Originally published at Spandexless.com
While the sludge of semester woes and college antics have slowed my reading, I’ve still managed to make a little time to retread, as well as “first tread,” some of Ed Brubaker’s work. Things like Sleeper, Point Blank, Criminal, Incognito and Scene of the Crime have all shot across my radar, but I’d say, without a doubt, this odd “Vertigo Visions” one-shot takes the cake as, well, most peculiar.
Set in the mids 90s, amidst the cultural “movement” known as grunge, Brubaker and artist Eric Shanower pick up on an old Joe Simon concept known as Prez: First Teen President and expand the matter by introducing a slacker, generation x type, who’s believed to be his son, to foil Simon’s activist with a Kurt Cobain-type, complete with traits of self-hatred and existential question. Yet, while two sides, both characters are of the same coin and come together to form this grander picture of adolescence, delivering themes I’d say we could have all related to at some point.
Plus, the comic contains a nice little back matter bit from Brubaker in which he states:
“Once again, the mainstream media has stolen youth rebellion and sold us back a blander version at a higher price. By portraying today’s youth as ‘slackers,’ they’ve given us permission to be lazy and stupid. Knowing obscure facts about the Brady Bunch, or Charles Manson, or the names of every indie-rock band on K Records does not constitute intelligence. Where’s the real victory in winning a game of Trivial Pursuit? We all spend too much time worrying about being cool, and not nearly enough on just being human.”
If you ever wanted Brubaker’s opinion on hipsters, well, there you have it.
Aside from the clear time stamp and relatability, though, Prez: Smells Like Teen President sticks out for its unashamed honesty, even while in the face of preachy speech giving. Before “Marvel Architects” and a David Slade partnership, Brubaker was just another dude doing comics, and not just freelance mainstream work. Dude was producing the kind of work The Comics Journal salivates to, auto-bio sulk fests complete with meaning and all sorts of good, wholesome stuff. He wasn’t Ed Brubaker, the writer; he was Ed Brubaker, the cartoonist (check out Lowlife, if you haven’t), and he was clearly apart of a different area of the grander comics culture. Of course, he moved on eventually, losing the cool points in some eyes, but I’d like to say the guy grew up and took his craft to another area.
But Prez: Smells Like Teen President sort of sits in between those two crafts as it sort of represents the last few days of cartoonist Brubaker, even though he doesn’t draw the damn thing. The voice clearly exemplifies a younger, broader creator, though. Broader than what eventually becomes a more tuned perspective, tuned to mainstream comic book storytelling – a transition you clearly see in 1999s Scene of the Crime. Prez’s like someone writing an auto-bio story through the lens of a pre-established concept. PJ acts as an easy stand in for Brubaker or anyone else via his commonality, and the heavy use of setting and time period only strengthen the notion that this story belongs to an actual someone versus a fictional being, even though it does. Not to say Brubaker is PJ or shares his experience, but I think much of the detail, subtext and even back matter create this honesty which make the narrative more personal than some preachy genre comic. There’s simply a sense that this tale came from somewhere real, and the tone and voice only bring the idea home.
From a pure storytelling level though, Prez succeeds. As I’ve noted, it can become a bit preachy at times, especially toward the end, but aside from that this comic works as a well oiled machine plot wise. Shanower draws in Vertigo’s classic 90s house style, but there’s enough of him there to give the book a unique look. His work completely lives to tell the story, straying from all sense of splash until the very last few pages. From another visual standpoint, I also really love PJ’s appearance – blonde, blue eyed American kid wearing a smeared t-shirt, in need of a hair cut, bathing in public restrooms. Works as a nice little visual metaphor.
There’s also a cool change in perspective which provides some sense of unique storytelling. Rather than introduce his audience to PJ via a weird 3rd/1st person combo, Brubaker uses the POVs of the character’s two road trip companions to shape this somewhat outsider opinion on the guy. The choice attributes to Brubaker’s point of “looking cool” while also building the character up as someone who’s maybe trapped in his own head a bit, or more like, empty, unable to actually tell us about himself. Which makes sense because most of this comic book centers on the conflict of PJ not knowing who he is, a reason why he’s so adamant about finding his mystery father, Prez: First Teen President.
For the most part, this chunk of story comes across as pretty clean cut, but I like what’s going on here. At the end of the day, this book sticks out as something specific to its time, and more importantly, reminds readers of where this writer’s been. It can definitely be categorized as one of this odd ball early works, and as a matter of subtext, Prez says something pretty true. You’ve gotta get yourself together before you can save others.