed with crap jobs and slave wages, warfare is conducted by Americans continents away who view it as a video game, and ordinary people are hauled off to Guantanamo Bay for being non-white and having the temerity to be living within warzones. The Church of Wormology, which believes that every living thing, including micro-organisms, have a right to life, feels very much like the pro-life crowd too. 

Trial by Facebook doesn’t seem that far off given the public judge people on social media like Twitter already, and I’m sure we’ll soon start seeing candidates appearing on Youtube shows because more people watch those instead of traditional TV. 

Russell pulls off the extremely tricky juggling act of going from groan-worthy comedy (the Majority Whip is literally whipping someone), to biting satire (where the poor shoot themselves on live TV for entertainment/money), to cold reality (dead kids in the Middle East). It’s remarkable how a book that has something as genuinely funny as Carl, the End-of-Life Bear, and the death of Beth’s father in the same scene manages not to feel stilted as it switches from humour to moving drama. 

The original Prez, Preston Rickard, is now an old man but offers to help Beth as her VP with a salient piece of advice: “Do you know how hated presidents stay alive? They find a Vice President who is hated even more.” That said, I haven’t read the original comics so I’m not sure what he did to make him so hated - I’m guessing, considering this is America, he was anti-gun/Christianity/big business and pro-affordable healthcare/peace/social programmes?

Prez is a compelling read because of the various plotlines Russell expertly spins out. I’m not going to go into the details here but broadly they involve an eccentric billionaire who owns Delaware (whose surname is Wayne but isn’t Batman - he at least has the sense to know his billions can create real change through investment rather than dressing up as a “Dark Knight”!), a disease called Cat Flu that’s ravaging the nation, Beth’s decision to end all America’s wars and go on a global apology tour, and a robot killing machine that gains sentience and changes its name from War Beast to Tina! It’s really good stuff. I’m surprised Prez was actually published under the DC banner as this feels more like a Vertigo title - fans of the Vertigo series Transmetropolitan will definitely enjoy this one. 

If there’s a criticism it’s that a 19 year old former fast food employee adapts into the role of Leader of the Free World a little too easily - she’s being a klutz when we first meet her and by the end she’s conducting complex negotiations and effortlessly making decisions on global issues! It’s also definitely got a liberal flavour to it which more conservative readers might dislike (not me, I’m a “socialist” Brit!), though Russell portrays both Republicans, Democrats, and all of Washington DC as useless fuckwits! So there is some nonfiction mixed into the fiction...

Otherwise, Prez is an outstanding title; a clever, sharply observed and inventive satire on the America of today through the facade of the America of tomorrow - definitely one of the best from DC I’ve read in some time. If quality like this is what DC You has in store for us, I’m all for it. I vote for everyone to pick up Prez!

Prez, Volume 1: Corndog-in-Chief

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