Cast Your Vote For ‘Citizen Jack': Exposing the Horrors of American Politics [Review]
Somehow, some way, we have all ended up living in weird little Golden Age for political satire in comic books. I mean, yes, there are really only two big ones coming out from mainstream publishers, but they're very, very good, and considering that most political commentary in comics involves single panels where a version of King Kong labeled "DEFICIT SPENDING" is swatting at an airplane labeled "MILLENNIALS" while the pilot takes a selfie, you know what? I'm counting it.
Point being, political satire in comic books is on an upswing, and this week, Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson threw their hat into the ring with Citizen Jack #1, and immediately knocked out one of the year's most memorable launches --- mainly because of that whole thing where a washed-up snowblower salesman is convinced to run for president by a literal demon from Hell.
That, after all, is the thing that political satire and superhero comics tend to have in common: They always have to go way over the top to be effective. It's something that you can see pretty easily in this year's other big satire, Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell's Prez over at DC, where every challenge facing President Ross is a piece of the real world's hot-button political issues taken to its logical extreme. There are people who literally embody corporations to the point where their faces have been replaced by logos lobbying on behalf of their businesses, a drone warfare program that has horrifying consequences that ends up leading to a killer robot on the loose. Even the high concept that the book was marketed with, the idea that Beth Ross became America's teenage president by being voted in after going viral on Twitter, actually turned out to be the result of Congressmen using her as leverage to get what they wanted after a deadlocked election.
But while Prez has been working with sci-fi to make its points --- and to skewer its targets in a surprisingly brutal fashion along the way --- Citizen Jack is playing with another genre. It's a story built around horror, right from the start and the demon that pressures Jack Northworthy into running for President.
That's the hook here, that Jack Northworthy, hockey enforcer turned wildly unpopular mayor turned failed businessman, is going to be running for the highest office in the land thanks to the urging of a demon named Marlinspike and the timely arrival of a campaign manager willing to do anything to get him there.
And for a first issue, Humphries and Patterson are pulling no punches, giving us a character so miserable that the fact that he needs demonic intervention --- and that he'd be willing to go for it without even questioning the terms of the deal --- is probably the most believable thing about the entire book, and the source of its most horrific imagery.
There are different kinds of horror in here, too. There's Jack himself, who's presented to us as a person who's both horrible and pathetic, a genuinely terrible person who is clearly past his prime and --- in one of the most hilariously literal pieces of comics all year --- is so bad at what he does that he can't sell snowblowers in a Minnesota winter. He's living in a hell of his own making, an athlete who lost a career after an injury, in the shadow of his father who clearly hates him. That's a kind of horror, too, the existential dread that's hanging over Jack even before we join the story.
And then there's the surreal stuff going on in the background. It's the stuff that nobody seems to comment on, like having a dolphin in a suit working on television as a political commentator, or the fact that the two major political parties in Citizen Jack's world are the Freedom Party and the Liberty Party --- actual synonyms that don't even feel like they're giving the illusion of choice to the voters.
But I mean, really, it's mainly the giant demon who speaks in jagged black word balloons.
Between that and the strange landscape of skulls, claws and tentacles that exists just under the surface of the water, something that we only ever see Jack passing through and that no one else seems to notice, you've pretty much got the major sources of horror here.
The thing is, all of that stuff, Jack's horrible past, the weirdness creeping around the fringes of the book, even the demon, is also genuinely hilarious. The comedy in this book goes all over the map in the best possible way, throwing in the sharp political satire with the lowest of the low-brow, like the scene where Jack announces his candidacy by climbing naked out of a frozen lake in the middle of winter and offering up his truly amazing campaign slogan, "It's time for America to get Jacked!" It's the kind of comedy that's exactly smart enough to know how to be stupid in the best possible ways.
For Humphries, it feels like it's a natural evolution of the kind of bold, bizarre comedy that made him an instant hit when he burst onto the comics scene a few years ago with Our Love Is Real, but what really makes it all work is the art, from Patterson and colorist John Alderink. They're able to juggle the hot pink bathrobes, handguns, hockey rink flashbacks and hell-spawned monsters in a way that gives everything its own kind of weight.
More than anything else, it reminded me of Nick Pitarra's work in the early issues of The Manhattan Projects. It's that same combination of the familiar and the strange, walking that tightrope balance between cartoony and realistic that's so perfect for the strange political satire horror comedy that they're building.
That blending of genres might sound like a hard sell, but in this first issue, Citizen Jack sets up the promise of a pretty amazing story and gives every indication that it'll be delivering on that promise as the story goes on. It's weird, it's scary, it's hilarious, and it's even occasionally biting, but most of all, it's compelling, and well worth a read.