We Talk Prez with Mark Russell
Meet Beth Ross, the first teenaged President of the United States. In a nation where corporations can run for office, the poor are used as human billboards, and tacos are delivered by drone, our only hope is this nineteen-year-old Twitter sensation. But the real question isn’t whether she’s ready for politics – it’s whether politics is ready for her.
DC Comics‘ Prez is a twelve part miniseries is written by Mark Russell, the rather brilliant satirist behind God is Disappointed in You. Russell is now setting his sights on politics with this series set in the future that still nails many of the issues that we deal with today.
We got a chance to talk to Russell about the series and the state of politics.
Graphic Policy: How did you get involved with Prez? Did you pitch it to DC Comics? Did they come to you?
Mark Russell: They approached me strangely enough. I had written a book God is Disappointed in You which condenses the bible into parts that are two to three pages each. It’s told in an irreverent way and they really liked the tone of that book. So when they were asking who would want to write a satirical series for DC, my book had been around their office, so that’s how it came up.
GP: Were you familiar with the previous miniseries that came out?
MR: Yeah, I read the four issue series after I got the gig. They sent it to me along with Ed Brubaker’s Smells Like Teen President. And I read Neil Gaiman’s adaptation that he did for Sandman.
GP: Do you consider yourself politically active? Do you regularly vote, volunteer, stuff like that?
MR: I don’t know how active I am, but I do vote and I have definite opinions about politics. And more than about politics, but philosophy, the state of planet Earth, and human potential. And I think that’s what I want this to be more about than isolate political issues. It’s really about how we are squandering human potential about things that really matter and how we’re using politics to not talk about the important issues that confront the human race.
GP: I know the series goes twelve issues which has it ending in July of next year. It spans pretty much the entire primary season for the 2016 Presidential election. Was that intentional, did that weigh in at all as far as the plans for the series?
MR: I think so. I think, and these decisions are made internally at DC, but I think they wanted to reboot Prez because of how relevant it’d be at the beginning of the 2016 election. That it’d be interesting to have a political comic running simultaneously as the election unfolds.
GP: The series takes place in the future. Was that your decision or DC’s?
MR: That was my decision. I thought it’d be easier to do a satirical comic set in the future because you can take the issues and problems in the present and make them more absurd by putting them in a futuristic concept.
GP: I also noticed in the first issue was devoid any mention of political parties, or parties making decisions. There’s definitely party bosses but there’s no labels. I’m guessing that was intentional.
MR: Yes. In fact there’ll be no mention of parties during the twelve issue run of the comics. And that is intentional. I want this to be about issues, not partisan politics. That’s one of the problems that prevents us from talking about honest solutions.
GP: Beth Ross is the main character, but in politics and campaigns there’s usually a large cast of characters. How much of that behind the scenes world will we see?
MR: The election process only occupies the first three issues of Prez, so there’s not a lot of behind the scenes stuff as far as the electoral politics. There is a lot with the cabinet and the decision making that goes on in the actual Presidency. One of the advantages that Beth Ross has as President is that she’s so completely foreign to politics, she was in politics or in Congress for 20 years or a Governor before, so she has nobody to draw upon from that world to help her in her decision making. Her cabinet is filled with actual experts. People who work in the field, not other politicians. That’s one of the things that makes her decision making and politics a lot different than what you’d see in a Presidency as we’d know it.
GP: The first issue you take on a lot of issues that are going on today like corporate person hood, corporate influence in elections, there’s the backroom decisions. You’ve done religious satire. What got you interested in political satire?
MR: Well I think they’re all the same in the sense that if we’re living active lives, we have opinions of things around us, the big things around us. How we’re squandering human potential. About how people are believing the things they do, and they are being led to do things they wouldn’t do except by this belief system. You always have to be sensitive to the things about the world that hurt you. We write about the things that wound us. If you don’t have have things in the world that you think are wrong and need to be fixed, I don’t understand why you’re writing.
GP: Who came up with Corn Dog girl?
MR: That was me. It was the best I could do with the time constraints as to why she would go viral on the eve of the election.
GP: I work in politics as my day job. I took it as skewering how politicians have turned into celebrities. Was that on purpose?
MR: Yeah. A lot of politics is celebrity culture.
GP: Is that something that’ll play throughout the series as a theme? Or was that something that’s more towards the beginning with the election?
MR: The Corn Dog thing is just an explanation of how becomes President. The idea of celebrity culture invading ever facet of our lives is a theme that will be throughout the series.
GP: There’s a scene where a candidate goes on a YouTube channel to get votes. I think that’s probably pretty prescient. How long before you think this will actually be a thing?
MR: I think by the time 2036 roles around, most of the things I predict will look dated.
GP: The series is going on during a Presidential election year along with all of the other races. Are there thoughts about doing something in the real world, like get people registered in a Rock the Vote sort of way? Or is it just going to be a fun comic?
MR: I’m not really trying to… it’s not a call to arms. It’s also not really fun either. I’m trying to talk about things that bother me about how the world exists, not just politically but also about how society creates hierarchies that don’t allow ideas to flow from the bottom up. And, to me, it’s more of a call to arms in a more encompassing way, about how we use human beings who are blessed with these amazing brains to train them to ask people if they want fries or clean up gym floors as opposed to really unlocking the potential of a function human brain. To me, that’s one of the craziest things today. We have so much brain power dedicated to such menial tasks. And I think that’s more of the central problem of the world. And I think it’s much more about that and finding the value of people than about isolated issues.
GP: Did you do any research into the world of politics and elections?
MR: I didn’t do a lot of research into politics. I follow politics pretty regularly as is. The one thing I have been researching is near future technology. How near future technology will impact the way we live. How ecological and paleontological will impact how the human race will have to live in the next twenty years. I did research more along those lines than the political stuff.
GP: The main lead is Beth Ross. Was it your idea for a female protagonist?
MR: It was my idea. It wasn’t my intention to make a statement with a female character as a lead. I really thought about the character and the more I thought about her, the more she took on this female form in my mind. So it just felt organic to me to make her female.
GP: A thing that stood out to me was Anonymous screwing around with the election. Where did the idea come from using them as opposed to another group?
MR: Yeah. Well I think one of the realities that are changing in the world is that nation states, or geographically defined entities, are less important the more we’re connected online. The really nations are less important than these groups and collectives we form voluntarily with other people who are like us or have similar objectives online. In fact in the future of Prez, Anonymous is recognized as a non-geographical entity by the United Nations. So, I wanted to make that point. How we work more cohesively as sort of these non-geographical entities where we connect online, than we do as an actual land based polity.
GP: Have you heard from the actual Corn Dog Twitter handle at all?
MR: No. There is an actual Twitter handle, but I’m not going to sweet it too much. Because it only is relevant for the first three issues. After that, the whole corn dog thing doesn’t come up a lot.
GP: It’ll be fascinating to see what happens to that Twitter account, when the issue comes out. Thanks a lot for the time talking with us.