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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Panel Vision - Prez '73

DC Comics recently concluded a 4-year long branding exercise entitled the New 52.  To do a proper autopsy of the New 52 would require several in depth essays over the course of a small eternity but suffice it to say it’s not really being viewed as a success.  So, as a result, DC is now launching a new branding initiative entitled DC You (puny.)  Probably the most suprising title to come out of the DC You is Prez, a comic set in a not to distant future that plays like a weird cross between Idiocracy and The Zero Theorem as directed by VEEP’s Armando Iannucci.  The books is basically a social satire, spoofing the entire 21st century miasma of corporate interest, political gridlock, Internet distraction, and public exhaustion with a system that seems ever more absurd.
 It’s a good comic, one of the few books DC’s put out in 5 years to feel grounded in the realities of the now and the broadening reader demographic rather than drawing on the conventional wisdom of the ‘90s.  However, Prez isn’t a new comic, it’s actually a revival of a 1973 4-issue mini-series by Superman co-creator Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti, one of the most influential comic artists of all time.  

1973’s Prez is an odd, bloodshot-eyed duck of a comic that plays like a pro-voting PSA that was hijacked by a politically active lunatic.  The impetus for the series seems to have been the landmark amendment in 1971 that gave 18 year olds the right to vote.  That’s the jumping off point that informs Prez’ unique blend of futurism and surrealism.  From the outset the series seems like an odd mix of optimistic cynicism, focusing on the importance of the new 18 year old vote and how it could lead to teen politicians.  From there Prez takes a sharp right turn into crazy town with its antagonist Boss Smiley. 

Smiley is a corrupt political mayor of Central City, seemingly a parallel Earth version of the home of DC hero the Flash.  His rule is defined by rampant poverty, deep-rooted corruption, choking pollution, and a general thuggish disdain for the citizenry while also forcing all people to wear his branded smile banner.  Also Boss Smiley is a hideous abomination with a giant fleshy emoticon for a head.  Smiley is the perfect exemplifier of Prez’s ferociously imaginative brand of weirdness.  All the stuff surrounding his character is a very politically minded and seems to be informed by a genuine anger and passion over the state of politics.  A lot of this was probably a reaction to the 1972 re-election of Richard Nixon and a general lack of faith in America’s leaders as the ‘70s began in earnest. 

Boss Smiley even has a picture of himself and Richard Nixon displayed prominently on his desk, along with another one of him and Hitler on the wall.  The thing is that all that political anger and energy ends up wedded to some of the most surrealistic and insane ideas you’ll ever see sober.  For instance, that same issue Boss Smiley goes to converse with his cousin Misery Marko, an advertising genius who lives on a cruise ship that’s covered in psychedelic, pop art style advertisements and is docked in polluted water.
It’s a bizarre dichotomy because of how weirdly unobtrusive the out there concepts end up.  Even putting aside Boss Smiley’s hideous deformity or Misery Marko’s cartoonish lair the commentary on corrupt leaders placed into power through aggressive advertising that emphasizes a positive attitude in the face of unaddressed major issues is impossible to miss.  

The 2nd issue is more of the same in this regard only with the spoofing cannons directed squarely at foreign affairs with a then topical jab at the 1972 world chess championship.  The whole issue is a viscous take down of international pomp and ceremony as a smoke screen for horrid conditions.  However Prez doesn’t really reach transcendently scary levels of commentary and prediction till issue 3, which is about gun control. 

In Prez #3, the teen President, whose first name is just Prez much how Boss Smiley’s first name was Boss, is launching a bill to ban small arms.  In response to this a sizable amount of Americans have dawned Revolutionary War period costumes and declared them selves rebels against the government.  The group is known as the Minute Men and led by Gregor Washington, an alleged descendant of George Washington.  The comic itself describes them as a “organization of fanatics who are fearful that young liberals and minorities are all part of a communist plot to overthrow the government.”  It’s amazing how perfectly the Prez managed to predict pretty much all right wing political discourse of the Internet age, from the anachronistic obsession with the founding fathers to the bizarre insistence on communist manifesto collusion.  

I’m not sure if this is just the result of these kind of people always existing or a comic book with amazing powers of prediction but it’s impressive none the less.  The whole issue is amazingly written regardless of how well it manages to connect to the modern age.  It helps that this is the only issue to really afford Prez Richards any kind of character or arc.  Most of the time he’s just there as a living embodiment of everything Joe Simon seems to want teen voters to be but in this issue there’s a major emphasis on him having to move past some of his flower child idealism.  It’s a well done arc, emphasizing how Prez really does make every right decision to avoid a violent confrontation with the Minute Men but still can’t manage it, which is a shockingly adult moral for a comic so grounded in fantastical abandon and passionate but simplistic political ideology.  
The only major red flag for Prez comes in the form of Prez Richard’s head of the FBI, a Native American named Eagle Free.  Eagle Free is a noble effort from Joe Simon and I like the inclusion of a person of color as a main character, that kind of representation was only just finding its feet in the ‘70s, but he can’t help but be swallowed up by some unfortunate aspects.  The problem with Eagle Free is that he’s more of a stereotype than a person, in particular he’s the “Native American Crying At Pollution” stereotype made flesh.  His back-story is that he was a student at university who eventually chose to reject the world of man and live in the woods in a cave.  He can communicate with animals as well and while there are shades of the conservationism and return to nature movement in his character and story it’s hard to avoid his embodiment of the noble savage stereotype.  As I said I respect Joe Simon for jumping on the chance to feature a person of color predominantly in his comic especially a first nations character as that’s quite the rarity in and of itself and while I like the idea of Eagle Free as Prez’s moral compass he just can’t overcome the unfortunate caricature-isms of his depiction.  

I admit that’s a pretty problematic element of Prez to overlook but I would still encourage people to check out the original series because there is so much good to be found in it as well.  My descriptions of the mini-series’ craziness doesn’t do it anything close to justice and a lot of the out-there political aspects need to be seen to be believed.  What’s more the artwork by Jerry Grandenetti is just spectacular.  Grandenetti is one of the few major non-superhero comic artists and he brings his unique sensibilities to the book in that respect.  His background in war comics really comes through the strongest in issue 3 but every issue features some stupendous splash work and great panel conception.  Grandenetti has a real gift for creating vast, defining, 2-page spreads that tell a whole story with just one image and use the additional space as basically jut gravy.  It all ends up a weird medley of mid-70s liberally minded political angst welded onto the last remnants of ‘60s high concept weirdness.  

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