Like many Discman-clutching mall goths lurking in Waldenbooks in the early 2000s, I first discovered Prez Rickard, First Teen President of the USA, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Issue #54, “The Golden Boy,” is the standout story in the seventh trade paperback, elevating an obscure footnote in DC Comics’ vast library to an acid-soaked Christ allegory. Beautifully drawn with a pop art sensibility by Mike Allred, “The Golden Boy” tells the story of Prez, a preternaturally wise, sunny-haired teenager who becomes the youngest president in the history of the United States. Though Prez is a beloved leader, he is repeatedly tempted by Boss Smiley, a devilish politician whose face is a gruesome distortion of one of the shiniest symbols of the 1970s.
Sandman made Prez an unlikely cult character; he’s appeared in comics written by Ed Brubaker, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison, and yet remains something of a half-whispered DC in-joke. Even articles about Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell’s 2015 reboot of the “Prez” concept seemed to give the original series only a cursory nod. Of course, it’s significant that Prez is remembered at all—his original series, created in 1973, lasted only a scant four issues before being canceled. Luckily, DC Comics recently published a trade paperback chronicling the strange history of the “First Teen President of the USA,” and with 2016 being the weirdest fucking election year of my lifetime, now’s the perfect time to reexamine DC’s political golden boy.
Thirty years after co-creating one blonde-haired, blue-eyed champion for American freedom, comics scribe Joe Simon created another in Prez Rickard. Drawn by Jerry Grandenetti with a winning smile and a thick mane of Shaun Cassidy hair, Prez is an idealistic kid from Steadfast, USA. When he discovers that all the clocks in Steadfast are running late, he single-handedly fixes them all, because “If the clocks aren’t on time, how do we know when it’s election day?” This feel-good small town story catches the eye of Boss Smiley, whose fleshy, doll-eyed visage is a disturbingly perfect image: Donald Trump as played by an emoji. Noting a recent amendment “that lets the kids run for Congress,” Smiley entices Prez to run for Senator, intending to use the malleable teen as his own political puppet. A Native American man named Eagle Free alerts Prez to Smiley’s trail of bribery and corruption, and after a climactic fistfight, a less naive Prez wins the Presidency on the “Flower Party” ticket. (A third party win–probably the least realistic element of all.) With Eagle Free as the new head of the FBI, President Prez looks ahead to a term filled with assassins, living chess pieces, pied pipers, and–obviously–Dracula.
Prez was not an entirely new concept; the idea of a teen heartthrob revolutionizing the presidency had been touched on before in the 1968 film Wild in The Streets. In that film, a senator vowing to lower the voting age seeks the endorsement of Max Frost (Christopher Jones), a ponytailed rock star who dreads turning thirty more than the cast of Logan’s Run. Before long, Max and his Hong Kong Kavaliers-like band of teenage prodigies are singing “Fourteen or fight!” on television and are appointed to office by their young, squealing fanbase. Max Frost becomes President of the United States, ushering in a new age of hedonism; here, what had been a psychedelic teen movie shifts into something more cynical and dystopian. (And please, take a moment to shudder at the prophetic depiction of the Republican Party running an unqualified celebrity for president.) Wild in the Streets is a film that wants to reach out to teen audiences even as it holds them in contempt, transforming Frost into a despot who orders every American over thirty to concentration camps where they’re doused with LSD. Sure, the film sneers, teenagers may be upset that they’re being drafted into the Vietnam War before they can legally vote, but what would they do if they had more power? Nothing good. The answer, my friend, is blow it out your ass.
Warning: Trailer contains an anti-gay slur.
Wild in the Streets and Prez happen to bookend the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971 and lowering the voting age in America to 18. The film’s cynicism and the comic’s madcap jauntiness could not be more tonally opposed. To see the difference between Frost and Rickard, one need only look to how they treat their mothers: Frost sends his to the gulag while Prez appoints his Vice President. The cover of the first issue features a grim-looking Prez riding in his motorcade with speakers blaring, “Cool it man, you’ve had your chance!” to an outraged public, and this is as aggressive and radical as the original series ever gets; Simon and Grandenetti weren’t interested in exploring the generation gap.
For a series that lasted only four issues, Prez is difficult to pin down; while issue #2 is an action adventure not far removed from a Bronze Era Batman comic, by issue #4 Prez is battling supernatural ambassadors from Transylvania, including a werewolf and a truly bizarre take on Count Dracula. Wedged between these comics is a surprisingly serious subplot where Prez’s plans to sign a gun control bill are nearly impeded by an assassination attempt. The story ends on a surprisingly ambiguous note; the shooter is never caught. Adding to the strangeness is Prez’s dubious continuity; the narrator in issue #1 assures the reader that, “This story is not true, but it could be,” and in the final panels Prez and Eagle Free break the fourth wall with a smile, acknowledging that they are inside a comic book years before She-Hulk and Deadpool made it popular. A guest appearance in Supergirl #10, however, firmly establishes him as president in the DC Universe, causing me to curse the early cancellation that deprived us of future Prez team-ups with Bat-Mite and Etrigan the Demon.
Prez’s compulsive readability owes a tremendous amount to Jerry Grandenetti’s wonderful artwork. Every issue feels fit to burst with riotous, MAD Magazine-esque zaniness. One issue features George Washington-obsessed militiamen scurrying over the block letters of the chapter title (“Invasion!”) like ants in a sugar bowl. A wonderful caricaturist, Grandenetti makes a teenager wearing a sweater with his own name on it seem cool, and Boss Smiley’s misshapen head seems even more blank and terrifying next to the lumpy faces of his sniveling yes-men. Appreciation for Prez’s artwork deepens with a reading of the aborted Prez #5 included in Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2. Printed in harsh black and white, the issue depicts Prez’s battle with a Pied Piper-inspired exterminator whose music projects images of Hell (!), and would fit in alongside the best alternative comix of the era. Grandenetti also had an astute eye for iconography; the first issue features the images of clocks and the yellow smiley face button as symbols over a decade before another DC comic famously linked them together. Note the way Grandenetti depicts the passage of time in the double-page spread below; by stacking the same panel on top of itself until it recedes into the far distance, Grandenetti turns his own artwork into a kind of echo as Prez realizes that time itself is wrong in Steadfast.
The most difficult aspect of the comic is the presentation of Eagle Free. As Prez’s best friend and closest adviser, Eagle Free is intended to be a heroic member of the counterculture, and he’s a much larger presence in the overall story than even Boss Smiley. Unfortunately, Simon and Grandenetti imbue him with dated and misguided stereotypes about Native Americans, depicting him as a mystical warrior flocked by a menagerie of animals. When Gaiman and Brubaker both revisited Prez in the 1990s, they omitted Eagle Free from the story entirely. The side effect was a romanticized vision of America solely about white, blue-eyed boys, which lasted until Russell and Caldwell rebooted Prez as Beth Ross, a young woman of color. (“It is also the 21st century in America and white is no longer the default color setting for a character like this,” said Ben Caldwell in an interview.)
Sadly, Prez seems destined to be a one-term president, with the 2015 Prez series halved to a mere six issues despite critical acclaim. Still, something about the “teen president” concept seems to tickle comic creators’ fancies; in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969, the President of United States is none other than pop singer Max Frost. (Mina Murray is especially dismissive of his “hippy fascism.”) Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti’s Prez may be overshadowed by Gaiman and Allred’s later take on the character, but if “The Golden Boy” lingers in your mind like it did in mine all those years ago in Waldenbooks, the original series is worth uncovering. At turns exhilarating and baffling, Prez seemingly exists outside of rational space and time, and yet it is a comic book that is precisely of its time. Hail to the Prez.