NOVEMBER 8, 2016
“A HORROR-COMEDY for anyone who hates politics!” is the tagline for Citizen Jack (2015–’16), a comics series created by writer Sam Humphries and artist Tommy Patterson. Dedicated to Walter Mondale, “who campaigned bravely in 1984 and lost in a landslide defeat,” the six installments — recently collected and released as a trade paperback — deserve recognition for the sheer amount of story that Humphries and Patterson have managed to cram into them.
The first issue is an engaging introduction to Jack Northworthy, resident and former mayor of Musk, Minnesota, currently getting by as a snowblower salesman. The opening splash page presents Jack in all his glory: astride a snowblower, wearing a fetching pink bathrobe, brandishing a gun and a bottle of whiskey, and accosting a municipal snowplow driver about the swiftness of the city’s snow removal operations. Jack’s irked because, for his business to thrive, there needs to be plenty of snow to blow. Jack’s got other problems. He’s separated from his wife, the new city mayor, who really wants a divorce. He’s on bad terms with his dad, also a former Musk mayor, who’d rather stick a shotgun in Jack’s face than have a conversation with him. And he’s harassed by a demon, Marlinspike, who really wants Jack to run for president of the United States.
Jack’s a loser — “a footnote from a small town,” as the opening narration informs us. On the surface, there isn’t much to like. But Humphries and Patterson use the first issue to make Jack into a curiously likable loser. Having worked in recent years on big-name superhero books for Marvel and DC, Humphries knows a thing or two about using plot to develop characters. Patterson’s detailed, expressive art definitely helps. Jack, though often drawn to emphasize his buffoonish traits, never feels like a caricature. The supporting cast and the settings are richly rendered. The first issue’s final splash page, an elaborate rendering of a gangly, grinning Marlinspike, demonstrates that Patterson can draw a damn impressive demon, too.
The series moves at a good clip, with each issue centered on a milestone in Jack’s campaign. Issue two finds us in the middle of the presidential primaries. Aided by a seasoned campaign manager, Jack’s “straight talk” begins to gain him followers. Jack is running as a populist, everyman blowhard, spouting lines about bringing his “snowblower smarts” to Washington and promising to fight the “intellectual elite.” Readers are likely to connect Jack to a certain blowhard who is campaigning for the presidency this year. But, in a way, Jack resembles anyone campaigning for elected office who thinks they know what people want to hear and who is willing to say those things.
Issues three and four cover the party convention and the presidential debates, respectively. Issue five gets us up to election day, and issue six gives us election day and the fallout. Through it all, we never lose touch with Jack, the demon-haunted loser. Adding to the intrigue, some developments seed doubt about the forces fueling Jack’s improbable run for office. He is definitely a pawn in a larger game, but whether that game is being orchestrated by political power players, demonic entities, or a nasty health condition is unclear.
Humphries and Patterson know how to embellish presidential politics just enough to make for particularly punchy satire. This is nowhere more effective than in the segments from a cable news show — hosted by two human anchors and a dolphin named Cricket — that are interspersed throughout the series. Naturally, Cricket wears a sleeveless suit so its flippers can flap about as it tries to be the voice of reason on what is an otherwise abrasive, hyperbolic broadcast. At one point, incited by the inane babble of his co-anchors, Cricket launches into a fiery rant against Jack that involves the dolphin-pundit blowing steam out of its blowhole. Cricket goes on to become an integral part of the election — and my favorite aspect of the series.
For all that Citizen Jack does successfully, I grew weary of the plot device that Humphries and Patterson repeatedly use to advance the story. Issue two ends with a shocking act of violence and a bloody corpse; likewise, issues three and four end with shocking acts of violence and bloody corpses. As the body count grows, my interest in Jack’s long-shot campaign diminishes. Moreover, while seeding doubt about the forces behind Jack’s campaign is effective in building intrigue, the final issue does not provide much in the way of a decisive conclusion. I would have appreciated some clarity, especially regarding what’s ultimately at stake in the series.
Prez (2015) by writer Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell (with Dominike Stanton filling in for Caldwell for one issue) also crams a lot of story into its six issues. Between Citizen Jack and Prez, there is nary a page of decompressed storytelling. For that, we should be thankful. But, whereas the developments in Citizen Jack are centered on its main character, Prez feels too frenetic, too decentered.
Created by writer Joe Simon and artist Jerry Grandenetti and published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, Prez: First Teen President told the story of Preston “Prez” Rickard. Following the short-lived series, Prez made sporadic appearances in other DC or DC-affiliated comics, most famously popping up in an issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Under the stewardship of Russell and Caldwell, Prez relaunched in summer 2015 as part of a new line of comics that deemphasized the continuity and history of DC properties in the hopes of allowing for creative freedom and appealing to different types of readers. (This is not to be confused with DC’s summer 2016 line-wide relaunch, which, reversing course as only a major comics publisher can, sought to emphasize the continuity and history of DC properties.) So, at least in terms of publisher intent, Prez is a deliberately quirky book.
The first six issues, collected in Prez, Volume One: Corndog-in-Chief, take readers to the year 2036. National elections happen via Twitter. CEOs parade around with their company’s logos holographically emblazoned over their faces. Drones delivering tacos are heralded as the solution to poverty and hunger. While it’s the world of tomorrow, it’s not an altogether unfamiliar world.
The series opens on a secret cabal of senators trying to decide what to do about the upcoming election. The likely candidates all have baggage preventing them from being the clear frontrunner. Meanwhile, at an Oregon corndog stand, 19-year-old Beth Ross is getting her hair stuck in a deep fryer. Thanks to a coworker capturing it all on video, Beth becomes Corndog Girl, a viral sensation. Events conspire to put Beth on the ballot in the nationwide Twitter vote. Yet, because no candidate gets enough electoral college votes, the action moves to the halls of Congress, where, it turns out, our elected representatives are more interested in receiving political handouts than in actually selecting the next leader of the free world. So, Corndog Girl ends up as president.
Prez makes for a jam-packed, hyperactive reading experience, with Russell and Caldwell exploiting the silliness for all it’s worth. The plot bounces around, rarely lingering on the same scene for more than a page or two. Scenes of Beth tending to her dying father compete for attention with scenes of corporate chieftains deciding the fate of the country and senators gorging on drone-delivered tacos. Like Citizen Jack, Prez sprinkles in segments from a cable news show; rather than a dolphin, this one features an anchor with distractingly elaborate hairstyles. The series is a visual treat, with Caldwell’s cartoony character designs matching the energy of Russell’s writing. Pages already stuffed with dialogue are further crowded with world-building details.
As the series follows Beth into her first 100 days as president, the frenetic pace becomes its weakness. Flitting between the various scenes, I started to feel a bit like a taco-delivering drone. For instance, issue four of Prez opens with a massacre of migrants at the US-Mexico border; then, a page later, before readers can really understand what’s happening, the story flits to a scene of Beth getting briefed on the nuclear football, which the president can now activate via an app that “looks a lot like Tinder.” Maybe the juxtaposition is the point. How often, in the course of watching or reading the news, do we go from being horrified by appalling violence to being distracted by lighthearted fare? Still, I found this to be a challenge with Prez. I never got a chance to develop an interest in the main characters. Even Beth remains relatively superficial.
This doesn’t lessen the satiric punch, however. Russell and Caldwell set their sights on US politics and culture in the age of Obama, where the War on Terror is less about specific military endeavors and more about a state of mind so pervasive it’s hardly recognized as aberrant. When Beth undertakes a “World Apology Tour,” Prez becomes wish fulfillment for anybody unsettled by US foreign policy since 9/11. Beth’s interactions with her cabinet members (including a returning Prez Rickard, who serves as Beth’s vice president), as well as with foreign leaders, produce the best moments of the series. Prez also provides some compelling dialogue, as when Beth’s secretary of state reminds her, “The only spoils of war are its unintended consequences.”
According to Russell, we can expect six more issues of Prez at some point in the near future. Volume two could definitely go a long way in developing Beth and the supporting cast. A stronger sense of who Beth is might make her exploits as a viral-star-turned-crusading-politician that much more convincing and impactful.
Both Prez and Citizen Jack leave me wanting a more convincing, impactful articulation of the stakes. They are series motivated by a sense of angry frustration, by a conviction that politics needs to be something other than a playground for egomaniacal legislators, seasoned spin-doctors, and corporate fat cats. Yet neither Jack’s nor Beth’s story is likely to change how you vote (or whether or not you vote) this November. Neither encourages us to do something with our angry frustration. Should we content ourselves with apathy and take to being entertained by the over-the-top, cutthroat business that is contemporary politics? Or can our frustration be supplemented with an optimism that those we elect to high office might actually serve the interests of the people? Though we live in the days of House of Cards, I yearn for The West Wing.
But forget TV shows. We’ve got comics. I’m thinking of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’s Ex Machina (2004–2010) and even Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan (1997–2002). No comic book directs more satiric venom at the political status quo than Transmet, with crusading journalist Spider Jerusalem and his trusty bowel disruptor providing ample amounts of righteous fury to fuel even the most impossible hope that politics can be made to work for the people, by the people. While Prez and Citizen Jack do not live up to its high standard, they display a sharp, frenetic energy appropriate to our media-saturated moment.