By Harper W. Harris
Of all the new DCYou titles that have come out so far, Prez by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell may be my favorite. It takes a sharp, satirical look at the future and the American political process in a way that is a bit shocking to see in a DC comic book. Although the title and concept is an older one from the early ’70s, Beth Ross is a brand new Prez for a new generation. I got a chance to sit down with Mark Russell and talk about the origin of his version of Prez and the darkly hilarious future he presents in the new series.
Harper W. Harris: In Prez #1, you have a lot of really smart and really funny ideas about the future that you put forth. How did you decide what ideas or concepts you wanted to exaggerate for that future, and did you do any research to pull that together?
Mark Russell: Well, I think the things that I really like really take a lot of time to build the world in which they exist, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the world before I even started writing stories about Prez. So a lot of the things that I decided to populate it with were sort of nascent technologies that we have now that I see either dark things they could be used for in the future, or things that are used for dark things now that I think could be made to serve people better in the future. So it was literally a critique on how we’re misusing technology and people now, and I figured I would just extrapolate ways in which things could be further abused or how we could change the way these technologies and humans are treated in the future.
HH: You’ve got a lot of experience with satire in the past particularly with religious satire in God is Disappointed in You. How did you turn your eye to political satire, and how has that differed for you so far?
MR: I think my worldview can best be described as irreverence, which I see as a breed of honesty. I don’t revere anything enough that I won’t look at its flaws, but I don’t hate anything enough that I can’t see its virtues. So that’s the sort of prism I want to turn on to anything I’m writing about. In terms of politics, the only thing that really was different from God is Disappointed in You was the research I was doing, and the opinions I have about the world and the direction it’s going is formed by recent history. But otherwise it’s exactly the same beast.
HH: A lot of your past work has been in prose form, or with single panel cartooning. How has working with Ben Caldwell been, and with working in a more sequential art form?
MR: I have to think a lot more visually as opposed to writing something as exposition or having the character say something, I can actually show it in the panel, which is really liberating. It’s really helped me to start thinking in those terms. Plus, Ben comes up with a lot of great background details and stuff, so a lot of times he will come up with something that will inspire me to write a line of dialogue that addresses it. Like one of my favorite things that he’s drawn so far is in issue one when Beth is working at the corndog place. I just put in my notes, “the employees are wearing ridiculous costumes.” But what he came up with were these people wearing these like dachshund hats. So I actually started incorporating lines about the hats in future issues–she doesn’t want to give up her hat after she becomes president. She has to go back to the corndog place and ask for an advance on her paycheck even after she becomes president, and they’re like, “What do you care, you’re the president?” Well yeah, but they don’t pay until the end of the month. So it’s the kind of thing you have to think about when you’re a teenager working at a corndog place, even if you are the commander in chief. You gotta make it until payday.
HH: Very nice! So let’s actually talk about Beth a bit. When you starting work on the book and getting ideas for it, how did you decide to make Prez a totally new character from the original Prez, and how do you feel she’s different?
MR: I wanted to do a very different comic book than the original Prez. I think that the original Prez was more relevant for the early ’70s–it was about that they thought youth culture was about to take over the world now that 18 year olds could vote, and we’re in very different world now. We’re in a world where youth culture has largely failed, where the government and politics are largely controlled by elites and non-egalitarian forces. So I wanted to do a comic that was about this political reality, and to make that separation as cleanly as possible I wanted to come up with a completely different character in as many ways as possible from the original Prez Rickard. Although, I will say, Prez Rickard does show up as a character in the new Prez: he’s super old, in his 70s, and he’s a failed wunderkind from the past. He did not become president in my world, but he is there. I wanted it to be a very different comic about a very different time in American history.
HH: So yeah, you see the original Prez as being about youth culture having failed…do you think now that’s a thing that’s changed, an idea that holds more water?
MR: I think in a way, youth culture is far more threatening or promising now than it was in the early ’70s because it’s transcending politics. It’s more about recreating the world using technologies and social media that was inconceivable back then. As enlightened as the hippies may have been, they still had to work within the media and social paradigms of their time, they still had to somehow get on television. They still had to spread their message through the mass media. That’s no longer the case: social media the youth movement and millennials to completely create their own culture independently of what the people who own the means of communication can channel them into.
HH: So it’s a matter of different channels and different tools that they have available to them, okay. So another thing that’s really different about your Prez story is that most of the early stories are really short. How did you hit on 12 issues, and how do you plan to expand that world into a longer form story?
MR: The 12 issues is what DC originally came up with because it will take us up to the 2016 election and they figured there was going to be more interest in political satire because of the election. But I’m really starting to think of it as two six-issue long story arcs, which is good because it’s not like a bad ’30s radio serial drama, it gives me room to world build and to have side stories that really make the universe or Prez come alive in a way that I couldn’t if I had to do a succinct complete story every single issue. Plus I think that single issue approach lends itself to impossibility–like in this one he’s fighting vampires, and the next one he’ll be boxing a gorilla. Whereas if you have a few issues to take your time and tell a story, you can deal with the complexities of real life and real politics.
HH: So tell us a little more about the format of how you’re going to approach it; you said you’re breaking it into two six-issue arcs, will each issue deal with specific idea, or is it more building towards the ends of those two stories?
MR: Both. Each one has its own sort of unique issue. Issue one was largely just about introducing the characters, issue two is about the absurdity of the electoral process. There’ll be an issue about drone warfare…but at the same time they are all advancing the central plot about Beth coming to power and becoming a seasoned politician and able president because she has the two assets that no other president in history has had: she doesn’t owe a lot of favors–she doesn’t have to pay people back for their support–and she’s not a product of the system. She hasn’t learned what she can’t do, so to her there’s no reason to believe that she can’t do anything she comes up with.
HH: Looking at Prez #1, it’s a very dark and messed up world you’ve presented us with, and like you said we’re going to see how Beth comes to power and deals with those things. So all-in-all, when the series is done, do you think the story is a more optimistic or cynical one?
MR: I want it to be an optimistic story. I think you have to paint a portrait of what’s wrong with the world before you can say what should be done. But if you don’t say what should be done, or you don’t have opinions about ways in which the world could be better, then what’s the point? Otherwise you’re just moaning, you know?
HH: Last question: where can I get a taco drone? I’m kinda hungry…
MR: I’m working on one in my garage. The taco is coming along much better than the drone right now, but I’ll let you know.
Prez #1 is on stands now, with issue two of the twelve issue series coming out on 7/22.