By James Leask

Prez (2015) was a comic that surprised me in its ingenuity, forthright politics and sheer fun. Through the abbreviated adventures of President Beth Ross, the corndog in chief, I was acquainted with Vice President Preston Rickard, a wiser and protective older figure who offered to guide the young president through the dangers of politics. Preston, I learned, was a character from an earlier iteration of Prez from the 1970s. Created by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti, Prez Rickard first appeared in 1973’s Prez #1 as an idealistic, race car-driving teenager who is obsessed with making the clocks in his hometown of Steadfast run on time. Presently, they all keep different time, and as Prez explains it:

Putting aside the phenomenally, adorably quaint insistence by Prez that if the clocks are wrong nobody will know what day it is, uttered as he stares at a sundial (presumably also inaccurate), it’s easy to see the setup taking motion. A towheaded young idealist, who loves all the things young Americans are supposed to: schools, trains, honest blue collar work, and (of course) voting. And against him? Why, Boss Smiley, of course, an evil, corrupt mayor, who shakes down the populace for bribes, poisons the environment and loves brutalizing protestors. Of course, Boss Smiley also knows that we kids are the future and immediately sets out to manipulate the narrative by manipulating a young person to run for Congress. Eyeing a stunt like no other, they see a potential slogan in the making in young Prez, a boy made to be president so fully he was literally named it.

It’s easy to see this all building up into a feel-good story of idealism versus corruption. The book is operating in big, mythic bronze age of comics ideas about young people, disillusionment and the noble ideals of the nation compared to what it actually is. At this point, you can predict a lot of how the first issue is going to go: Prez finds himself manipulated and doing bad deeds, ultimately being awoken to the evils of Boss Smiley and fighting back. There is a confrontation and the truth is exposed, and Prez finally fulfills his destiny of becoming president for three more issues. That’s an easy prediction, and it’s true. This is exactly what happens, and the rest of the series features plots like assassination attempts, vampires and werewolves, and… evil life-sized chess battles? Absolutely. There’s just one problem:

Virulent anti-Indigenous racism! 

Nuts, not that again. Well, folks, meet Eagle Free:

Eagle Free’s introduction is ripped straight out of the then-recent 1971 Keep America Beautiful PSA, starring Iron Eyes Cody. Cody, of course, is a noted race fraud – an Italian-American huckster who made his career off playing Indigenous characters and played up his fictional background in his daily life. The PSA immediately entered the collective imaginations of Americans, and has an outsized effect on how Indigenous people are often thought to exist. And one of the first follow-ups was Eagle Free, an environmentally conscious character who lives with the animals (including African ones), wears buckskin breeches, braids and a feather, but of course no shirt. And it does not particularly get better from there:

Now, I’ll say it right out: it’s clear that Eagle Free is one of the heroes of the story from his first page. But that doesn’t negate the collection of wild racist stereotypes. Eagle Free lives in a cave “like his ancestors,” talks to animals, and communes with them to the extent that he has gotten superhuman abilities. He offers, and Prez readily admits,that he is more animal than man. He’s had experience in, as he tells Prez, “your world,” but prefers to take settler science and knowledge into his haggard cave.

This is one of the more common and quietly virulent collection of stereotypes: where Indigenous people exist outside of the world of man, barely more than animals ourselves. We don’t wear much clothing, and our relationships with the land are mythologized into being almost magical. We love the environment, and we exist to say it. It places us in a world separate from the settler-colonial “modern” world. I don’t think anyone reading this will disagree that the representation of Eagle Free is racist. It plays in a lot of comfortable tropes that seem pretty apparently old-fashioned and flat-out wrong to exactly who Simon and Grandenetti aimed Prez at: progressive younger people. You get it. And I’m not here to lecture about my own personal political beliefs about the settler colonial state. None of us have time for that, and honestly, none of us want me to do it.

All of this makes it pretty easy to leave Prez in the past. You know it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, there’s a better modern version anyway. That’s easy, and tempting. Easiest money I ever made. The only problem is… it’s not that easy, and ignoring the specific message of Prez #1 actually continues one of its core problems: the myth of absolution. In the comic, Eagle Free might say that Prez represents “all that we detest,” but he doesn’t mean it, not really. Prez might not be pure of heart, but he can be. All it takes is a little montage:

…and Prez is ready.

Not only does this continue the idea of the mythical native wisdom that Indigenous people possess and can share – hell, are excited to share! – it also gives Prez an immediate out just one page after he seemingly got castigated by Eagle Free. And if Prez is one of the good ones, despite admitting to some pretty wild racism a few panels previously, and you knew this was wrong all along, then by golly, you’re one of the good ones, too. You’re modern. Unlike Prez, and unlike Eagle Free.

Of course, it might not be that easy. It’s easy to look at a mildly and well-meaningly racist old comic and go, in our best John Mulaney voices, “The past is the past.” We’re not the people who came before us. But it’s a good opportunity to think about what we do when we look at something like this and say, “Well, that’s not me.” Making things better is a fight that’s a lot harder than fixing some clocks, and when we announce ourselves as better than literal cartoon racism, we’re shortchanging ourselves. I’ve read comics and seen movies that were wildly anti-native but came with a lot of recommendations and few-to-no warnings because of reasonings like that. I’ve had my own blind spots and biases pointed out, and it friggin sucks. But we’re not all the good ones, as much as we might want to think of ourselves that way. Prez did some good things in Prez #1, but he was still kinda racist. The instinct to blow past that is a warning.

Don’t worry about Eagle Free, though. He became the head of the FBI and put paid informants into the American Indian movement:

Prez #1
Writer: Joe Simon
Artist: Jerry Grandenetti

 

James Leask is a writer and critic who is best known for his writing for websites including ComicsAlliance. You can find him on twitter here!

 

This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! Backer Dr Devin King requested this issue be covered specifically on the site, and here we are now! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!