The Mary Sue at NYCC: Marc Russell and Ben Caldwell Talk Prez
Prez is an updated version of Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti’s bizarre (and racist) DC book from the 70s. It’s equal parts absurdist humor and scathing satire, and it’s one of DC’s best series that nobody’s reading. And at this year’s New York Comic Con, we got a chance to talk to writer Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell.
The Mary Sue (Sam Riedel): How did this partnership come to be? You two come from fairly different sides of the comics world.
Mark Russell: Yeah, they kind of forced us together. Mashed us together like farm horses.
Ben Caldwell: Right. I was the speckled beauty. I don’t know what you were, Mark.
MR: I was the grey workhorse.
BC: Fair enough.
MR: They just called me and asked if I’d be interested–they’d read God Is Disappointed In You, and they liked it, so they asked me if I’d be interested in writing a comic book about a teenage president. And who would say no to such a thing? So I said yes, and they said “We’ve got the artist for you. This guy will get you figured out in a hurry, and his name is Ben Caldwell.”
TMS: Ben, did you get him figured out?
BC: Maybe. I was hired because Dan Didio made an increasingly poor series of decisions and lost a bet. Then I was drawing [Prez]. They gave me this crazy script, and said “There’s going to be a robot dispensing marijuana, so you better just get on board with that.”
TMS: Were either of you interested in the original Prez? Had you heard of the concept before?
MR: I had never read it. I had never even heard of it. And then when they told me about it and I looked it up online, I was like, “holy shit this is some bad stuff.” But it has this infectious sensibility, this kind of crazy energy. I said, “That’s what I want.”
BC: It’s no accident that Prez has showed up more in other comics than in his own.
MR: Yeah, it has resonance–even though it only lasted for four issues, he shows up in Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller’s writing. The energy and the wackiness is infectious. That’s what I tried to carry over in the new Prez, as opposed to any characters or stories.
TMS: Was there anything about those later stories that informed how you approached Prez? That Gaiman story is less about being president than it is about the wear and tear on a human psyche…
MR: The shifting sands of fate.
BC: Okay, that was right off the back cover, wasn’t it?
MR: I should have made a mysterious motion with my hand as I said that.
BC: You should have. And then disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
MR: No, really the biggest influence any of the previous [aspects] of Prez has had on my work was Boss Smiley, because it just seemed so out of place. Here’s this character with a two-dimensional smiley face as his head. And to me, it just occurred to me–”They’re writing about Wal-Mart and they don’t even know it yet.” So I incorporated that. In my world, all the CEOs of all the major corporations have glowing logos where their faces should be. It’s a way of protecting their personal privacy. There’s a corporate personhood amendment where corporations have all the same rights as individuals. One of those is privacy. So the officers get a glowing logo instead of their head, so they can do whatever they want to you at work and then go home and live a private life, not really be accountable.
TMS: And Ben, you posted something on your Tumblr superimposing your “Pharmaduke” cartoon over, um, whathisface–
MR: Martin Shkreli.
BC: “Whathisface” is a fine name for him. [laughs] It was life imitating art. And not dressed for the part.
MR: The irony is that in issue 5, there’s this whole story about pharmaceutical malfeasance that was written when it happened. And Ben was drawing it when this whole Martin Shkreli thing went down.
BC: There are a lot of things he wrote that show up on the news, and by the time it comes out in Prez, it’s too late. It’s already done…and that makes me nervous, because he writes some really weird stuff. So America, twenty weeks in the future, I’m sorry for whatever he did.
MR: The pace of change has outstripped imagination. And that should worry us all.
BC: To date, Mark has not put any legless vampires in this comic. So we’re safe for now.
TMS: Ben, you have another project called the Dare Detectives. Has that become sort of your bastion of light-hearted fun, compared to Prez?
BC: I’d say that of the Dare Detectives itself, it’s a much cartoonier story. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. But having said that, it’s actually pretty dark, it has a lot of corruption. One of the reasons [the detectives] exist in the first place is that the Chinatown of their world is so corrupt that the cops can’t really do anything useful. So a lot of the stuff on Prez, I’m pretty comfortable with tackling that. In fact, it’s funny you mention the Dare Detectives, because in that and Wednesday Comics: Wonder Woman, and with Superboy and other comics I’ve done–it’s a pretty straight trajectory to Prez where they’ve all subconsciously, I hope, been obsessed with this concern of our public and eventually private spaces being flooded with advertisements and persuasion and, you know, trying to manipulate people into buying stuff.
MR: There’s very little idle space anymore. And of course in Prez, we now have ads in the hospitals. So you can have someone dying of leukemia, and meanwhile there’s a commercial playing for leukemia medicine on the wall. What are the implications of that? The more you take away space for people to have private, intimate connections–
BC:--and human experiences–
MR:–and replace it with commercialism, the more difficult it’s going to be to have these serious interactions, and the more our humanity will just be eaten away. Moth-eaten.
BC: Not to get really dark [laughs], but it’s also sort of frightening because our system as it exists has a tendency to look at people as units of production. It makes them more efficient, which has driven the American economy for centuries, and has a lot of great sides. But of course, the flip side is the more you focus on viewing humans in terms of what they can produce and what they can do and what they can consume in the case of advertising, that leaves less and less space for them to be individuals. And in that situation, you can come to a point in society where the decision makers realize there are only so many people they actually need as units of production and consumption. What happens to everybody else? So [Prez is] really pretty bleak under all the corndogs.
MR: I think “Bleak Underneath the Corndogs” should be the title.
BC: That’s actually a Salt Lake City band. [laughing]
TMS: It’s really funny that you mention that, because obviously there’s a lot of that in the last two issues that have come out so far, 3 and 4–your exploration of worker exploitation and so forth–but I really wanted to ask you about the covers. Is there a lot of interplay when you’re coming up with the cover concept? I notice in #4 there’s so much on the cover–there’s the corndog very prominently, and it’s very easy to look at the corndog and move on. But just past the corndog, there’s a quote from Tacitus. And a “Free Selina Kyle” tag is there too, I don’t know if that’s you just leading us on–
MR: The “Free Selina Kyle” thing shows up in all Ben’s stuff.
BC: Yeah, in the DC Universe there’s actually–Catwoman got arrested and her ID came out and there’s a big campaign to get her free. You guys don’t know about it yet, but it happens.
TMS: So how does your collaborative process change when you start working on the covers and figuring out the thematic elements you want to put in there?
BC: In most of the cases, I come up with them and then Marie [Javins, Prez editor] shows them to Mark, and he says “These all look like ridiculous rough scribbles,” because they are. But what we had talked about initially doing was each being an homage to a bit of Americana, American art. So of course you had Washington crossing the Delaware, and then the second one is Nixon. But after that, I think the legal department might have weighed in. I’d actually done designs for a whole series of those, and they wanted to move away from those, so we did. They might have gotten cropped off in the second or third cover, but every other cover has a little Latin quote in it. The names of some of the buildings, I think, are references to the transition in Roman society from the Roman republic to the empire and how nobody really saw it coming.
MR: That’s a theme in issue number 2.
BC: And I knew that ahead of time! So on the cover to issue 1, I put the Jefferson quote that he co-opted from some French dude, but it was originally a Latin quote about preferring a dangerous freedom to a peaceful slavery and servitude. Oh, Jeff.
Prez #5 will be in stores 10/28.
Sam Riedel is The Mary Sue’s Social Media Manager and a freelance writer and editor from Brooklyn. They subsist on a balanced diet of noodles, Pokémon, and science fiction. Can be observed in their natural environment on twitter or tumblr. Prolonged contact may cause irritation. You can find more of Sam’s work at SamRiedel.com.
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