You Won’t Believe Who Gets Voted In Next: ‘Prez’ #1 Nails the Satire [Review]
There’s probably no better time for a biting, trenchant and smart political satire comic than right now, as candidates in the United States start up their presidential campaign machines a full 18 months before anyone heads into a voting booth.
The good news is DC Comics’ relaunch of Prez, written by Mark Russell and with art by Ben Caldwell, accomplishes that, and with style. It’s a powerfully clever, not-all-that-far-fetched prediction of what U.S. politics could easily become in a few more cycles. It shines a light on a system that’s hollow, shallow, and deep in the pocket of corporations without being heavy-handed about it (at least most of the time).
Here’s the bad news: The title character doesn’t get to do much of anything, at least not in the first issue, and (minor spoiler), by the end of it, she’s not even the president.
Since I’ve already brought it up, let me get the issue’s weaknesses out of the way up front: Not only is the lead, Beth Ross (whose real name is spoken once, by a nurse) not the president by the end of the issue, she has very little agency in her involvement in the race. She only gets added to it because of a viral video of her getting into an accident at her job, which earns her the nickname “Corn Dog Girl.” She doesn’t even know she’s in the race until nearly the end of the issue, and her victory is also (apparently) going to depend on forces outside her control.
That’s a pretty wide divergence from the 1973 Prez series, in which Prez Rickard is deeply involved in civics and works his way to the presidency. This series is leading to it essentially being a big joke on Beth. For satire purposes, that works. It’s a commentary about the nature of celebrity in the age of viral video. From a character standpoint, though, it sort of cuts Beth off at the legs. Readers who come to this book looking for Beth to be an aspirational figure for teen girls won’t get that, at least not yet.
The closest look we get at Beth is a subplot in which she tries to raise money for her dad, who is sick with a mysterious form of influenza. Caldwell and Russell do reveal a little about her work ethic and sense of morality when she tries several ways to raise money for his treatment, including crowdfunding via a site called “Sickstarter.” it’s a dark, dark joke, and one of the book’s best.
What Russell and Caldwell sacrifice in terms of character, they make up for (and then some) in satire. As I said, this is an intensely sharp book, focusing a whole lot on the venality and shallowness that has overtaken American politics. A sequence where a politician who seemingly wants to make real points about issues has to stoop to the level of being paddled by weirdoes in animal masks simply because the the show he’s appearing on is popular is simultaneously funny and horrifying. That’s followed by a scene where two senators appear on a debate show where viewers instantly give ratings to their points. Of course, the one who is obviously just saying what people want to hear is declared the winner.
What this version of Prez really has going for it is that it feels current. In an era where candidates are revealing their campaign logos (which include only their first names, and maybe an exclamation point) via Twitter and answering questions about whether hot dogs are sandwiches on Periscope, the situations in this first issue feel like a version of reality that is heightened only just a little. That’s true of this version of Prez’s Boss Smiley, who has traded in being a slumlord mayor for serving as a slogan-spouting CEO. A few of his lines are just a bit on the nose, but the creative team nails what a 2015 version of Boss Smiley would be.
There’s a little bit of the book wearing its influences on its sleeve — one sequence definitely evokes The Running Man, there’s a little bit of Idiocracy thrown in, and two different gatherings remind me of scenes from The Simpsons — but it’s a nice blend, beautifully updated. I just hope Beth gets more to do in the issues to come.