Prez: Teen President

Prez - Then and Now - A look at the original and a recent revisit to America’s first teen president

 Prez: First Teen President #3
by Joe Simon & Jerry Grandenetti

This comic is about a liberal (but easily swayed), non-military, young U.S. President going up against the “Minutemen”. These characters are “an extreme right-wing organization whose members have been storing hordes of arms”, and who forge money to pay their expenses.

A story “ripped from today’s headlines”? Not quite… it was printed nearly a quarter century ago. It’s issue #3 of Prez, DC’s early-70’s series about America’s first teen president. I found a beat-up copy in a quarter bin (125% of its cover price), and thought it would be fun to look at it, and compare it to the recent Vertigo Visions “sequel”.

The premise, as far as I can tell, is this: the youth-orientated counter-culture/peace movement of the 60’s succeeded in eliminating the age requirement for the presidency, creating a climate in which the outlawing of firearms was seriously discussed in Congress, electing some long-hair kid with no apparent qualifications as president, who appointed a young teepee-dwelling native American as head of the FBI. (A move that would have averted the 1975 framing and life imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. But I Digress.) However, an otherwise-secular classroom scene still showed a teacher leading his students in prayer, there was no indication that the military had changed much (except for the doves fluttering about), and Eagle Free boasted that his agents were infiltrating the Minutemen. I guess the revolution was incomplete. {wry grin}

Having read the 90’s sequel first, I expected the original Prez to reflect the anti-establishment idealism I remember from my childhood. But despite the occasional hippiesque comment (he typically talks like a square), Prez Rickard doesn’t seem to really have much of a political philosophy. Sure, he’s introducing a bill to outlaw firearms, but when pushed a little, he directs the Army to launch a full-scale bombardment of the musket-toting band of radicals. (What happened to the gesture of putting flowers in their muzzles?) But then he does dash in front of the soldiers, telling them all to stop shooting. And finally, he declares “that force cannot be met with cool phrases, love… or flowers…” (Oh.) Was DC trying with this series to draw in youth-culture readers, but then slip them lessons about the foolishness of their idealism? Or were they just missing the point of the movement? (Or am I being hopelessly nostalgic and/or paranoid?)

This book was a nice little diversion, but mostly because of the old ads for Charles Atlas, Kenner SSP Smash-Up Derby, and shady money-making “opportunities” (the pre-internet equivalent of Make Money Fast messages). The story, characterisation, and art didn’t hold up that well. Maybe if I’d read it when it came out, it would’ve worked for me, but not after 22+ years developing cynicism and intellectual sophistication.

 Prez: Smells Like Teen President
by Ed Brubaker & Eric Shanower

OK, so I’ve gotten more cynical and sophisticated. How about the “update” written by Ed Brubaker (creator of the sporadic slacker autobio Lowlife) for Vertigo’s “Visions” series? The story was written in 1995, but is set in 1996. Prez Rickard is believed dead, having simply vanished one day in ‘87. The story is about P.J. (”Prez Jr”), an orphaned Gen-X-er who is apparently the Prez’ love child, and his quest to find his father after a tabloid reports that was was spotted at a truck-stop in Kansas.

First of all, the art is beautiful. Eric Shanower has a clean, realistic style that makes this a pleasure to look at. His rendition of P.J. and his flashbacks of the young Prez have all the youthful sexiness that the earlier Prez should have had, but didn’t. There’s a 5-page sequence recalling events at different points in P.J.’s life, and in every one of them, he looks just the right age (complete with changing hairstyles for the times)… and still looks like the same character.

One problem with the art is that it was censored. Here we have a book labeled “for mature readers”, about the bastard child of a teenaged U.S. president, whom we see hitting on women, having sex, drinking, drugging, etc…. but when we see him lying naked on his back, his penis is… missing, or strategically covered by someone’s hand?! (The hand isn’t on his penis; it’s just gesturing conveniently in our line of sight.) It’s not that I need to see it (I do know what they look like, after all). It just seems a bit silly - and jarring - to leave it out. Grow up, people.

The central characters are fairly well defined, if a bit cliched: P.J. the Complex And troubled Young Adult, George the Loyal Childhood Friend, Jason the Cocky Alterna-Dude, Mary the Small-Town Girl With Dreams Of The Larger World, etc. Shanower’s compellingly consistent artwork and Brubaker’s natural-seeming dialogue work well together here.

The story is a Quest: for a father, for the truth, for meaning. Obviously Brubaker takes the character of Prez a lot more seriously than Simon did. His disappearance is used as a metaphor for what’s gone wrong since the days when it seemed (to some) that the young post-War generation would usher in the Age of Aquarius, and the ills of society would be cured. P.J. represents the generation after that, trying to figure out what they may have left for us… if anything.

From Brubaker’s other work, you’d expect this to be a rather nihilistic “slacker” tale, and in some respects, it is. Most of the characters are “damaged goods” of one sort or another, and don’t seem to have much to hope for. (P.J. and his friends aren’t from Seattle, but they are from the west coast.) But there’s also some old-fashioned idealism here as well. It manifests itself in P.J.’s search for this father, which may or may not bear fruit. But (Brubaker seems to be saying) it’s worth the try.

As a person who falls between the Boomers and Gen-X in age (1965, the year I was born, is usually cited as cut-off year between the two), I can relate to both perspectives. Depending on my mood, I can slip into the naive optimism of Prez, or the self-defeating cynicism of P.J. I guess that’s part of why I enjoyed this tale. (The fact that my blonde, twentysomething (ex?)boyfriend is on a cross-country trip to “discover America” and to see his father adds a little poignancy as well. Sure, it was a little preachy, but considering how long it’s been since I went to church, I can handle it.

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