The Teens Who Would Be President: Explaining DC's 'Prez' Comic Books
For those wondering if there's more to DC Entertainment's June DC You launch than new takes on superheroes, this week's launch of Prez is likely to come as a pleasant surprise: a new series that lacks any sign of men with capes and tights, instead choosing to focus on a teenager who, through no fault of her own, becomes the President of the United States of America.
As contemporary as that concept might seem — a political satire that also focuses on obsession with celebrity and social media (Beth Ross, the girl fated to become the most powerful person in the world, gets to the White House as the result of a viral video, celebrity endorsement and public apathy with those actually standing for the position) — Prez is itself a revival of a short-lived DC series from the 1970s, co-created by one of the men who gave the world Captain America.
This Week In Heat Vision breakdown
The original series had the more self-explanatory title Prez: First Teen President, and actually had its roots in a real-world event — namely, the passing of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. That was enough of a hook for writer Joe Simon, who had previously worked with Jack Kirby to co-create such characters as Captain America, the Newsboy Legion, and Manhunter (They'd also co-created the romance comics genre in the 1940s, but that's another story); working with artist Jerry Grandenetti, he came up with a story about Prez Rickard, a teenager voted into office by a wave of first-time voters looking for a new guard to clean up politics.
To call the original Prez a quirky product of its time would be an understatement; a hangover from the Age of Aquarius, Rickard's main nemesis in the series was an untrustworthy businessman called "Boss Smiley," and his best friend (and head of the FBI, because why not) was a Native American environmentalist called Eagle Free. In between political decisions, Prez dealt with vampires and a descendent of George Washington who had formed a right-wing militia. Unsurprisingly, the series didn't find enough of an audience to stick around; after just four issues across eight months, it was canceled mid-1974.
Prez didn't entirely disappear, however; the character would reappear twice in the 1990s, with Neil Gaiman using him in an issue of The Sandman, and crime writer Ed Brubaker making his DC writing debut on a one-shot called Prez: Smells Like Teen President, illustrated by iZombie co-creator Mike Allred. He'd also be mentioned in the recent series The Multiversity, showing up as the President of an alternate world where the Justice League is known by the far more groovy name of "The Love Syndicate of Dreamworld."
The new Prez series is something else entirely, offering a more cynical view on the idea, certainly, but also a more rounded view of the concept as well. Beth isn't the idealist that Prez was, but she's a more believable character, something that's necessary considering the heightened satire that surrounds her. The "real" politicians in the story are literally controlled by corporate interests, and given to debasing themselves on television and online for votes. Writer Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell's view of online celebrity culture is similarly grim.
Balancing empathy for its lead with a particularly pointed take on everyone around her, it reads like a kinder version of Charlie Brooker's critically-acclaimed Black Mirror television series at times. Perhaps in 40 years, this new series will seem as dated as the original Prez — which would, in many ways, feel appropriate — but for now, with Donald Trump throwing his hat into the presidential ring just yesterday, it's a comic that feels entirely in tune with the times. At least until Eagle Free shows up again.
Prez No. 1 is available digitally and in comic stores.
by Richard Newby
by Lesley Goldberg
by Graeme McMillan