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Cartoonist Mark Russell on his reboot of Prez, comics’ first teen president

Prez #1 cover art: DC Comics
Prez #1 cover art: DC Comics

Despite its aborted four-issue original run and general notoriety, DC Comics’ Prez has cast a surprisingly long shadow. Debuting in 1973, Prez: First Teen President #1 introduced readers to “Prez” Rickard, a youngster elected to America’s highest office thanks to a Constitutional amendment lowering the age of eligibility for the presidency. Rickard was initially hired to carry out the wishes of the corrupt Boss Smiley, but wound up rebelling against his corporate overlords and generally sticking it to the man for the four issues he lived to see.

The original Prez

The original tales reeked of a desperate bid to get in touch with “the kids” (writer Joe Simon was already 60 at the time of Prez’s publication), but the character persisted, making appearances over the years in titles from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The concept’s latest revival stands to be its longest-lived yet—barring an unforeseen cancellation after three issues—as this week’s Prez #1 kicks off a 12-issue series introducing Beth Ross, the teen president of 2036. Elected via Twitter after an embarrassing video of her goes viral, Ross inhabits a future run by vapid internet celebrities and logo-headed corporate overlords.

To pen the new maxi-series, DC turned to some new blood: writer and cartoonist Mark Russell. Russell is previously best known for God Is Disappointed In You, his 2013 satirical retelling of the Bible with cartoonist Shannon Wheeler. (Excerpt from the First Book Of Samuel: “The whole ancient world was a bag of dicks. Even God was a bit of a dick.”) The A.V. Club chatted with Russell about the idealism behind Prez’s pitch-black satire, the challenges and rewards of corporate censorship, and his upcoming God Is Disappointed In You follow-up, Apocrypha Now.

The A.V. Club: How did the idea of a Prez reboot come about in the first place?

Mark Russell: I have no idea. I was at the very tail end of that decision. DC decided they wanted to do a reboot of Prez to coincide with the 2016 elections. Then I was contacted via a friend that they were interested in me because they had read my book God Is Disappointed In You. And so I responded that I’d be very much interested in writing the reboot of Prez. But in terms of the idea to reboot Prez, that entirely happened within DC’s management.

AVC: Were you a fan of the original Prez series, or were you familiar with it at all, when you were approached to do this?

MR: I had never heard of it. It was completely alien to me. But when they told me the premise I was instantly sold. I thought, “Yes. This is the one thing they could have offered me in the DC Universe that really speaks to my interests.”

AVC: There have been a few different weird incarnations this character has popped up in over the years. Did you familiarize yourself with those as you were getting ready to do this project?

MR: Yes. I read the entire corpus of the original Prez comics, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Prez issue of Sandman. In fact, in one of the issues I’m writing I tried to have [Sandman’s Dream] just in the background. President Rickard does show up in my series as a character. He in fact is the vice president to Beth Ross, although he’s in his 70s now. At one point I have him in the background, and I wanted to have him in the background talking to Dream from Sandman. But DC nixed that idea. They didn’t want to bother Neil Gaiman with getting his permission.

The Prez issue of Sandman

AVC: So what did you find appealed to you about the original series, once you took a look at it?

MR: The original series was very much about how they thought youth culture would change American politics, and of course it never really did. It never really panned out that way. Hegel once said that you have the establishment and then you have the revolutionary force. You have the establishment and then you have the hippies revolting against the establishment, and what you end up getting are like accountants with long hair. And that’s kind of what happened with the youth movement in the ’70s. We had an establishment that was leading the country into endless conflicts overseas, that was entrenching economic interests behind corporate elites, and then this youth culture comes up to oppose it. And what we ended up getting was war overseas and entrenched corporate interests, but with a lot better style. So it’s kind of my critique on how the youth movement failed over the last 40 years and what would happen if it actually were to succeed in the future.

AVC: What influenced your decision to make the protagonist female this time around?

MR: I just wanted to separate her from Prez Rickard. I wanted it to be a different person with a different perspective. The choice of making her female was more instinctive than calculated. The more I thought about the character and what sort of things they would do politically, the more she just kind of took on a feminine style in my mind. But it really wasn’t a calculated decision to make her female. It was just kind of the way she emerged as I began thinking about the concepts I wanted to include in Prez.

AVC: As you mentioned, Prez Rickard does appear in the series as a character. Boss Smiley also appears in the first issue. Are there going to be a lot of callbacks to the original Prez in that vein?

Mark Russell (Photo by Gina Kelley)

MR: There will be some. Not a lot. I think that’s probably the extent of the original characters that will show up. [Prez Rickard’s Native American FBI director] Eagle Free might show up as a prisoner, a sort of Leonard Peltier figure who’s languishing in prison, because there is an upcoming issue about race and prison populations in America in which I think he will make an appearance. But for the most part, those are the only two characters who will be in the new Prez from the old one.

AVC: You mentioned the issue tackling race and prison populations. What’s the format of this series going to be? Is each issue going to have a self-contained story with that “issue of the month” kind of format?

MR: There will be a 12-issue-long arc to the story, but each issue, I envision, once Beth becomes president, will deal with one or two specific political issues in a way that advances the main story arc.

AVC: Your work has previously been mostly published by small publishers and in more alternative outlets, but you worked with DC for the first time on Prez. How was that experience for you?

MR: It’s been very rewarding. DC has been very good about letting me work. The things they’ve objected to have been very few and usually very tactical. For example, I can’t say “dick” or “shit.” It never occurred to me, writing a comic book, that I wouldn’t be able to use obscenities. So I had to go back to my early scripts and take out all the “dick”s and “shit”s and “fuck”s. Especially the “fucks.” But in a way having the restriction of the censorship made me more creative. It also made me a little dirtier in what I replaced them with.

AVC: There’s some pretty vicious satire in Prez #1, with references to crowdfunding platforms designed specifically to pay hospital bills and game shows where contestants have to literally shoot themselves to win money. You say in God Is Disappointed In You that if you had a religion, you would call it Irreverence. Are you writing this bleak modern satire with anger, or more with a wink?

MR: I think you can’t write with anger. I think it always has to be with a wink. There always has to be an element of hope in what you write. Otherwise you’re just getting mad and it’s not going to be fun for anybody. I’m not trying to write a bleak and blistering screed against American civilization. I’m writing something that I hope is fun and satirical and full of possibility.

AVC: So the overall tone of the series is going to end up being more hopeful over the course of the 12 issues.

MR: Yeah. It’s not just one cynical diatribe against American failures after another. I actually want to try to come up with solutions, to work around these issues. I think even the characters that are fundamentally evil and wrong, I want people to really love them. I think that’s important to writing believable characters. They don’t have to be likable but they have to be loved, at least by the author. You have to imbue the characters with their own sort of feeling of justification and morality. Everyone has that, whether we see them as evil or not. So I try to bring the characters to life by making them likable or lovable, in the sense that they can be, at least to themselves.

AVC: You’re working with [penciller] Ben Caldwell on this project. Did you have any previous relationship with him before you started on Prez?

MR: No. I’d never known Ben before. But I’ve really enjoyed working with him thus far. It’s been great. He comes up with a lot of details, the sort of background elements that I never would have thought of, that bring the futuristic world to life. He’s really open to my suggestions if I want to do something differently and he’s been a great creative force to collaborate with.

AVC: Let me ask you a couple of questions about Apocrypha Now. What prompted you to do a God Is Disappointed In You follow-up in the first place? Did Top Shelf ask you to do another, or did you bring the idea to them?

MR: We brought the idea to them. When I originally had written God Is Disappointed In You, in doing my research I came across some of the Gnostic gospels and some of the stories from the Jewish Midrash, and I had just written little condensed versions of those with the idea that I might include them in God Is Disappointed In You. But they didn’t like that idea. They wanted to keep God Is Disappointed In You focused on the Bible. So I just sat on those. And when God Is Disappointed In You did well, we discussed a follow-up book and expanding the few sort of non-canonical texts I had done into a full book. One thing that’s going to be a little different about Apocrypha Now from God Is Disappointed In You is that Shannon Wheeler is going to convert some of the books into little minicomics. So it won’t be just like a condensed book of the Bible with a single cartoon. Some of the books will be replaced entirely by two- or three-page minicomics, which I’m really looking forward to.

AVC: It sounds like God Is Disappointed In You involved a pretty exhausting research and writing process for you. How does Apocrypha Now compare to that?

MR: It was a lot quicker, I think, because: a) The stakes aren’t as high if you do something wrong, and b) The story is a lot clearer. Most of what they cut out of the Bible were the fantastical, the fantasy, or the sort of mystical stories, which are much more plot-driven and much less spiritual or ethically driven. So it was a lot easier for me to translate those into stories and it was a lot easier for me to understand them as a text than it was the Bible, which gets very murky at points.

AVC: You mention in the foreword for the Apocrypha Now sampler that the apocrypha didn’t make it into the Bible proper for a variety of reasons, some because they were just “too weird.” Is there more fun in reworking material that’s already got that bizarre edge to it, as opposed to the Bible where it seems you might have to work harder to point out the weirdness of some of the material?

MR: Yeah. With the Bible, I was stuck having to update and condense every book of the Bible whether it was interesting or not. With Apocrypha Now, I can just pick and choose stories that I find interesting. If something’s too convoluted or it’s just not capturing my interest, I can just say “screw it” and move on to the next book.