Prez, Smart Satire or has the 2016 Election Sunk that Low?
I can’t tell if Prez is a smart satire, or if American politics are so dumb that the 2016 campaign trail can be so effortlessly lampooned by a comic book. The limited series reboot of an obscure 1970’s title began publishing in June. Its first four issues have uncannily predicted a number of summer’s political lowlights. Penned by Mark Russell, the DC Comics book details the rise of a 19-year-old fry cook from Oregon, Beth Ross, to become the first teen president of the United States, through a combination of botched legislative manipulation, viral social media and voter revulsion against politics as usual.
In 2036, the media are dominated by the 24-second news cycle and embedded corporate sponsorships. Crossfire-style talking head debate shows feature real time thumbs-up/thumbs-down viewer polls with “winners” thusly declared. Voter turnout in actual elections got so embarrassingly low that the law was changed to count tweets and Likes as actual votes. Corporate interests have enshrined the logic of the Citizen’s United decision into a “Corporate Citizenship” constitutional amendment that had the side-effect of eradicating age requirements for political office. CEO’s wear hologromatic likenesses of their corporate logos when standing in for their corporations’ personhood. Corporations, declares the big yellow smiley-faced CEO, “aren’t players in this game. We are the game.”
Unfortunately for them, the game does require likeable personalities to win votes. But the most likeable – and most beholden – of the potential candidates are sidelined by scandals caused by their youthful indiscretions having been self-documented on Vine and Grindr. The two very boring candidates representing – eh, whatever respective parties they’re representing – run a humiliating gauntlet of YouTube talk shows, pranks and physical endurance tests.
It is here that our hero rises to the occasion…by cleaning the grill at her job for a training video. Her hair gets caught in the deep fryer, and her yokel co-workers post the video on Youtube. “Corndog girl” becomes a viral sensation. The “Anonymous” hacker collective (Glad those guys kept the band together) enter Beth “Corndog Girl” Ross into the presidential race. She trends and surges and…wins Ohio (Good to know the voters of Ohio 21 years hence have retained the sense of humor that gave us two terms of Jon Kasich as governor). The Electoral College is deadlocked and the election gets thrown to the House.
In the House, things go haywire as states trade their delegations’ votes for pork barrel promises (Colorado gets a naval base! Everyone gets a NASA!) and switch their votes to Ross to extract more goodies…except everyone miscounted and she accidentally wins a majority of the states, at which point she is promptly whisked away to prevent her immediate assassination.
The satire of Prez is awfully broad. Mark Russell dissects the targets of his scorn with a meat cleaver where a scalpel might have sufficed. Patients whose health insurance can guarantee them a hospice bed, but not life-saving treatment, are treated by a labor-saving animatronic “end-of-life- care bear.” The debate over whether food stamps recipients can be trusted to make “responsible” choices results in a federal contract for a Taco Bell stand-in to deliver tacos by drone to the poor. Perhaps this satire needs to be so blunt because it might not take until 2036 for these “solutions” to be debated on Fox News.
The comic has been oddly prescient at times. It’s hard to imagine that the idea of debates being settled via social media was the stuff of science fiction in June. Already, we have seen no less than four mainstream presidential candidates drop out of the race because their debate performance did not attract the attention of the Internet. Not one vote has been cast in a primary and yet four campaigns are over because the Internet yawned!
Russell’s coup de grace, however, came with the third issue of Prez, where the smiley-faced CEO (NOT a stand-in for Wal-Mart as it turns out!) parachutes in to his hellhole of a warehouse to deliver a “rock star” pep talk to his miserable human drones. The publication of this issue eerily coincided with the New York Times’ devastating profile of Jeff Bezos’ time-management sweatshops at Amazon. “Every time a fulfillment comes in a few seconds late,” the smiley-faced CEO hectors his employees, “YOU ARE LITERALLY STEALING THE LIFE FORCE OF OUR CUSTOMERS!” And then of course he’s helicoptered away while that theme song of tone deaf politicians everywhere, “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World,” plays him out. Of course, Donald Trump was this year’s ignoramus to pump his crowd with Neil Young’s ode to “death and crack babies.” Prez’s Bezos stand-in is, at least, is a lyrics guy. “What’s with that exit music?” he demands of a subordinate. “You ever listen to that song?”
That is either very well anticipated by Russell, or else such a piece of luck that, either way, should be rewarded by your reading this comic. The only real misstep has been the understandable assumption that the political parties of 2036 would strain for “boringness” the way that the Bush and Gore candidacies of 2000 did. Who knew that reality television and Twitter would so radically alter candidates’ performances so quickly? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders relish their media appearances the way that Randy “The Macho Man” Savage relished his interviews with “Mean” Jean Okerlund before a wrestling match. Political campaigning will never be the same.
Beth Ross only just got inaugurated, which means that Prez is about to face the challenge of moving from criticizing the system to proposing solutions. This is where things can really go off the rails for the series. I, for one, will be disappointed with anything less than an agenda for “FULL COMMUNISM!” But this series is clever, relevant and wholly unexpected from DC Comics. It deserves more attention.