Imagine a world where you can vote in elections via Twitter and polling happens live on Facebook as debates unfold. Drone strikes can be launched from the comfort of your couch at home, and giant nurse teddy bears prescribe pot cookies to help ease your pain. This is the not-so-far-off dystopian future of Prez, writer Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell’s comic reboot about a teen viral video star who is elected President of the United States.
In the year 2036, Beth Ross, or “Corndog Girl” as she is known to the Internet, becomes an 18-year-old commander-in-chief faced with corrupt politicians and evil corporate CEOs. On her side, Beth has a mysterious group of hackers, her own ingenuity, and a shady vice president. Together, they tell a story that sharply critiques the United States’s modern-day political system.
From illicit backroom deals in Washington, D.C., to corporate institutions that own everything and everyone, Prez shows how greed and corruption drive politics and hurt those who aren’t properly represented in a democracy. What happens when a complete outsider, someone with nothing at stake in the game of politics, takes the reins of the free world? Follow Corndog Girl on Twitter and you will find out.
We caught up with Russell and Caldwell to discuss Prez, corporate greed in America, how social media has changed politics, and how an outsider’s perspective can change the world.
Prez is a revival of Joe Simon and Jerry Grandetti’s 1973 book of the same name. What elements of that original series did you try and bring to the new Prez?
Russell: The main thing that really captured my imagination from the original series was Boss Smiley. The idea of a villain with this two-dimensional smiley face for a head seemed to resonate to me much more in the 21st century than it did back in 1973, since [the story is now] more about people hiding behind the anonymity of corporate personhood and living in a somewhat transparent media environment but still being able to work in secret. To me that was really a great metaphor for the contradictions of the 21st century.
Those corporate figures are always lurking in the background in this new book, shaking hands and cutting deals. Is that how you see real-life corporations operating, through anonymous entities that represent them in backroom deals?
Russell: Yeah, that’s really the whole point of corporations: to allow people to distance themselves from the liability and responsibility of their own personal actions. It’s why they are called limited liability corporations. You do things as a member of this corporation that would put you in financial and sometimes criminal risk if you did them representing yourself. And that’s precisely the danger of corporate personhood. They are not really people. They are this other something that doesn’t have the same moral responsibility or accountability. To give them the same rights as people with none of the responsibilities is like turning them into vampires.
Caldwell: Corporations have been able to take advantage of that to a great extent by creating these images with adorable logos, just like in Prez, these fun, bright cartoons. The fact is most people can’t make the distinction between the corporation that is a soulless, collective entity whose main job is to make money and the company that just wants to be their friend. Even when people object to certain companies and their policies for very good reasons, they express that in very emotional ways. “I’m mad at that company, so I’m going to show them I’m mad.” And that’s perfectly normal in a free market. But more often than not it’s still an emotional reaction rather than people understanding that this abstract entity is just doing what it’s supposed to do. That also can be bad for regular people.
Russell: The logos also tend to make activities these companies are involved in, like child labor and endangerment, cute.
The political process as you describe it in the book seems very mechanical. Even when a party is still deciding on a nominee and hosting debates, the outcome seems almost pre-determined. Then Beth Ross comes in as an unpredictable X-factor. Do you think today, in modern politics, candidates like Bernie Sanders who have managed to attract support from young people can make a real difference in the political process? Are young people the necessary X-factor, like Beth?
Russell: I think they could be. What we are seeing is really the expanding of possibilities for candidates…
Caldwell: In a positive and negative way.
Russell: Exactly. It’s like the old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy routine, “The Frog and Peach Store.” You can have a frog, a peach, a peach-stuffed frog, or a frog-stuffed peach. I think most of us only grew up being able to choose between the peach-stuffed frog and the frog-stuffed peach. And this seems like the first election, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, where you can actually just have a peach, or have a frog.
Caldwell: Or a racist strawberry. The sky is the limit, for better or worse.
Caldwell: In some ways it is a very Prez election. On one hand, it shows how open the system can be, while also highlighting how often those opportunities are never realized. The institution seems to be set up so that Americans can just sleepwalk through the whole process, year after year, cycle after cycle, without realizing that they have options.
Russell: A lot of it also has to do with how much access to information has expanded in the last 20 years. You no longer just get news from CNN or network news. Young people are able to form grassroots connections to candidates on Twitter, or other platforms. And Donald Trump uses Twitter ceaselessly. Social media and that expansion has made it a lot easier for more candidates to make it into the political process, for better or worse.
Well, we are only going to get more and more involved in social networks with time. They have proven to be gold mines for corporations in terms of raw user data and they allow messages to be spread like wildfire.
Caldwell: Right. That evolution is one thing we wanted to showcase in Prez with the Insta-Polling on the talk shows, this instant feedback loop that already exists today. Those loops have made it far easier than ever for us to do things that have much greater consequences faster than ever before. The unfortunate thing then is that the normal social and political checks and balances that we have become accustomed to no longer apply the same way.
Russell: In a lot of ways social media is kind of replacing our legal system. Like, Bill Cosby will most likely never see the inside of a jail cell. But his reputation is destroyed forever because of social media. Same with Governor Snyder in Michigan, who may have poisoned his people’s water. There is not a big chance that he will go to jail for this. But social media will make it hard for him to go anywhere without facing up to what he has done.
The immediacy of military technology is also another interesting part of Prez. In the book you show drone strikes being dispatched from a couch by a guy who thinks he’s looking at a video game. Yet the results are immediate somewhere else, shown in another panel halfway across the world. How you think this compartmentalization, between the person pulling the trigger and his victims, will evolve in the future?
Russell: I think in the 20th century, the danger was in the growing capacity for destruction in our weapons. Now, the danger in the 21st century is the immediacy and the distancing between us and the consequences of our actions. A hundred years ago, if you killed someone on a battlefield, chances were you looked them in the eyes and you had to deal with the personal responsibility. Now, you can kill someone through a game station in a bunker somewhere. That personal responsibility is not as visceral, which is very scary because it makes warfare more likely. It’s hard to see how we are going to be able to morally object when other countries start to fly drones over our airspace, or take out people who are threats to them, who they see as criminals. With what basis then do we say, “It’s OK for us to do it on your country, but not in ours”? It’s inevitable.
A lot of people buy into the idea of a savior in politics who will come along and fix everything. Obama is one example—when he became president, people started to talk about a post-racial America but today, institutional racism persists. Beth Ross is burdened with that same “savior” myth in part because she’s a rarity in politics, a young woman of color. What meaning had you hoped to illustrate with her presidency?
Russell: When you have people always coming from the same background, people tend to look at problems in the same way. That’s why you can’t really get creative solutions most times. That’s what I wanted with Beth Ross, someone that could come in and see the United States from the ground up as opposed from the viewpoint of somebody who was born on third base and went to Ivy League institutions and has always been handpicked and polished from the very beginning.
Caldwell: To speak on her look on paper, if she was this young, attractive blond girl, this could easily veer off into the great white savior hoax. That was something that Mark obviously didn't want in this character at all. We wanted something much more nuanced. So we ended up making her a person of color to reflect that she is definitely not your average girl next door. It is also the 21st century in America and white is no longer the default color setting for a character like this.
Do you think that in today’s world it will ever be possible to assemble a truly diverse group of people to discuss and resolve issues, especially when we have so many corporate interests involved that want specific outcomes that will benefit only them?
Caldwell: It’s not a question of would it or should it happen. It already is happening. For example, in the comic book world it is easier than ever for anyone to start their own series, regardless or where they come from or what they look like. The real question is how quickly things change and who is a part of that change.
Russell: Part of the problem with change in this country is that the more that you are indoctrinated in the political institutions, and the longer you spend in government, the fewer people you know from outside that world. So when you get a chance to appoint a cabinet member or adviser, they tend to be people who are also lawyers that became Congress people, which is why we should have more people from outside government involved, not just the same old Congress people or old college roommates, but people who are actually experts in their fields.
Caldwell: And also, when Beth started staffing her cabinet with ordinary people, it’s funny. It’s really, really funny. We were all thinking, “Yeah, why not?” … I think the main reason why Beth gets to do what she does is because she has nothing to lose, she has no investment in the current system. What she wears, what she looks like, and where she comes from. She was not part of a system that was working for her. She was just stuck in it and making the best of what she had. There is a certain freedom that comes from that.
Hackers and underground hacktivism play a big part in Prez. Whenever something dangerous happens, hackers pop up and assist Beth in any number of ways. What role do you think hacktivism can play in today’s politics?
Russell: Hacktivists are the real potential wild card in the world. They are this force that comes out of nowhere and changes everything in an unforeseen way. So I wanted to express that in the story by having them come in and out of the story.
Caldwell: Well, something that we are curious to explore in the second volume is what it means to have people who have no oversight or authority making these huge decisions. Which they may be making for the right reasons or achieving the right results, but are not part of any process. It’s really a question of who watches the watchmen.