The Children’s Crusade

Democracy in Comics and the Incredible Story of Prez

Are comics, as a medium, not conducive to expressions of democracy? Could be.

Democracy is for people who can deal with compromise and delayed gratification and accumulations of little victories; comics have traditionally attracted artists who deal in bold strokes and all-or-nothing fantasies. (And it’s not as if anybody was going to learn anything about democracy in the sweatshop environment where industry cartoonists have traditionally toiled.) Back in the classic days of newspaper funnies and great kids’ comic books, such heroes as Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck, representatives of the American ideal, were always stumbling into some exotic Ruritanian society ruled by a despotic tyrant; and Flash Gordon, with typical Yankee enterprise, blasted off to other planets just so he could find a good dictator. But though they might have intended to improve things for the benighted populace by instituting American-style democracy, they didn’t bring the people around by setting up ballot boxes or staging readings from The Federalist Papers; they ran around slugging and bopping their misguided enemies, throwing in their lot with the local guerilla insurgency if they needed to. They wanted to bring order to the people and get them to live by proper rules, but they were also practical enough to understand that you can’t always get ignorant heathens to immediately respond to the Junior Woodchuck Handbook.

Similarly, when Superman decided that Hitler and Stalin were getting too big for their britches, he didn’t invite them to a seminar on the benefits of less oppressive forms of government; he went to Europe, grabbed the bastards by the scruff of the neck. and flew them straight to the League of Nations, where nobody had the nerve to ask his Kryptonian ass if he’d maybe left the extradition orders in his other cape. Even Captain America, the first superhero specifically created by our government for official patriotic service — unlike all the usual vigilante types, he’s a government employee, which makes you wonder if some congressional committee is supposed to have designed that goofy-looking costume — favored the pounding-our-enemies-into-submission technique. In the remarkable recent Marvel miniseries The Truth: Red, Black & White, which fuses national memories of discrimination against black servicemen and of the Tuskegee Experiment to tell the story of black soldiers who are unwillingly scientifically engineered into supermen to be used against Hitler (and then callously discarded), a righteously pissed-off Captain America shows up at the end to confront the rich white dude he holds, to use a word that no longer appears to have any actual meaning in our country’s political and corporate culture, responsible. Cap informs the fellow that he’s used the wad of back pay he accumulated during the decades that he was frozen (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please don’t embarrass both of us by asking) to buy principal stock ownership of his company and, thus, access to all the recorded evidence of the bad guy’s life of slime. He then invites the villain to choose between public exposure and suicide — frontier justice for the Enron age. (Cap thus paid off a karmic debt: back in the mid-’70s, he pulled down the curtain on Watergate, only to become so disillusioned by the corruption of his government that he went through the nothing-matters-and-what-if-it-did phase that most of us go through when we’re 30 years younger than the well-preserved Cap was at the time. He became so alienated that for several issues he hung up his Halloween costume and shining shield and allowed the Falcon, a black superhero who was understandably less shocked by the news that the Whitey-in-Chief was a crook, to handle the crime-fighting.)

On the other hand, what comics are really, really good at expressing and embodying is anarchy. Impulses and moods that, in real life, can make a person sound like an overgrown kid in full whine mode can, transferred to the page, fuel kick-ass adventures in mainstream comics and blossom into wild-eyed, raving satirical fantasies in the underground titles. (One of the best, and most politically astute, of the ’80s underground anthology titles was in fact called Anarchy Comics, founded by co-editors Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney.) Even Howard Chaykin’s exhilarating American Flagg! whose author intended it as a Reagan-era declaration that a liberal hero could be a patriotic icon, turned out to have a lot more faith in the power of the strongest thrown punch and the fastest drawn gun than in the ballot box — its politicians are grinning charlatans and its electoral process a Chicago-style psychedelic nightmare. (And Reuben Flagg’s “liberalism” turned out to have less to do with any principles he ever bothered to state than his hedonistic nature; he had to nail the villains so that he could make it to the bedroom of whatever hottie Chaykin had just dropped into the action like chum for a shark.)

Other comics have been downright propagandistic in their support of chaos over polite political procedure. Although Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was attacked for seeming to embody, with its coldly vigilanteish hero, the law-and-order spirit of the Reagan years, it also depicts Ronald Reagan himself as a smiley-faced, senile goofball worthy of nothing but contempt. The contempt extends even to Superman, who is depicted as an agent fighting Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America. By believing in official service to whatever nimrod the dopes have put into office, he has identified himself as a chump and a sucker MC, cluelessly working for the Man. (“I gleefully take credit for ending the Batman-Superman friendship,” Miller told a TV interviewer last year. “These two people should not be friends!”) I remember that when Superman first appeared in The Dark Knight Returns, the elements of his character that Miller chose to highlight unflatteringly made me realize why I’d always sort of associated him with Richie Rich, who back in 1972 had appeared in a special issue of his own comic sharing an open car with President Nixon, the little suck-up.

Around the same time as The Dark Knight Returns, Miller wrote the Daredevil story arc “Born Again,” which featured a subplot in which arrogant Reagan administration officials — who have concocted their own steroid-freak superman to fight the Contras — shut Captain America out of the loop, alienating the poor guy all over again. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, set in 1985 in an alternate America where the existence of actual superheroes has allowed for real law and order, Richard Nixon is still president and Woodward and Bernstein are just two guys whose dead bodies were found in a parking garage — the point being, chaos may make for a healthier system than absolute order. V for Vendetta, arguably Alan Moore’s finest long work of the 1980s, celebrates an anarchist-terrorist hero who proves to be the only effective weapon against a fascist British government that has everyone in the country killed or cowed. Warren Ellis’s Hunter-Thompson-as-cyberpunk fantasy Transmetropolitan posits a system so hopelessly corrupt and inept that there’s nothing the journalist anti-hero can do but abuse it, mocking it in print and openly hounding its representatives. Ellis also created The Authority, which, like many contemporary superhero books, skirts close to an embrace of fascism in its faith in the idea that whoever hits hardest must know best — or at least, that we’d better hope so.

One standout exception to the rule that comics can’t do democracy is Prez, which was one of the few mainstream comics that seems to have been meant to glamorize the idea of civic duty, and which also has the distinction of being one of the weirdest books ever rolled off the assembly line of a major comics company. The title character, Prez Rickard, is a bright-eyed young man with a mop of blond hair and good bone structure, who lives with his mother and sister in the town of Steadfast in Anystate, U.S.A. (At the time, Prez’s look was probably meant to suggest a teenaged Robert Redford, though later readers might find it hard to look at him without thinking, “Damn, it’s Young Dan Quayle!”) The book was created by the writer Joe E. Simon for DC Comics — the same Joe Simon who, working with Jack Kirby, created not just Captain America but the parodistic Fighting American, Boys Ranch, and the first romance comics. More specifically, though, he’s the same Joe Simon who, after splitting from Kirby, mostly floundered about and occasionally managed, on the strength of his name, to put out a book as weird as Brother Power, the Geek. That notorious oddity lasted two issues in 1968; Prez lasted four in 1972, a time when DC was eating Marvel’s dust and, in a spirit of creative freedom fueled by desperation, was prepared to throw just about anything at the wall to see if it would stick. Marvel had hammered home the notion that a mainstream commercial comic book had to be a superhero comic book, and aside from Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neill’s work on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, DC’s proudest titles during the early ’70s tended to be its Joe Kubert-illustrated Tarzan books and other Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, the Len Wein-Bernie Wrightson Swamp Thing, Howard Chaykin’s space opera Ironwolf, and the spaghetti Western-flavored Jonah Hex — all of which could sort of pass for superhero comics only if you stretched the definition of the term to its limits, and even then you had to hold them at a tilt and squint funny, preferably with a couple of beers in you. The company was not above trying to sell Prez as a sort-of superhero comic for those crazy kids: Prez was always seen in a red turtleneck emblazoned with a travesty of the presidential logo and featuring the words “PREZ USA” — essentially, that was his costume, and his secret power was innocent youthful idealism.

Prez, who had the kind of childhood that Walt Whitman would have wished for himself, is so overcome with pride at the American system that it’s a wonder he can make it from one end of the block to the next without bursting out singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or at least “I’m Just a Bill.” He first demonstrates the power of his can-do spirit by applying himself to the Clock Problem. Steadfast is simply lousy with clocks, and in one of those details so common in Simon’s late work that hint at a more interesting back story that the one we’re reading, not a single one of them agrees on what time it is. It takes half an hour for all the damn clocks of Steadfast to finish chiming to announce the start of each new hour, which does more to interfere with a man’s getting a decent nap than that asshole who lives above me who I’m gonna take out with a baseball bat the next time he starts yelling at his girlfriend at three in the morning.

Everyone else in town seems weirdly ready to go with the flow on this Clock Problem, but Prez becomes concerned that the town’s lack of consensus on what fucking time it is might create problems on Election Day, so he starts resetting every clock in town until each one of them is tick-tocking along in pleasing synchronization. This is the kind of feat that today, in tandem with Prez’s pretty-boy looks, would guarantee him a tour of the talk-show circuit, a guest-host gig on “Saturday Night Live” and, if he was really lucky, a record deal; but this was the madcap ’70s, so a political career is launched. Congress had just passed (in real life) the law granting the vote to 18-year-olds and (in the pages of Prez) accompanying legislation allowing 21-year-olds to hold public office, and by the time he hits 21, Prez is calling the shots from the Oval Office. (I don’t know if Joe Simon, who was in his late 50s by the time he concocted this salute to the purity of youth, kept up with the movies, but Prez often seems like a rebuttal to the 1968 A.I.P. exploitation flick Wild in the Streets [recently dissected by Scott Von Doviak here in The High Hat], in which the election of a 24-year-old pop star to the presidency leads to “a reign of hippie fascism” and a new policy of legal discrimination against geezers over 35. If it weren’t for pop culture artifacts such as Prez and Wild in the Streets, I wonder if we’d have any idea today of the degree to which some people apparently expected the reduction of the legal voting age to change things in this country, one way or the other. Given the actual results, I hope that both those who were expecting all hell to break loose and those who thought that a new age of clear-eyed hope would begin were able to contain their disappointment.)

Prez’s political career actually begins badly. Not understanding the extent to which rot and corruption have sunk into the infrastructure (despite the fact that all the adult authority figures who line up to blow shit at him are drawn to look twisted and ugly enough to test the tolerance level of Jim Rose), he risks being a mere pawn of the nefarious Boss Smiley, a political fixer who pretty much runs the world in the manner of the Kingpin in Daredevil, though without the gravitas. Boss Smiley is the most brazen surreal-grotesque stroke in the book: he’s a menacing lunk in a suit with a round head whose features are meant to suggest that blight of the ’70s, the smiley-face logo. Salvation comes in the form of another character who seems to have been driven from the Bizarro World on grounds of extreme implausibility: Eagle Free, a Native American who has the harmonic connection to the planet that Native Americans always have in bad New Age-inflected literature and who always dresses as if he’s meeting General Custer later that afternoon (feathered headband, bare chest, moccasins) — even after Prez, grateful for his wise counsel, appoints him head of the FBI. As the nation’s top crime-fighter, he is aided by his mystical ability to talk to the animals, learn their languages, so he can be the greatest man on Earth, etc.

Characters such as Eagle Free and Boss Smiley, like just about everything in Brother Power, the Geek, sum up the great Joe Simon question: did he mean it? Is the blatant silliness of these comics meant to be surreal, or allegorical, or parodistic, or are they the ridiculous gestures of a past-his-prime hack trying to leech onto a youth culture and not remotely getting it? It’s been pointed out that Fighting American, which was taken for a light-hearted send-up of superheroes along the lines of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, wasn’t much less silly, but does that mean that Prez was meant to be funnier than it seems, or that Simon only decided that Fighting American (which came near the end of his partnership with Jack Kirby) was a parody after he noticed that the people reading it were all doubled over laughing? How far would it have gone towards at least clarifying these questions if Kirby had done the art chores on Prez, as he’d done on pretty much everything else that posterity has congratulated Simon on having been a part of? This last question may actually be the most interesting, because as it happens, Kirby was still under contract to DC in 1972, having fled Marvel a couple of years earlier in a huff (and an explosion of publicity). And as it also happens, Prez started production just around the time that DC showed its gratitude to the King for signing on with them by canceling all four of the “Fourth World” titles he had been writing and drawing for them — a handful of wildly ambitious, interlocking titles that showed that it was possible for a comics creator to seem totally out of touch with current trends in comics specifically and the real world in general, reveal his unfettered imagination as being somewhat deranged, and still knock the socks off readers willing to make half an effort to get on his wavelength. So it’s not like Kirby didn’t have some time on his hands. Did it not occur to anyone to reteam him with Simon, or was the idea broached and one or both of the old partners said no? If it was Kirby that said no, did it have anything to do with his having taken a look at the script and thought, “Jeez, and to think they’ve been trying to measure me for a straightjacket!” These are the kind of questions that somebody out there probably actually knows the answers to; I’d be delighted to hear them. But in the meantime, saying that these are the questions that Prez brings to mind is the quickest way I know to communicate a sense of just how strange the comics are.

If only Simon had actually made Prez the story of its hero’s political education, using the idealistic naïf protagonist to show how things work in a democracy and making drama out of Prez’s wising up and learning to pull the strings of government to make things better, the series might have developed into a noncynical version of what Dave Sim later pulled off in the “High Society” and “Church & State” sections of Cerebus. As it is, there’s no reason to believe that might have happened if the book had just kept going a little longer. Once Prez, with Eagle Free’s help, had given Boss Smiley the finger and seemed ready to firmly grasp the tiller, the book spun off into increasingly deranged melodramatic plots involving assassination attempts, the machinations of “Bobby Fishhead” and his evil, costumed Russian chessmen, and an influx of vampires from “the nation of Transylvania.” One only hopes that, sitting off to the side of the action, Jack Kirby got a good chuckle out of it. (Given later developments, I suppose that Simon deserves points for having known to be suspicious of Bobby Fischer, even if it’s just that he was always jealous of the smart kids in the tenement — or wherever the hell he grew up — who could always beat his ass at chess.) Prez made one token guest appearance in Supergirl to establish once and for all that he was, indeed, the President of the United States in the early 1970s, at least as far as DC continuity freaks were concerned; a fifth and final completed Prez story was published in the appetizingly titled Cancelled Comics Cavalcade (an in-house series than DC maintained just to hang onto the copyrights of material they’d decided to otherwise wash their hands of), and that was that.

Or it would have been, if it weren’t for a strange quirk of the major comics publishers. Though DC began courting hot writers aggressively in the late ’80s after the success (and departure) of Alan Moore, its promises of creative freedom came with a catch: the company much preferred that even characters that looked, smelled, and acted unlike anything that had appeared in a DC comic before be said to have been “inspired” by earlier characters — the more obscure the better — so that the company could have the pride and joy of hanging onto those aforementioned valuable copyrights. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the hot, literate, sorta-superhero/fantasy title of the early ’90s, was a prime example of a “new” version of an old character who wouldn’t have been recognized by his earlier incarnation if he’d caught him in bed with his wife. And at some point, as Sandman was nearing the end of its long run, Gaiman decided to unearth Prez.

“The Golden Boy,” a stand-alone story that appeared in Sandman #54, is remarkable, partly because Gaiman doesn’t really remake the character in any obvious ways. Prez is still the good-looking blond kid in the personalized gimmick turtleneck; though thanks to Michael Allred, he’s a lot better-drawn than you’ve ever seen him before, with an intense look in his eyes that belies the innocence of his intentions. (Amusingly, Allred also wound up doing the artwork when some genius attempted a one-shot “re-invention” of Brother Power, the Geek.) Prez still fixes those clocks, and he’s still pitted throughout his career against Boss Smiley, “the prince of that world,” and there’s even a single, fleeting appearance (in a panel copied from the image of Prez’s Inaugural Parade on the cover of Prez #1) by Eagle Free, though Gaiman has sense enough not to ruin the considerable symbolic presence of the Native American sitting next to the new president on his way to the seat of power by giving him any lines.

What Gaiman and Allred get right is the tone, and with that fixed, it turns out that Simon’s basic idea has real, affecting power. For a start, they deny the cynical reader the self-defeating pleasure of feeling superior to Prez. The late-night meeting between Prez and Richard Nixon (who slips into the future president’s bedroom window to do him the favor of tipping him to the score) is a little like the meeting between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes in Melvin & Howard; you watch the corrupted old power broker reveal himself to the innocent dope, and gradually you realize that it’s the soul-sick “realist” who’s completely lost touch with what matters. Prez isn’t a holy fool — or any kind of fool — here; he’s a man who’s committed to doing the right thing even when it means he has to suffer for it. Talking about the illogic of nuclear defense policy, he knows that what he’s saying is logical, and also knows that there are people who think that because what he’s saying goes against conventional wisdom about what it’s acceptable for politicians to say, he sounds like a nut – which, for him, is their problem. Gaiman and Allred frame this as a fairy tale, the kind in which “magnificent omens” occur on the day Prez is elected, because while it’s not that hard to believe that there could be such a man, only in a fairy tale could most people accept the idea that he could get elected president and not wind up getting eaten alive. And that may be our problem.

A year after Prez received his apotheosis in Sandman, the writer-artist team of Ed Brubaker and Eric Shanower (who’d previously collaborated on the memorable An Accidental Death) did the “Vertigo Visions” one-shot Prez: Smells Like Teen President, which is at least as much a meditation on the emotional impact of “The Golden Boy” as it is anything to do with the original series. It depicts a road trip between three Gen-Xers, whose unofficial leader, the orphaned P.J., has grown up believing that he’s Prez’s illegitimate son. The story is set in a familiar ’90s milieu of people just shuffling along, the younger characters uncommitted and unsure whether they want to grow up into anything and the older ones disillusioned and burned out. If Prez’s term in office is a liberal’s idea of what was called, during the Reagan administration, “Morning in America,” then the world of Smells Like Teen President is the morning after. Prez himself has vanished at some point after leaving office; neither alive nor dead, he’s not an historical figure who might give inspiration to those who come after him but a tabloid celebrity, and people report sightings of him as if he were Elvis or Bigfoot. P.J., who complains about there being something terribly wrong with the country but can’t imagine a way to work towards a solution, thinks that he’s on a quest to find his father and find himself, but he might as well be stretched out on his couch at home, staring at his navel. Crashing into Steadfast in hopes of feeling some connection to Prez and a more meaningful past, he finds the place transformed into a gaudy tourist trap, and, like a kid who doesn’t know exactly what the WTO or globalization are but knows that they make him angry, he throws a brick through a shop window.

The comic ends on a hopeful note, but what’s strongest about it is the feeling it conveys that what really matters about Prez’s golden age is that it couldn’t last. Prez’s term ran out, those who came after him undid the reforms he’d instituted, and the people who were left behind are stuck with the pain of knowing that things don’t have to be the way they always are. Brubaker and Shawnower are smart, talented guys, but what’s most striking about their slacker road comic is that, read today, it already seems much more dated than Gaiman and Allred’s sweet dream. Say what you like about the current state of the U.S.A., you don’t really see that many people pointing to puny, nearly irrelevant disappointments in the paper as a reason for pretending to believe that there’s no real difference between the two major parties and you might as well sit out the election, because what difference does anything make? He who dies with the most jaded expression wins. The last line, spoken by one of P.J.’s road buddies to the hero who’s begun to wake up a little, is “Shut up with that hippie shit!” Which is just soooooo ’90s!