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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review: DC's PREZ Rediscovers Its Voice

My review of Prez #1 was, to put it bluntly, glowing. Then the first issue of a 12-issue mini-series, the book has since been demoted to a 6-issue mini-series (with a rumored second 6-issue series to follow - we'll see). The recently released Prez #4, then, finds us more than halfway through the (first?) series, and I thought it would be a good time to check in. The first issue contained leisurely world-building, witty political satire in the vein of Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan, and some strong character work, and while Beth's story, that of a teenage girl who almost accidentally becomes President of the United States of America, only begins at the end of Prez #2, the overall story of Prez has been running from page 1. Put bluntly, Prez is a comedy about a political process gone horribly wrong, and the people who were too self-absorbed try and stop it. Beth is just enough of an outsider that she is capable of seeing how ridiculous this all is.

Frankly, I'm baffled as to why this series hasn't really taken off. I could talk about how smart it is - it's a wonderfully structured book with a great understanding of political process - or how (ugh) important it is - sharp, approachable political satire during election season?! - but neither of those are really why I'm surprise the book isn't a huge hit. Don't get me wrong, those are both key aspects in what makes the series work, but they aren't exactly selling points in and of themselves. And I could talk about how Prez, with its superhero-free political satire featuring a new character who is a teenage girl, courts an audience DC has spent a lot of time, effort, and money pushing away in recent years, making this a great comic for people who don't read DC comics and may have no idea it exists. Those issues, for and against, all exist.

But no, the reason I'm still so surprised the book hasn't taken off is because it's just such a joy to read.

Take the page above, for example. Think about how much stuff is going on here. It's easy to take potshots at superhero movies; Birdman won a number of Academy Awards for basically doing that over and over again. But in a single page, Russell also manages to talk about representation in pop culture ("That kid looks like y-- oh, our hero is beating the tar out of him."), about the way we as a society tend to view justice ("You could just turn the heat down." "I clamp it down harder!"), about the way we idolize hardliners like "Night Justice" whose methods are ineffective and counterproductive but who give us the kind of gritty violence we crave. It gives us a complete worldview in a single page, but it's also funny, a youth-in-revolt dystopian superhero riff that ends, inexplicably, with the Batman/Midnighter analog casually cooking while in costume. Approachable, low-key sight gags coexisting with surprisingly complex ideas.

Which is frequent in Prez. As much as I love the grounding presence Beth Ross provides as the lead, the book clearly isn't about her, and that's fine. As with things like Charlie Brooker great Black Mirror, Russell's satire isn't limited just to politics, but to a bigger issue; here, the kind of society that allows these processes to thrive. The instant-gratification of social media has allowed anyone with a mastery of facile, crowd-pleasing soundbites to win a debate, because what is said matters far less than how it makes people feel when it is said. That idea - ... but does it make you feel good? - permeates damn near every page of Prez, and even the master manipulators aren't immune to making mistakes chasing that feeling.

There are time, I think, when Russell's tendency to lecture us about political process works against the book's tone. After a giddy ride for the first two issues, Prez #3 fell prey to this trend regularly, and Prez #4 opens up similarly, with new President Beth Ross basically getting lectured on political theory over and over again from washed up political wunderkind Rickard. Thankfully, Russell gets back on track quickly in this issue, diving full force into a violent farce of drone warfare, international peacekeeping, and copyright law. Prez is at its best when Russell lets the satire speak for itself, telling a story rather than grouching about the way things should be. It can be a fine line for satire to walk, but it is an important one not to cross. Prez #3, unfortunately, slipped over it; Prez #4 mostly manages to right the ship.

In Prez #4, we also get our first ties to the DC Universe, meeting Fred Wayne, the absurdly wealthy WayneTech CEO who owns Delaware, as well as the "Free Selina" graffiti on the cover. Even WayneTech, however, plays into Russel's grander points about the corporate-political process. Fred Wayne isn't a guy who makes anything, but because copyright law hasn't caught up to technology, he owns the copyright or patent to basically every book, film, and new technology created in the English language from here on out. If Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are the way we wish our tech billionaires were - altruistic, charismatic, willing to sacrifice personal wealth for public good - Fred Wayne is the way they actually tend to be, thoughtlessly greedy and opportunistic. Not bad, necessarily; we don't see anything to suggest that Wayne is a monster. But he has so much power that even his petty, vindictive whims, the sort we all have, can turn out to be incredibly destructive.

Which is, it turns out, becoming the basic premise of the series itself: The harmfulness of self-indulgence. Beth gets elected President largely because everyone is so concerned with getting everything they want right now that thoughts of consequence rarely enter into the discussion. This is the society of the quick fix, and the quick fix, by issue's end, has caused a number of unjust deaths at the hands of authority figures and set a A.I. murderbot loose on the world. Ultimately, this focus is what sets the book apart from other, similar ideas. Black Mirror focused very specifically on the changing face and influence of technology; Transmetropolitan on apathy in the face of any and every problem (the further we get from it, the more it feels like a very pointed response to Gen-X culture). If Mark Russell can stay on track and stop the book from sliding into lecture, his Prez could become one of the definitive comics of the 2010's.

But you know what? Even if it doesn't, it'll still have been really fucking fun to read.

Prez #4 was written by Mark Russell, pencilled by Dominike Stanton, inked by Mark Morales & Sean Parsons, colored by Jeremy Lawson, and lettered by Marilyn Patrizio. Published by DC Comics, Prez #4 has a list price of $2.99.
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