At DC Planet, we like to do our own « home-made » interviews to put the emphasis on the authors and artists we love. We decided this month to ask some questions to Mark Russell, the writer of the DC Comics mini-series Prez, whose first six-issues part has just been published. We put the interview in his original version in case some of you, non french readers, would be interested in what Mark has to say about Prez, his work, and his future projects.
We would like to thank Mark Russell for according us his time, and also Clark Bull from DC Comics who allowed us to do this interview.
Interview in English
First of all, could you briefly introduce yourself to the french readers ?
I’m an American writer, toiling in obscurity like most American writers. I’m probably best known for a book I wrote about the Bible called God Is Disappointed in You. I condensed every book of the Bible down to its essence and New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler drew cartoons for the book. We’re releasing a follow-up about the books that didn’t quite make it into the Bible. It’s going to be called Apocrypha Now. I somehow parlayed this work into a gig writing comic books. And right now I’m writing Prez for DC Comics. It’s about a teenage girl named Beth Ross who works in a corndog restaurant and becomes president of the United States as the result of a viral video.
What is your relationships with comicbooks ? Did you start reading them early ?
I wish I could pass myself off as some lifelong comic book fan who’s always had exquisite taste. The truth is that I read Mighty Mouse and Tom & Jerry when I was a kid. I read a lot of mouse-centric comics. Mostly funny stuff. I loved Mad Magazine, but never really got into comics until embarrassingly late in life when I discovered the work of people like Daniel Clowes, Alan Moore, and Chris Ware.
When did you start to write ? You published a book untitled God is disappointed in you in 2013, how did you start to be, let’s say, a « satirist » ?
I don’t ever remember not writing. It’s just sort of a body-function to me now. I think writing is the art of learning to sound like yourself. Which takes a surprisingly long time to do. I’d love to write like Cormac McCarthy or Maya Angelou, but the truth is that I resonate at a specific pitch and the more I hit that pitch, the better my writing is. I became a satirist simply because that’s my natural tone.
Can you tell us the story about the reboot of the Prez title ? How did you do to make that comicbook ? Did DC directly contact you ?
Yes, DC contacted me directly. So I hope no one is reading this for advice on how to get into the comic book industry. Waiting for DC Comics to call you is a really bad idea. But for me, the improbable happened, and out of the blue they asked me if I wanted to write the reboot of an obscure 1974 comic about a teenage president. How could I say no ? What part of that offer is unattractive ?
Rebooting Prez was ultimately the idea of DC Publisher Dan Didio, who matched me with artist Ben Caldwell and editor Marie Javins, which were choices made in Heaven. When I described the dark parody of American politics I had in mind for what was supposed to be a mainstream DC comic, it would have been fair for anyone working with me to wonder if they were committing career suicide. But Dan, Ben and Marie were all immediately on board and have been really great to work with. I wanted the world of Prez to be someplace at once familiar to us, but also deeply unsettling. I wanted to populate the world of Prez with people who don’t realize they’re living in a dystopia, as is usually the case. I think this dystopia of the unaware lends itself well to satire, as people are funniest when they don’t realize they’re being funny.
Have you read the original Prez mini-series ? If the main plots are the same, your Prez is heading in a very different direction. How much were you inspired by this previous concept ?
Not very much, to be honest. The one thing I wanted to take from the original series was its energy. It was a crazy comic, but it took its craziness seriously.
Contrary to the 74’ series, you chose to have a lead female character. I suppose it isn’t an innocent choice, right ?
No choice is innocent. I wanted to break from the original series as cleanly and visibly as possible, and changing the gender of the main character was an easy way to do that. But I also wanted a president who would be underestimated as possible by the political establishment, and in America, that is by nature going to be a woman.
Do you feel concerned about « diversity » issues in the comicbook industry ?
I feel concerned that it is an issue. There seems to be this embedded ideology in mainstream comics, especially in superhero comics—that the world is under siege by foreigners and aliens, that the public is a mass of helpless sheep, and the only thing that can save us are the violent talents of a few powerful white men and billionaire vigilantes. By now, isn’t everyone sick of stories based on the Id of insecure white dudes ? I’m sick of them and I am an insecure white dude. So let’s open the floodgates, get some new perspectives and new stories in comics, and maybe comics will do a better job of envisioning humanity’s real problems and coming up with better solutions.
It feels like you are using the story of Beth Ross to describe a society that really look like ours, with a certain degree of absurdity. What is the message you want to tell ?
I’m a believer that all science fiction is really satire. Everyone who writes about the future is really commenting on the present. If I could reduce Prez to a single message, it would be that the single greatest problem confronting the human race is our utter waste of brainpower. We have seven billion of the most creative, complex problem-solving brains in the known Universe, and we put them to work making corndogs.
In prez, the social media are everywhere, and you’re even talking about a social media war. Do you feel these tools are becoming too influent ?
I feel like we haven’t safely adapted to the technology, yet. Ten years ago, someone could make a lame racist joke on an airplane and the worst that would have happened might be the flight attendant rolling their eyes. Now that joke could get them fired from their job and ruined forever by the time their plane lands. Social media is very democratic and empowering, but we’re still very much drunk on that power. Someday we may discover how to use social media temperately and fairly, but until then, it’s the Reign of Terror.
In your society, election is done by Twitter. Are we that far from this when we see what’s happening now in the US ? For example, Kanye West running candidate, or showmans like Donald Trump being favorites for the election. Maybe you’re some kind of visionnary, don’t you think ?
I don’t think I’m a visionary. I think I’m a satirist who is consistently outflanked by reality.
Getting into the series, we are going from a quite light tone with lot of funny things, but it gets really dark, especially whith the sentries used by the US or the company run by Boss Smiley. Are you somehow trying to ring an alarm ?
Yes. The big danger from technological advances in warfare is not necessarily how destructive it has become, but how it has distanced us from the consequences of our killing. Two hundred years ago, if you were going to kill somebody in a war, that likely meant standing across from them on a battlefield and shoving a sword or bayonet directly into their body while they tried to do the same thing to you. Now it’s something you can do from halfway around the world with an X-Box controller while waiting for the pizza to arrive. If you take personal risk and sacrifice out of the equation for the public and the people who actually have to fight it, warfare becomes immeasurably more likely and the people we wage this distant technological warfare against will be forced to increasingly extreme measures in order to fight back.
You’re also quite caustic with the business-show industry. I think I recognized Miley Cirus in Prez #4, but the MTV VMA happened like two weeks before the release. Did you ask the artist to modify his drawings to fit with what Miley was wearing at that time ?
Miley was actually a late substitution. Originally, I wanted it to use Meryl Streep inside a mechanical exoskeleton, but DC nixed that idea. I liked the thought of Miley Cyrus becoming a serious actor who will someday present Academy Awards. I can’t help but feel like she is someone we are all underestimating. I had no idea that the VMA was coming up or what Miley would be wearing, but maybe Ben did. He’s much hipper than I am.
Do you think our modern society is going to get as absurd as the one shown in Prez ?
I hope not. My greatest hope is that twenty years from now someone will read Prez and laugh about how wrong I was about everything.
How much liberty do you have on this book ? Can you criticize anything ? Would you also be able to mock the comicbook industry ?
DC has allowed me a lot of freedom. So far, they’ve let me get away with everything except putting Meryl Streep in an exoskeleton and using the word fishdick. I suppose I could make fun of the comic book industry if I wanted to, but this is my first foray into comics and everyone has been so good to me that I don’t really have any pent up resentment against the industry. I do have things to say about how formulaic and fascistic superhero movies have become, though, some of which has already leaked into Prez.
Despite its obvious qualities, Prez is not a very high selling title. How can you explain that ? Do you think that it could have been more successfull if it was published elsewhere ?
I don’t worry too much about sales. As long as DC is committed to printing them, I’ll keep telling the story the way I envisioned it. Besides, I think Prez will potentially have a much bigger audience once it leaves the confines of single issue floppy comics. Once it comes out in trade paperback, it’ll be much more accessible to fans whether they’re diehard comic-buyers or not.
Can you tell us why Prez has been split in two 6-issues mini-series ?
I’m not entirely sure myself, but I think it had a good effect on the writing, forcing me to write with more urgency and sew up plotlines faster rather than letting them meander through twelve issues.
Can you assure us that the readers will be able to read the second half of Prez ? We are somehow concerned when we see the fates of titles like Gotham By Midnight or Lobo.
I’ve been repeatedly told that DC is committed to twelve issues and they’ve given me no reason to doubt them. They seem to really like my work so far.
I guess that second half will be different ? Can you give us hints about what you want to tell ?
The first six issues of Prez have largely been about introducing the characters and the world they inhabit. The next six will be more about them dealing with race and gender inequality, gun violence, poverty and the other big issues confronting the United States and the world. Plus, we learn more about the villains of the story as they plot to destroy President Ross. As a writer, I often like to make my point in parables and I think that tendency comes out more in the second volume of issues. For example, in an upcoming issue Boss Smiley imprisons whistleblowers and journalists in a giant gerbil cage as a sort of metaphor for how corporate power co-opts its opposition. A scandal breaks when Senator Thorn gets caught on film punching panda bears in the testicles. It works as a sort of a commentary on trophy hunting and the idea that you can morally justify rampaging through the world and doing whatever you want as long as you’re willing to drop a lot of money on the locals along the way. Fun stuff.
Do you have more projects for DC Comics ? On for the comicbook industry ?
I do. I have recently signed a deal to write another title for DC, but I can’t be more specific than that until they make the announcement. I’ve also written a couple of graphic novels I hope to get into production in the next couple of years. One is a story of the first manned mission to Mars called Traveling to Mars for Fun and Profit, and the other is an adaptation of the 2nd century Roman satirical novel The Golden Ass. Hopefully, you haven’t heard the last from me.