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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

American Grrrl: An Interview with Mark Russell, writer of DC Comics’ PREZ

By MMorse

DC Comics’ PREZ is the best comic book you aren’t reading. Full-stop.

Author Mark Russell (God is Disappointed in You), penciller Ben Caldwell (A-Force), and inker Mark Morales (Batman, Superman, Convergence) have crafted a nightmare future America that is at once ludicrously over the top and uncomfortably familiar. It’s a world in which drones deliver cheap fast food to the poor in exchange for their becoming walking billboards; where the scheming heads of corporations wear neon masks to obscure their identities and deflect responsibility; where desperate people compete for cash in soul-destroying competitions that resemble American Ninja on LSD; where those running for office must prostrate themselves before corporations and idiot internet celebrities alike; where a combination of apathy and cynicism leads to the Presidency of Beth Ross, a teenage girl-become-internet-meme.

The only thing more shocking than the world that Ross now presides over is the fact that it elected a fundamentally decent, caring, smart, and kind individual to run the country.

Hilarious and frightening, bitingly satirical and achingly sincere, intelligent and goofy as all get-out, PREZ is a banquet for comics fans and a bellwether for anyone who despairs over the state of American society/politics/economics. Russell and Caldwell have created something genuinely special with this book, and now’s your chance to jump on board. DC is set to release PREZ’s first six-issue arc in trade paperback, giving you an opportunity to catch up on the adventures of America’s first accidental President. 

Take that opportunity. Russell was kind enough to grant me an interview about the book and answer some questions about the world of PREZ.

Prior to the launch of PREZ I (and most comics fans) had minimal familiarity with the title (the original miniseries, published in the thick of the 1970s, is hilariously bizarre). It’s safe to say that many comics fans out there are still in the dark. How would you succinctly describe PREZ to someone who is, say, a fan of Batman?

“Beth Ross, the first teenage president, is a superhero who doesn’t need a boomerang. Like most superheroes, she finds that most of the world’s problems can’t really be solved with a good pummeling.”

Ha. Nicely done. As someone new to the comics field, what excited you about being asked to write a book like PREZ? And what excites you now, six issues later, about continuing Beth Ross’s story for another half-dozen issues?

“I’ve really liked the freedom I had to write the stories the way I wanted to. If I were writing Batman or Superman, there would be a million things I’d have to take into consideration in order to not break continuity, to stay within the facts and the tone of the canon. But because I was writing an obscure character from the mid-70’s, I pretty much had carte-blanche to be as crazy and reckless as I wanted to be. It was like driving a rental car.”

I’ve described PREZ to several people as “a comic book for people who love The Daily Show, but don’t necessarily read comics.” The bent of your satire is, in the very best way, very Colbert-ish/Stewart-ish to my eyes in its mix of sincere anger, hope, and bemusement. Is there anything/anyone in particular that you would say has influenced your writing on the book?

“It’s hard to imagine a better source of inspiration than current events. As dark and menacing as many of the characters and plotlines in PREZ are, I feel like it I wait a few weeks, something even worse will happen in real life.

I think the first book I ever read that really blew my mind was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It was equal parts science fiction, social parable, and black humor. I think that moment of literary discovery has infected everything I’ve written since.”

There have been several instances where your image of America in PREZ maps directly, and disturbingly, to current events – specifically your brutal depiction of an Amazon-esque company and your Shkreli-ian cat flu/drug company pricing plot. Can you tell me a little about your imaginative process on PREZ? What’s been your and Ben Caldwell’s general approach to creating the world that Beth Ross inhabits? Do you purposefully riff on real-world developments as they happen? Or have these developments happened to coincide with your thoughts about larger political and economic issues?

“I have some core ideas that I want to go into the story. Plotlines or parables, things I want to say because I think they’re insightful or funny or make for an interesting story. Beyond that, I’m always open to populating these stories with details that pop up as I’m writing. One example of this is Carl the End of Life Bear.
Originally, he didn’t exist in my script, but then I came across an article about a robotic bear that Japanese hospitals were using to assist with caring for the elderly. Somebody mistakenly reported that these bears were used in euthanizing the old. I thought this was hilarious. If you were going to euthanize somebody, why use a robotic bear? That seems like a lot of trouble. Anyway, I created Carl to be a sweet bear who would offer terminally ill patients marijuana and pudding, but still be looked upon with suspicion as though he might do something horrible.”

I love that. PREZ contains a wealth of ideas like that one - visual information and character detail that helps to make it stand out from other books, some of them quite small but impactful. I’m thinking specifically of a moment toward the beginning of the series, in the house that Beth Ross shares with her father, where we see above the door a sign that simply states “READ.” That sign pops up again later in the series, propped up unobtrusively but noticeably, on Beth’s Oval Office desk. The reappearance of that sign not only communicates something that would appear to be important to you and to Caldwell, but also communicates to readers something subtle and moving about Beth’s relationship with her father.

“That sign was actually the creation of Ben Caldwell. He adds so many great details to the work. The Latin inscriptions on the covers, the talking corndog hats, the little Facebook thumbs-up and thumbs-down that pop up everywhere, those were his ideas. I write a lot of background details into the script, and Ben pretty much doubles the amount of these details in his artwork. The result, I think, is a very dense patchwork of jokes and hidden messages, some of which will become really important as the story moves on.”

All of that detail leads to a really rich and rewarding reading experience. One gets the impression that you’re holding very little back, and the tone of the book is striking in part because I wouldn’t necessarily expect a company like DC to be comfortable publishing something so pointed.

“If somebody were writing a book on how to be a shitty writer, Chapter One would be entitled “Make Sure to Hold Back.” I usually have the opposite problem. I wonder if I’m being too nice, if in encoding my thoughts in parable and science fiction, I am somehow letting people off the hook. But I think there’s a line you cross where what you’re saying becomes so serious and angry that it ceases to be funny. It’s no longer entertaining, and once you cross that line, nobody is listening to you anymore. So I try to work on this side of the line, but in as wild and creative a way as possible.”

The character of Boss Smiley is a really terrific, somehow eerie villain. Can you share your opinion on why, perhaps in part because of/despite his goofy-seeming appearance, he works so well as Beth Ross’s ultimate adversary?

“That glowing smiling face is just so iconic. People see it in ads and on products and megastores everywhere. And seeing Boss Smiley say and do the things he does reminds them of what goes into these things. Boss Smiley, like all CEOs in 2036, is kept secret by the glowing corporate logo masks they were in public. This allows them to do whatever they want without facing any personal incrimination. I bet Martin Shkreli wishes he had a glowing corporate logo mask.”

Are there plans to explore the Boss Smiley character further in the next six issues? Will he continue to act as a faceless figurehead, or will we learn something about the person behind the mask?

“Boss Smiley becomes a much bigger character, much more important to the main story, in the next six issues.”

I’d argue that PREZ’s secret weapon is its sincerity. The book is surprisingly, wonderfully sincere beneath its cynical exterior and I was genuinely moved by your portrayal of a group of Christians who welcome in and befriend a giant robot built to be a horrifying killing machine.

“I am pro-Christian. I’m for anything that enlarges someone’s interior world, makes them feel more at home, and which gives them a sense of living in a benevolent universe. What I can’t stand is fundamentalism, or that your interior beliefs need to take over the outside world in order to have meaning. I think this basic attitude is reflected in all my work.”

Having now read your book, God is Disappointed in You, that’s obvious to me. It’s frankly wonderful, and I’d recommend it to literally anyone with an interest in knowing just how weird, crazy, beautiful, and mysterious the Bible is – regardless of whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, or whathaveyou. You’ve mentioned in the past that you’ve written gnostic gospel and apocryphal material in connection with God is Disappointed in You, and that this material has not been published. Is there a chance that we’ll get to read that stuff in the future?

“In the pretty near future, in fact. Apocrypha Now (Top Shelf/IDW) comes out in April, 2016.”

Outstanding! I can’t overemphasize how funny and informative God is Disappointed in You was for me, and I’m really looking forward to reading Apocrypha Now.

Before we wrap up, can you give readers some idea where PREZ may be headed next, now that Beth has established herself in the Oval Office and momentarily outwitted Boss Smiley, Pharmaduke, and the Colonels?

“The villains, who had always sort of dismissed President Ross as an ingénue in the first six issues, now realize that they have underestimated her and that they need to take off the gloves if they’re going to bring her down. And Beth, for her part, follows up on her recent successes by going on the offensive to make the sort of world-altering changes that Pharmaduke, Boss Smiley, and the Colonels fear most.”

That sounds great to me. Go out and get yourself a copy of PREZ Vol. 1: Corndog in Chief. You’ll be glad that you did. Still not sold? Download DC’s free preview of the title here and check out the PREZ #1 preview right here

Editor's note: You can read more from MMorse at his site, Verbosity.
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