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Russell Elects a Teenage President in DC Comics’ “Prez”

by  in Comic News Comment
Russell Elects a Teenage President in DC Comics’ “Prez”

When DC Comics announced its post-“Convergence” slate of titles beginning in June, there were a number of surprising selections from first-ever solo books for B and even C-list characters like Bizarro and Bat-Mite to brand new concepts like “Mystic U” and “We are Robin.” But one series in particular came as far from left field as Jimmy Carter and that was “Prez” by writer Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell.

The original “Prez” series from DC, created by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti in 1973, lasted only four issues and the titular character — a teenaged American president named Prez Rickard — has remained relatively obscure for the past 40-plus years outside of a 1993 guest appearance in “The Sandman” #54 by Neil Gaiman, Mike Allred and Bryan Talbot.

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Russell, who released the satirical OGN “God is Disappointed in You” with “New Yorker” cartoonist Shannon Wheeler to critical acclaim in 2013, told CBR News he was completely unaware of “Prez” when DC Comics reached out to him about writing the 12-issue limited series. But once the writer learned what the concept was all about, Russell knew he would be able to back a politician like Beth Ross.

Like Rickard, Ross is a teenager who is unexpectedly elected to the country’s highest office in the year 2036. And in this reboot of “Prez,” she wins the election thanks to a Twitter vote, her instant fame a direct result of the social media platform after a video of her posted to Twitter goes viral and results in her widespread appeal.

Russell revealed to CBR News that the original Prez Rickard plays a key role in the series and also teased that Boss Smiley — a corrupt politician from the short-lived ’70s series — is also featured.

The writer also shared that Ross’ political cabinet would include characters modeled after high profile non-politicians like celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson and the “Elvis of cultural history” Slavoj Žižek, and that a trillionaire with the familiar last name of Wayne will be introduced in the series which takes place outside of standard DCU continuity.

CBR News: Mark, full disclosure. Everything I know about Prez is from Wikipedia.

Mark Russell: You’re not at too much of a disadvantage. [Laughs] I knew nothing about “Prez” either before I started writing this series.

So you didn’t have all four issues of the original run and have been desperate to tell your own Prez story for the past 40 years? [Laughs]

[Laughs] No, I’d never even heard of it before I spoke to DC about it. Though I have read them since, including the Neil Gaiman story that he did for “The Sandman.”

This obviously wasn’t a cold pitch to DC Comics — how did this book come about?

DC Comics was looking to reboot “Prez” coinciding with an election year and they had a political comic that they had done in the history of the DCU that they wanted to reboot to take advantage that. It’s a little bit of a different animal because it’s not an action or superhero comic. It’s satire. It’s political. And they asked themselves, who do we know that writes satire? And it just happened that my book, “God Is Disappointed in You,” was mentioned around the DC office at the time, which is sort of a modern re-telling of The Bible. And they thought that voice would be perfect for “Prez” so they reached out to me and asked if I would be interested. And when they told me the concept of “Prez,” I was sold immediately. I knew it was right up my alley and was something that I would love to do.

I read on your Twitter feed that Prez actually gets elected via Twitter in 2036. Do you think that is a realistic possibility for 20 years in the future?

Possibly, although I think that by setting “Prez” in the future, I really want the world of 2036 to be a skewed hyperbole of what is going on now. I don’t know if Twitter will even be around in 20 years. There will probably be something else but I wanted to do commentary on how important social media is and how it’s really controlling our lives. It’s invading every facet of our existence.

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Who is Beth Ross?

She is a teenaged girl, who lives in Eugene, Oregon. She works at a corndog restaurant and she accidentally becomes a viral Twitter sensation when she deep-fries her ponytail while cleaning the grill. [Laughs] And she rides this viral wave to a run-off election with the two major party candidates.

@corndoggirl actually exists as a Twitter handle. Have you reached out to her to see if she is up to the challenge of running for President?

I knew that it was taken. I knew that we couldn’t get @corndoggirl so I was afraid to look at what was actually on her feed, but yeah, if DC wants to reach out to her and tries to make a purchase of the Twitter account that would be fine by me, but I’m not even going to go there.

You said this isn’t a superhero series, but is “Prez” set in the DCU?

I am trying to set this book in my own little universe so it’s not set in the classic DCU although one potentiality for a crossover is that there is an eccentric trillionaire, who is the richest man in the world, who shows up later and his name is Fred Wayne. That last name is obviously a reference to Bruce Wayne but in my universe, Bruce Wayne never shows up. Batman never shows up.

In a lot of ways, Fred Wayne serves as my critique of Bruce Wayne and let’s me share the things that I would do with all of those resources and money instead of building a bulletproof car and beating up bad people.

Are you writing for a traditional superhero audience or are you expecting “Prez” to reach a new audience?

I think that the audience will largely be people like Beth Ross — college smart asses or people that were college smart asses. I think the traditional superhero crowd will like it too. There is a lot of action in the story. And it’s set in an age where the world is falling apart due to environmental change and degradation. In this future world, the United States steps into maybe 50 conflicts worldwide using drones and automated robots called Sentries, which allow us to be in places around the world without really sending troops or risking American lives. That’s both more cost effective and less politically damaging. That becomes a big theme throughout the book. The world is falling apart and the United States is trying to aggressively hold everything together by using these automated forces.

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And is Beth Ross against this type of government intervention?

This is one of the big struggles of her campaign. It’s like riding a bull and you have the bull by the horns. If you hold on, nothing will change but it you let go, there’s a chance that you will be gored. This is one of the big crises of her presidency. What do about this untenable situation where these robot forces are being used in much the world and destroying a lot of innocent people and really destroying United States’ reputation but at the same time, what happens to the world if she just ends this presence tomorrow?

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In TV series like “West Wing” and “Veep,” the White House staff is just as important as the President in terms of storytelling. Does “Prez” have a similar supporting cast?

Yes, absolutely. That’s a big part of the series. Because Beth comes from nowhere and because she’s not a major party candidate and because she knows nothing about politics, a big benefit is that she doesn’t anybody any favors. She doesn’t have to appoint people that she served with or fellow Congressmen to cabinet positions. She can actually appoint smart people, [Laughs] people who actually know what they are doing. There is a guy modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson that becomes her science advisor. There is a guy loosely modeled on Slavoj Žižek who becomes her Secretary of State. Her administration is radically different just by virtue that it’s not really staffed by politicians.

Does Prez Rickard from the original “Prez” have a role in this series?

In my universe that I created, he never became President. He’s a disgraced congressman and he ends up becoming Beth’s mentor. He tells her how Washington works and how to navigate the White House.

Your collaborator on “Prez” is Ben Caldwell, whom I first encountered when he did an awesome Wonder Woman story for “Wednesday Comics.” What does Ben bring to the table?

Ben brings a beautiful visual sense. He really gets the aesthetic I am going for with Beth and he also brings these great flourishes that I didn’t even put in the script. He really brings the background of “Prez” to life.

Finally, I know “Prez” isn’t a superhero book, but does it have a supervillain?

Yeah, there are a number of villains in this book, the biggest one being Boss Smiley, who is actually a carryover from the original “Prez.” In my universe, CEOs of corporations where masks with the logo of the corporation on the mask. And Boss Smiley is the CEO of Smiley Enterprises so he has a smiley face on his mask.

“Prez” #1 by Mark Russell & Ben Caldwell is scheduled for release on June 17.

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