‘Prez’ Answers Thomas Jefferson’s Call for a ‘Dangerous Freedom’

Thomas Jefferson said, "Rather a dangerous freedom than a peaceful slavery." The stunning comic Prez shows the true meaning of that statement.

I’ve been reading Prez #1, “Corndog in Chief”, all this week. I know it didn’t release until a couple of days ago, but I get a little more time with books than if I had to buy them at my local comics shop. With the first issue of Prez, I really needed the time.

Prez #1 is written by Mark Russell and drawn by Ben Caldwell, with inks by Mark Morales, colors by Jeremy Lawson, and lettering by Travis Lanham. In addition, Caldwell does the primary cover with a variant done by Bret Blevins. Marie Javins is the editor overseeing the project, and Brittany Holzherr is assistant editor. I’m mentioning these people by name because, honestly, I owe them an apology. Mark, Ben, everyone, I’m sorry. Even if I’ve spent most of this entire week reading your fine work, and I’m writing this now, as time on the West Coast slowly creeps past the Hour of the Wolf on the Friday morning, I’ve spent entirely too little time with it. Far too little time, in fact.

God knows, I’ve tried reading Prez #1 all this week, but I just couldn’t. Every single page and every single panel take me back to October 1993, to Sandman #54, “The Golden Boy”. I can remember everything about that book, right down to the smell of the Miraweb format pages as I cracked the book open right after I slid it out from the firm plastic of the polybag. I was a precocious nearly 13-year-old. It was the fall, and time for something new. I’d found my way into my first local comics shop, and I was never going to leave.

But direct marketing also meant the safety of the old dynamic of Batman whammo’ing Joker, or even the safety of the new, post-Dark Knight Returns dynamic of Batman whupping Superman, was at an end. I knew this in my soul: it didn’t exist anymore. Being right there on the cusp of turning 13, that meant “childhood’s end”; it meant giving up on childish things.

Sandman was just the ticket, and Sandman #54 was my first ride on the grown ups’ rollercoaster. The comic tells the story about Prez Rickard, America’s first teenage president; it marked my first encounter with the strange, trippy comics of the ’70s.

Prez was created by the legendary Joe Simon, creator of Captain America, and the inimitable Jerry Grandenetti, DC’s go-to artist for all things none superhero in the ’50s and ’60s. The character’s original publication run plays out during a long, fraught moment in both American politics and the American psyche. This time was the downfall of Richard Nixon, coming just on the heels of his ’72 reelection. It’s Nixon firing Erlichman and Haldeman; it’s the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, and the eventual Senate Hearings; Nixon ultimately resigning, ostensibly to avoid impeachment; a Gerald Ford presidency; and, finally, Ford pardoning Nixon. This is the history amid which Prez enjoys his initial publication run.

From Prez #1 by Russell & Caldwell, published by DC, 2015.

With “The Golden Boy” being my first issue of Sandman, the first I bought for myself, I wasn’t completely aware of the internal rumblings in the title itself. Sure, it was easy enough to pick up Flash again (just a year or so before with issue #72, more or less) after a long, lingering time away since issue #50, or thereabouts, and dive right in like nothing had happened.

But Sandman was a different proposition entirely. Writer and creator Neil Gaiman, right from the beginning, had an eye for telling a very structured and balanced story. By issue #54, Gaiman was in the middle of telling a grand and sweeping story with Sandman, something unfurled slowly and in phases. Issue #54 saw a return to the earlier kind of Sandman storytelling where Gaiman would dip a toe into the raging torrent of the larger DC Universe.

I know this was something that Gaiman had done earlier in the Sandman run. I’d read the first Sandman volume Preludes & Nocturnes the summer before. I borrowed it from the worst neighborhood kid ever, who had insisted, in that way that superior 16 year olds tend to, that I’d only be ready for Preludes & Nocturnes after a crash course of Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. Makes sense, right? Well, try going best five out of seven with WWE All Stars before going for the WBA Heavyweight Title.

But I was at least tangentially aware that in the early books, in Preludes & Nocturnes and just a little later in Doll’s House and Dream Country, Gaiman was at least beginning to explore the larger DC Universe. Gaiman had the Sandman interact with John Constantine and with Mister Miracle, who was a permanent fixture of the ten Justice League International, mopping up the so-called Silver Age Sandman Hector Hall. So having Brant Tucker, the protagonist of the current Sandman story arc, interact with Prez Rickard, a DC comic book character from the ’70s, was a throwback to an earlier storytelling mode in Sandman itself, as much as it was a throwback to that classic, if somewhat forgotten DC character (at least by 1993).

A little while back, when we began rebooting PopMatters‘ comics section, I wrestled with the significance of the change Gaiman ushered into comics. What I couldn’t grapple with, even more than a decade after the final issue of Sandman, and what we collectively as an audience were just then coming to terms with, is the impact Gaiman’s non-mainstream, non-superhero comic book has on mainstream superhero comics.

Only just now are we coming to terms with those implications of that series, which were never intended to happen in the first place. With this in mind, I read every page of Russell and Caldwell’s creation in Prez, and I read them lovingly. The authors have left everything on the table; this is one of the moments in comics where there’s no going back.

In Prez, I read about government-operated, satellite-deployed taco-drones that will also be used to violate Fourth Amendment rights on an unprecedented scale. I read about Twitter voting and winning Presidential elections by trending. I read about this kid, the internet celeb Puppy Slaps, and a poor Republican candidate. I look at the candidate trying to give his stump speech while being subjected to a Japanese game show’s worth of humiliation while, just two pages later, there’s an actual game show where an immigrant kid wins by shooting himself in the leg, which allows him to magically gain citizenship. I look at the sheer mass of all of this, and it’s just perfect.

From Prez #1 by Russell & Caldwell, published by DC, 2015.

It’s better than perfect; it’s now. What Russell and Caldwell have created is the impossible, unlikely, and interminable now; the world as it is, hyperrealized in the kind of tomorrow we dare not believe, yet secretly fear will come. Just three years ago, back in 2012, on his podcast, Getting On, James Urbaniak waded into these same waters they have with internet tracking. When violent public disapproval followed, it seemed like science fiction. After the “fans”‘s backlash against Joss Whedon in the wake of the rampant success of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Prez now feels prescient. What Russell and Caldwell have done is create a book, an entire setting, where through both content and medium, they take the revolutionary step of bringing us right back to the beginning of comics.

By the beginning of comics, I mean Little Nemo in Slumberland. Here, I write not what I have to say about that book, but rather what Kerry Roeder has to say. In A New Literary History of America, she writes:

Beyond the stark black-and-white grids of the newspaper page lay the possibility of other worlds; the riotous color and fantastic scenes of the Sunday supplement served to disrupt the ordered reality of the preceding pages, just as the bright lights and fanciful buildings of Coney Island provided a counterpoint to the business and industry embodied by Manhattan’s skyline.

New York at the turn of the century was a metropolis teeming with novel and spectacular visual experiences. City dwellers navigated a new social landscape: advances in the speed of public transportation, combined with overcrowded streets, transformed notions of both time and space. The stresses of modern life led people to seek comfort in new forms of leisure, from the amusement parks to department stores and nickelodeons. Among the most popular diversions were the daily newspapers, whose eye-catching headlines, graphic illustrations, and rectilinear columns mirrored both the chaos and the order of New York’s urban fabric. The weekly comics in the newspapers’ Sunday supplements supplied both light entertainment and an opportunity for readers to grapple with the new experiences of modernity.

That’s the nature and the quality of the work with which Russell, Caldwell, and all those involved with Prez confront all of us. This reality is not only one that has garish Live-Free-Or-Die gameshows and teen girls getting nominated President (oh yeah, Prez is a girl now, how about that?) and a sinister gathering of “not Emperors but those for whom the Empire expands.” It is also a reality with 3D hologram popups of the President’s sordid sex life; the BDSM of the President/dom wielding a dog collar and chain and soliciting soldiers is the right, and indeed only, kind of art to make after Abu Ghraib. Prez is stretching, twisting, and bending the comics medium into exactly the kind of comics Roeder wrote about when she analyzed Little Nemo in Slumberland.

So I’m sitting here now, just hours before finishing this piece, and the memory of the smell of those old Miraweb pages are beginning to fade. In all fairness, they must, as comics isn’t about the past. Comics are about the future. The way in which Russell and Caldwell designed a story that allows both young and old to confront their fears of the other’s culture is like watching House of Cards and Veep melded together into a single, brilliant show. The world hasn’t caught up to Russell and Caldwell yet, but we’re nearly there.