With a new presidential election on the horizon and the campaign season already in full swing, the time couldn’t be better for a new take on Prez, the 70s-era political satire about the first teenage president of the United States. And it’s hard to imagine a better writer for the series than Mark Russell, the whip-smart writer of the biblical retelling, God is Disappointed in You. Paired up with the equally savvy Ben Caldwell on art, Russell’s writing one of the smartest—and funniest—comics on the stands that not only has fun skewering the world of modern politics, but social media, videogames and other staples of today’s plugged-in world as well.
In this week’s PREZ #3, Beth Ross must come to terms with her recent election, which seemed like the perfect time to chat with Russell about what we can expect from the nation’s youngest Commander in Chief.
Let’s start with the obvious one. How did the idea of reinventing Prez even come together?
They broached the possibility of me writing a new Prez completely out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting this at all, and then I get a call from Marie Javins asking me if I would be interested in writing it.
I am the king of impolite dinner conversations. The two things I love talking about are religion and politics. I already covered religion with my book God is Disappointed in You. So this was like the perfect accompaniment. Now I can bore people with my opinions on politics!
How familiar were you with Prez?
I had never heard of him! I think it’s almost the way that you signify to people that you’re really deep into comics—you mention Prez. So few people will actually know who that is or know about the series. The obscurity’s kind of like a badge of insidership.
Did you read any of the earlier series?
I did afterwards. I read the entire canon. This is one of the few things they offered where I felt like I could really do something with it. It felt like such a potent concept. The original series was really sort of crazy and imaginative, and I thought if I could bring the same sort energy to what I think is actually going on in the world and what’s wrong with it, I would really have something unique. I would be making something that I don’t see in comics anywhere else.
Prez is just so of-the-moment, and true to our current social media driven climate. Beth’s elected to President by Twitter after a video of her at work goes viral. Where did the inspiration for all of this come from?
I think that all science fiction is really commentary on the present. It’s all satire in a way. People are just now coming to grips with the technology that we’ve developed over the last twenty to thirty years. People created these things and they don’t really know their potential. So in setting the story twenty years in the future, I was able to explore some of the darker potential of things like Twitter, drone technology and videogames. These are some of the things that they will allow us to do in twenty years if we choose to go that route with the technology.
How would you describe this series? It’s not really a super hero book. Would you say it’s straight satire or comedy?
I think every head of state, every American president, is a super hero without necessarily the “hero.” We are a super power, and so every story about an American head of state is ultimately a story of someone wielding immense power, sometimes well and sometimes horribly. That’s what I wanted to do with Prez. This is the story of immense power wielded in a non-myopic way.
That’s my big criticism of American politics. We’ve created this immense wealth and this immense power, but it’s all used to deal with things that are right in front of us. None of it’s being used to serve the long term problems of not only the human race, but even our own country. We’ll devote $30 billion to fixing one tiny tribe in the Middle East as opposed to doing something that will benefit the United States in the long run.
Would you say the theme of the series is addressing that larger problem?
Yeah, the central problem of politics is that we take all the resources from the future and we spend them on problems that are confronting us right now. Nobody can think further than four years in the future because everyone’s worried about reelection and everyone has to make their constituents happy. What I wanted to create with Beth is a character that didn’t have to do any of that stuff and could think more than four years in the future. Someone who didn’t have to pay back people who had given her campaign contributions. What would that free up a politician to do?
So for those people who aren’t reading it, how would you describe the story?
Twenty years in the future, the world has been heavily destabilized by climate change and the only thing that keeps the world in check is the American sentry program. The sentries are these mechanical robots that are remote controlled by dudes in West Virginia while they drink Mountain Dew. They’re basically controlled with videogame controllers, and it allows the U.S. to keep the rest of the world in check with these heavily armed robots without putting any American lives in immediate risk. But because their lives aren’t at risk, they’re very cavalier about who they kill and what they do in these foreign countries.
That’s the central dilemma. Do you allow the world to unfold the way it would unfold without this American power keeping the world in place, or do you keep that power in place and hold the world together as it is now, knowing that you’re killing innocent people. It’s very much a question of whether the ends justify the means.
So future issues will be addressing that?
Yeah, that will become a big point in future issues, as will corporate ownership of America’s natural and intellectual resources. One of the characters in the book is Fred Wayne—no relation to Bruce Wayne—but he’s the world’s richest man. He’s a trillionaire, and he got that way because he created an algorithm that allows him to print every possible work in the English language. So he owns every possible piece of writing. If you look at the bestseller shelf at a bookstore, they’re all Fred Wayne titles. You go to the Oscars, he’s nominated for four of the five nominations for Best Original Screenplay. He’s written everything that could possibly be written just by using this algorithm. It’s all about the darker ramifications of modern technology, and how they will enable people to absorb more of the world’s resources.
At this point, we’ve seen Beth elected president. Can we expect her to step up? Is she going to prove to be a good leader?
One of the themes of this comic is that you can take somebody from nowhere, and if you allow them to unlock their real potential, no matter who it is, they can change the world. People have much greater potential for making decisions and for creative thinking than we allow them. Most people will spend their lives asking if you want fries with something or fixing an air conditioner, but our brains are much more sophisticated than these tasks. A lot of Prez is about what would happen if we unlocked the mental potential of not only Beth, but everyone in the country.
So which DC super hero do you think would make the best president?
I would say Aquaman because he doesn’t live on land, so he has no interest or horse in the race. He could make dispassionate decisions and then if he screwed everything up, he could just go back under the sea. Away with you Aquaman! Back to your seahorses!
He’s someone who could make decisions without being pressured by the interests of land creatures. Plus he would do a better job of protecting the oceans.