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Friday, September 2, 2016

Panel Vision - Prez (2015) Review

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Edited by Robert Beach

This has been a strange year for politics. Mainly this election feels like the capstone on the long trend of social media growing to define the political arena rather than just reflect it. At the time of writing, the most recent bit of bizarre web memetics dominating the conversation about the national election came when the head of Latinos for Donald Trump threatened that “if Hillary wins, you’ll see Taco Trucks on every corner.” 

Naturally, this bit of bizarre posturing has drawn uproarious laughter from most corners, probably because “a taco truck on every corner” sounds like a god damn utopia. Even though the injection of tacos into the forefront of the presidential election seems ludicrous, it made me realize there had been on brilliant voice who saw this all coming, one spot-on genius comic: 2015’s Prez. 

Lasting a tragically brief six issues, Prez is probably going to go down as one of the best comics of the decade that never got the chance it deserved, similar to David F. Walker’s Nighthawk. The book saw print as part of a rebranding initiative in early 2015 when DC dropped the title of “The New 52,” which they’d been using since the 2011 relaunch and changed their branding title DC You. 

The rebrand saw a lot of new series with Prez as the most bizarre as it’s technically a reboot. The original Prez was a four-issue limited series DC published in 1973 and was written by Captain America co-creator Joe Simon. As such, the modern Prez adaptation does feature some curious reworkings of previous ideas and shout out returns of older characters. And yet, the central pitch of “political satire surrounding our 1st teen president” remains the focus. 

That’s the central joke of the series. The execution of it is less about the comedy of a teen with presidential power than you’d think. Set in 2036, Prez is more about the vision of a cyber-dystopia future and how its titular teen president Beth Ross acts as a force for good and change in the horrifying new future she’s inherited. Prez’s future may be one of the most terrifyingly possible and thoroughly modern visions of tomorrow I’ve ever seen. 

It’s a world steeped in digital detritus where the line between social media and reality has been removed. There are always status updates floating around various characters; political candidates meet with Youtube celebrities to curry favor; people vote through Twitter; every corporation now sports an adorable and memetic mascot all its own. It’s like a terrifying blend of Zero Theorem and Idiocracy, though, shockingly, it's more balanced than either. 

Most of the time when it comes to cyber dystopia's like Prez, the imagined future exists as a critique against our imagined present. That’s not the case with Prez.  Sure, things like Internet distraction culture or comforting online corporate branding have been co-opted as tools of oppression against the masses. At the same time, it’s the Twitter vote, Anonymous, and the public’s meme fixation that ends up making Beth president in the first place. That’s the set-up: Beth Ross becomes a viral hit at the time of the Presidential election. Through some hilariously short-sighted political skullduggery, she ends up President. 

As President, Beth’s main role in the book is as a voice of reason struggling to impose that reasonability. She’s an audience surrogate in the sense she’s one of the only characters aware of how incredibly messed up everything is, and she’s struggling to put things right, even though she’s painfully aware her power is limited.  

Preston Rickard, the main character of the 1973 Prez comic, joins her in this struggle as her Vice-President. It’s not terribly clear whether the Pres of this comic is the same guy from the previous series, but his key role is acting as Beth’s closest advisor. He’s the expert on everything that’s going on while still being outside the craziness enough to provide sound advice. 

That set-up: Beth and Pres working to form a government that can hopefully undo the surrealist comedy dystopia the world has become with the main antagonist of the comic being Boss Smiley. Smiley is the only other character from the original comic to be revamped here, and it’s an excellent redesign.  

The original Boss Smiley was a political mover and shaker with a creepy flesh-colored smiley face for a head. This new version of the character is a corporate head, literally and figuratively. Smiley represents the leader of a whole cadre of the world’s largest corporations, all of whom wear freaky holographic masks for faces.

While all of Prez works as a great parody of today’s political and Internet culture, the Secret CEOs are where the book rises to the level of true satire and becomes something genius. This is also the part of the book where any appreciation for the subject of mockery is stripped away and replaced with deep, unabiding scorn.  

More than anything else, Prez is a virulent and unapologetic critique of capitalism. The world it developed is a chillingly exaggerated vision of late-stage capitalism, as is pointed out by one of the characters in a later issue. 

If there is one problem with Prez, it’s that this message gets somewhat obfuscated in the mini-series closing issues. The problem with this story set-up highlights the insurmountable nature of engrained capitalism that has framed itself as the core of society politics is designed to serve. That’s a very depressing message for a comedy.  

While the book makes a great point about the Corporate Head’s promotion of a system of inequality as the best thing for everyone, the book's finale still needs some heroic rich guy to stand at Beth’s side. Otherwise, she’d have no hope of achieving anything. 

That character ends up one Fred Wayne, a reclusive trillionaire who developed a super computer that manages to cull profitable patents and ideas out of a stream of random gibberish. This means Fred and his company own most conceivable inventions and are constantly producing great books and screenplays written by their random word generator. 

Fred’s a tricky part of the story in that he’s rich enough to buy Delaware, yet also hates the capitalist political system strangling things. He functions as Beth’s wealthy backer for when she needs to go head-to-head with Boss Smiley and friends. That makes him an incredibly necessary part of the story but also a contrived one and more than a little hard to swallow given the way corporate greed and dishonesty seems so rampant in this world. 

He’s not completely unbelievable, and it’s gratifying to see him stomp around in his everyday clothes with enough money to make the richest people in the world take him seriously. Fred Wayne just feels like Deus Ex Machina. To be fair, the series was meant to have another six issues, and it’s clear Fred was supposed to play a larger role going forward. 

Prez is one of those brilliant minor miracles you have to wonder that it was allowed to happen at all. It’s a brilliant satire of the cyber-dystopia that is modern life and especially of the political surrealism that’s come to dominate 2016.  

Believe me, I didn’t even mention half the awesomely weird or terrifyingly accurate things in this book (there’s a whole extend plot critiquing America’s drone program that revolves around a battle drone developing sentience.)  It was also, as mentioned, extremely insightful on what was to come, which brings me back to the taco truck gaff that kicked off this review.

In the first issue of Prez, one of the scenes that’s meant to highlight the ridiculousness of the current political system is a debate show between two senators. The two are discussing a new bill that would get taco-bearing drones to feed those on food stamps in exchange for the poor being outfitted with promotional taco clothes.  

It’s a beautifully ludicrous moment that sums up Prez’s whole world view perfectly: the system and the people within it simply exist to serve at the capitalist alter even as it becomes more and more surreally transparent that they’re just dressing up cheap commercialism in the flag. “It’s about Taco Freedom!” they say, and the people just eat it up.  

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