On The Cheap: Everything You Need to Know About 1973’s ‘Prez’
If you’re the kind of person who does a lot of digging through Comixology sales and digital dollar boxes waiting for a good deal to roll around, then you probably noticed that DC spent last month putting a whole slew of back issues on sale every week to support the stories used as source material for Convergence. This month, Convergence is over, but it looks like the sales are going to keep going — DC is spending June with what it’s touting as its biggest digital sale ever to promote its new roster of “DC You” titles.
I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record every time I say this, but this week's sale has some really fantastic comics in it. The Justin Gray/Jimmy Palmiotti/Amanda Conner run on Power Girl is an absolute hoot, especially the story where Vartox shows up looking for a date, and John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake's Martian Manhunter has a lot of really fantastic stuff if you're into seeing how the pieces of the DC Universe can fit together, especially the "Revelations" arc. You can even pick up my favorite Geoff Johns story of all time, the Bizarro World issues of Action Comics where he teams up with The Goon's Eric Powell for a story where Superman briefly gets Superman Vision, the power to shoot rays out of his eyes that turn people into Superman. That stuff's great.
But if you're tapped out from all the deals they've been throwing at you for the past few weeks and you can only get one comic in this week's sale, if all you have is one thin dollar bill to spend on comics, then you need to get Prez #1. It might just be the weirdest thing you can buy.
This week's sale marks the first time that Joe Simon and Jerry Grandentti's original Prez has been released digitally, and as someone who loves Prez and all its weirdness --- and who couldn't be more excited about this week's release of Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell's reboot --- that's a pretty big deal. That said, even if you're completely unfamiliar with the title, it's well worth checking out, if only to see one of the most biting and sinister satires that DC ever put out.
More than anything else, the experience of reading Prez #1 feels like reading one of those Al Hartley Spire Christian Comics where Archie and Jughead attempt to lead wayward teens to Jesus, just told from the exact opposite end of the political spectrum. They're both told as these strange allegories where characters are less characters than just collections of reactions, and where the world around them is thoroughly corrupt. The difference, of course, is that the Spire comics were so conservative that there's one that literally has a scene about how much better things were in the 1900s --- it seems that in Edwardian Riverdale,"No one calls a cop a pig!!!" "And women are treated as more than equals!!!" --- while Prez is built on the idea of seeing the whole system overturned with the older generation given a swift kick on the way out.
As much as the book is sold on the premise of being about the First #Teen President of the United States, Prez Rickard himself is far from the most memorable thing about this comic. We know that he's driven and kindhearted and wants to do what's best for his community --- the stunt that skyrockets him to fame is synchronizing the many, many clocks of his hometown of Steadfast --- but really, that's about it.
What is memorable is Boss Smiley.
Boss Smiley is terrifying. So terrifying, in fact, that when Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot and Mike Allred did a story based on Prez in the pages of Sandman, he made it into a Vertigo book in 1993 without having to change anything.
It's not really surprising that Simon, the writer who co-created Captain America, would have a good eye for symbols and how they can influence the world around them, and he and Grandenetti knock it out of the park with Boss Smilely. He's the living embodiment of a happy face, whose perfectly round, perfectly cheerful face has been plastered on every available surface of a world that's increasingly rotten, his own frozen smile contrasted against both the misery that surrounds him and his own lust for power and bloodshed.
He's, you know, this guy: :)
If that guy was always watching you back.
Smiley alone makes this book worth reading, one of those rare concepts that's twenty-five years ahead of its time --- and I'm not going to lie, he makes me hope that the new book has an entire army of Emoji-themed manipulators hellbent on spreading corruption through society, because that would be amazing. He's an image that'll stick with you, especially since Grandenetti, who's always treading a very fine line between superhero comics and MAD Magazine in how he draws this comic, presents him. Smiley's always frozen in that ludicrous, simplified grin, but as the story goes on, his eyebrows get more expressive and the smile twists into a more sardonic grin. It's a veneer of happiness literally becoming cruelty and scorn, and it's awesome.
But oddly enough, he's actually only a small part of it. Simon and Grandenetti cram a whole heck of a lot into a single issue, and while most of it holds up pretty well, some of it is, to put it charitably, very much of its time, particularly Eagle Free.
Prez's bare-chested Native American pal was certainly well-intentioned, but there's no getting around the fact that he was rooted in a stereotype, especially in the scenes where he commands an army of zoo animals and imparts a mystical wisdom to Prez by having him climb mountains and swing from trees, Tarzan style.
Looking back from today, it's definitely uncomfortable, but at the same time --- and this is certainly not to excuse the use of a stereotype --- he actually ends up being a pretty interesting character. Eagle's blunt conversations about his rejection of modern society and his hatred of corrupt government lead directly into him being named director of the FBI, which is a dynamic that has a lot of potential for storytelling.
The four issues on sale right now represent the entirety of Prez's short-lived initial run --- a fifth issue was published a few years later as part of Canceled Comics Cavalcade, but good luck getting that one up on Comixology --- and if you like that first issue, the whole thing is worth checking out. The rest of them might not have the lasting, prescient imagery that you get from Boss Smiley, but, well, they do have this:
And that's definitely something I want to read about.