Lost in Transition: 2015’s ‘Prez’ And A Robot Named Tina
Hi, I’m Charlotte Finn. I’m a lifelong comics fan and last year, I admitted to myself that I was transgender.
Coming out as transgender means reassessing a lot about your life, your place in the world, and what that world's been telling you about yourself before you even realized who you really were. In this occasional series, I’m going to be applying that reassessment to comics that feature people like me, or close to being like me, and look them over with a fresh set of eyes.
Are they good? Are they bad? Are they somehow both, at the same time? In this column, I'll offer my thoughts.
Prez #1-6 (2015)
Writer: Mark Russell
Pencils: Ben Caldwell
Inks: Mark Morales
Colorist: Jeremy Lawson
Published by DC Comics
Based on Prez by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti
After a few months of digging into the archives of decades of comics, it's back to a current series.
Prez is an ongoing political satire set in a world so bonkers it could only be an outgrowth of our own. Satire has to sweat to keep up with a 2015 where a reality TV star who looks like he angered his barber has a chance at being elected President of the United States, and the creators of Prez decided the best way forward was to look back to the 1970s, to the Prez series by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti.
Prez is the story of Beth Ross, a student who makes corndogs and who, through a series of unlikely events, is elected President of the United States, despite not having formally run. She decides to make the most of it and be the best President she possibly can, which is terrifying to everyone in Washington who was expecting another compromised pushover. In a world where food stamps are being cut in favor of taco drones, where popup ads drive hospital revenue, and where a computer has written every book it's possible to write, a President who doesn't seek power may be the only one who can responsibly use it.
At six issues and counting, this version of Prez has outlived its predecessor, and I hope it goes for many more. This is one of the most thoughtful books on the stands, with storytelling that takes a look at the talking head parallel storytelling from books such as Dark Knight Returns and takes it to the next logical level.
Prez is a world full of video game style popup ads, announcements, and achievements, where everything that's stated on TV is then restated and repackaged immediately to tell you how to feel. Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell's storytelling is dense and modern, trusting the viewer to keep things straight, and packing a lot of plot into a small space.
It's the very best sort of revamp, taking the spirit of the original and putting a modern spin on it. One of those things the original had going for it was a cast of characters that was a little… out there. The new series has similar characters, and the focus of this column is Tina, the President's Christian transgender robotic bodyguard. Is this a well-intentioned attempt at diversity and crafting an interesting supporting character, as with the original's Eagle Free, FBI director? Or does it miss the mark, as with the original's Eagle Free, FBI director?
I'd say far more good than bad. There are areas of concern, but like with anything to do with politics, it's all in the spin.
The background on Tina is this. In the future, remote warfare via robot battlesuits controlled by far-distant pilots are the order of the day. Pilots occasionally do the wrong thing, however – not shooting who they're supposed to, or blowing up a grain silo in the midst of a heated argument. An artificially intelligent warrior is what's needed, or at least, what's proposed by a military contractor (represented, brilliantly, by an anonymous stooge with a holographic company logo for a face.)
The project is nicknamed War Beast, and in War Beast's second on-page panel, War Beast is referred to as a "him." Yes, War Beast is literally designated male at birth. Okay, designated male at activation. Same diff.
War Beast isn't happy with what she's been designed to do, and runs away, seeking shelter in a church that turns out to be very welcoming to Robot-Americans. The world of Prez seems to already have AI like War Beast in the form of a vending machine that makes things out of meat, so the church isn't too surprised that War Beast shows up at its doorstep, and is fully accepting of War Beast's decision to be called Tina.
So to lead with what's potentially questionable: Tina wears a blonde wig, and attends an LGBTQ support group with a hastily added R on the end, for Robot-Americans. There is a jokey tone to this, and I completely understand anyone who's put off by it possibly being at Tina's expense.
Personally, I feel it'd be out of tone for the book to turn to the reader and say "we all sure had a laugh about Tina having to hide in a port-a-potty, but there's one thing that really stinks, and that's transgender suicide rates" – but the book has gotten serious, and done so without fear, such as in the genuinely moving farewell to Beth Ross' father in issue #2.
Then again, said scene is preceded by Carl, the End-of-Life Bear, a robot you should not trust around a pillow and a bedridden patient. If we can laugh about euthanasia, maybe nothing's fully off-limits when it comes to the book's humor. Normally I hate the "we target everyone" school of political satire, since it's inherently nihilistic and serves the status quo rather than challenges it, but Prez has a conscience and Tina is 100% a sympathetic character. Her quest to be something everyone tells her that she can't be resonates on more levels than one, not the least of which is wedding the rejection of robotic warfare to her realization of herself as a woman, making her essentially The Iron Giant for transgender people.
As for the joke about adding the R, I actually like it, because again: it's all in the spin. It wasn't too long ago there were only four letters in LGBTQ, and now it's held by many (myself included) that it ought to be expanded at the least to LGBTQIA (the last three for queer, intersex, and asexual, respectively). We have always added new letters to the acronym, because what the movement is about is inclusion, and that means embracing the new – or that which was always there and that we should have already embraced. It's a joke, and yet, it's 100% in the spirit of the movement at its best.
What stands out the most to me about Tina is that she literally has a come-to-Jesus moment, and is a practicing Christian. Christianity and the LGBTQ coalition have been at loggerheads in the United States for as long as I can remember, but in this book the church that Tina finds accepts her with few reservations, and said reservations shut down when the pastor cites the example of Jesus Christ.
In a book where political problems are either the eternal issues that America has always grappled with, or our present fears writ so large they fall off the page, it's curious how this is one of the only references to the outsized effect Christianity as a political force has on U.S. political debate. Maybe Caldwell feels it's too sensitive a subject, but again: see Carl, the End-of-Life Bear.
Or maybe Caldwell's thinking is that in a future of information overload, bizarre new cults centered around the rights of viruses, and corporations so soulless that their CEOs are replaced with abstract holographic icons, the culture wars will fade and churches like the one that Tina belongs to will refocus on feeding the sick and clothing the naked. It would fit the tone of the book, because for all the times the book casts a cynical – often very cynical – eye upon the history and culture of the United States, Prez has a heart, and it stands for something. Its core belief is that the right group of people can make a difference in politics, no matter how bizarre the politics get or how people make their way into it.
One of Beth Ross' cabinet describes behavior that seems logical but is actually self-destructive as "ants marching in a circle," following a leader that is confused. The value of breaking out of a self-destructive cycle to be better is what Tina's arc is all about, and what Prez is all about. Prez looks at the soul-grinding state of modern politics and doesn't blink, and says that we can be better. Its arc is Tina's arc, and she is a perfect fit for a series that deserves all the acclaim it's received.