So, speaking of Tom Spurgeon’s reprint wish-list: His contributors came up with some really outstanding stuff that I’d love to see out there soon. But I was surprised to see a couple of prime candidates left out of the running: Joe Simon’s pair of short-lived, bizarre, and completely amazing 1970s series, Brother Power the Geek (1968) and Prez (1973-1974). I figured these books would make the list since a lot of Joe Simon’s earlier work is being republished in lavish hardcover editions, so you’d think there would be some demand for this material—though admittedly, a lot of the Simon work we’ve seen reprinted is material he did in collaboration with Jack Kirby. I was also a little surprised we didn’t see much discussion of Prez during the last election cycle.
I sat down and read both series together recently, and the result is that “Joe Simon circa 1968-1975” has secured a permanent spot on my “5 Persons Living or Dead You’d Like to Know What the Heck They Were Thinking” list. These are bizarre and wonderful (though not to say unproblematic) comics that represent what seems to me to be an honest attempt to engage with the political upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s—a period when a newly energized group of young people were politically active in ways that freaked their families out. And Simon did it by drawing on bizarre fantasy, science fiction, and superhero motifs to suggest not only how “out there” the youngsters seemed to an older generation but also the ways in which the youngsters were attempting to imagine new kinds of possibilities for their lives, were seeking new idioms to express their vision of the United States. Simon is I think ambivalent about these new idioms and concerned with throwing out the baby of valuable tradition with the bathwater of hidebound conservatism, but it’s an honest and noble ambivalence.
One of the important contexts for Brother Power and Prez is the underground comix movement, which was at the peak of its popularity and perhaps its creative energy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Free from the restrictions of the comics code, the undergrounds were one of the places the counterculture worked out its own self-definition as well as its critique of mainstream American culture. I don’t really think that Simon’s 70s work is an attempt to “do” an underground book at DC. Brother Power, at least, came out probably before the comix movement had really blossomed. But it’s clear that these comics share the underground’s anarchic spirit and freewheeling attitude toward both form and narrative.
(Then again, though it can be hard to imagine these days, mainstream comics generally used to be a bit more anarchic and freewheeling, at least in terms of being willing to publish a broader range of stuff, some of it bizarre. Like Superman teaming up with Don Rickels, that sort of thing. So maybe that’s the tradition that these works are really in dialogue with.)
So, Brother Power:
Brother Power is a tailor’s dummy who comes to life when he’s struck by lightning; he takes up with a group of hippies whom Simon characterizes as friendly, tolerant, and accepting, but also as lazy and misguided in their protests against the establishment. whose lives consist of “protesting against the establishment! Mainly, doing nothing!” (#1). (Tellingly, the targets of the hippie protests are rarely spelled out in much detail; at one point Simon even seems to make a distinction between “hippies” and “activisits,” indicating that these hippies at least are pretty self-absorbed.) Brother Power, though, has other ideas: He becomes the very epitome of boostraps individualism. He tries to run for Congress on a “Flower Power” ticket and, through a series of unlikely events that involves a psychedelic circus, a motorcycle gang, and a group of World War I German cosplayers, becomes plant foreman at a missile factory.
This last position puts him in conflict with his former hippie chums, who believe he has become a war-monger until he explains that the missiles are intended for space exploration. Their fears assuaged, the hippies actually come to work on the plant’s assembly line, where they are initially distrusted by the plant owners and general public before proving their loyalty by exposing a traitor who intends to sell the missile plans to America’s foreign enemies. This last development seems to suggest that Simon looked toward a future in which the political fractures between hippies and “straights” would heal, resulting in a truly united United States – albeit one in which everyone learns to appreciate the wisdom of choosing a straight life and a 9-to-5 factory job.
Oh yeah, and the traitor I mentioned above? His name is Lord Sliderule. Here he is:
Brother Power only ran two issues—apparently DC editor Mort Weisinger hated it for its (somewhat) positive depiction of the hippies (as discussed in this post, which offers a more in-depth summary of the first issue. Further reading on Brother Power can be found here.) But Simon would return to some of the same themes in Prez:
Prez is both a gonzo adventure and a serious look at what happens when countercultural idealists gain elected office and have to translate their ideals into the messy world of politics. Simon’s strength is in doing both of these things at once, so that, for instance, a story about a possible invasion by a vampire army is also a thoughtful rumination on the morality of military force. (People often cite the 1968 film Wild in the Streets as an inspiration, and sure, I can see that, but Wild in the Streets didn’t have skateboard Dracula, now, did it?) Simon’s collaborator, artist Jerry Grandenetti, was at this point best known for his work on DC’s war comics and Warren’s horror comics, and those experiences make him a good match for the proto-magical realism of Simon’s story: the general look of Prez is a very straight-faced depiction of a surreal world. Grandenetti is, to paraphrase Marianne Moore, a literalist of his and Joe Simon’s imaginations.
You can find a great overview of the series by Bill Reed here. The basic set-up is that Prez Rickard is a teenager who, after an act of folkloric heroism—he makes all the clocks in his hometown of Steadfast tell the same time—is swept into office by the huge new voting bloc of teenagers able to hit the polls for the first time since the ratification of the 26th amendment in 1971. Prez is helped along the way by a crooked benefactor, Boss Smiley, who looks, well, like this:
Smiley intends to use Prez to harness the idealism of young voters to maintain the political status quo, but after Prez undergoes a grueling initiation into the mysteries of nature at the hands of Eagle Free, an unfortunately stereotyped Native American (who eventually becomes Prez’s FBI director), he becomes suspicious of his unctuous pal and refuses to protect his interests. Though Boss Smiley wants to pull his machine’s support from Prez, it’s too late—a rush of voting teenagers make Prez their man, eventually passing a new constitutional amendment that lets 18-year-olds serve as president. The rest of the series follows his attempts to remake the United States in the optimistic image of its young people.
One of the fascinating aspects of the series is that while Simon seems largely admiring of Prez’s principles and integrity, he also suggests that he is autocratic and egotistical. He chooses his own mother to serve as his vice-president, but he ignores her advice and is generally disdainful of the “over-thirties.” Then again, it’s not clear that his VP or her peers actually offer any real guidance besides the usual platitudes and bromides; so, Simon suggests, Prez’s arrogance may be the vanity of youth, or it may represent a valid response to an exhausted worldview, or—more likely—it’s both. Then again again, there’s the fact that he has his own face printed on the one dollar bill.
One of the really interesting moments in the series comes in issue 3. After passing repealing the second amendment (no, really), Priest incurs the wrath of a group of posteritite* insurrectionists. They’re led by an ersatz George Washington – they camp at “Valley Forgery,” ‘natch —who wears wooden teeth, just like his idol, and, just like the Grey Fox himself, they submit declarations of war by launching a little person in a hollow bombshell:
The little person’s name is Baron von Stomp. Now, that’s not the interesting moment I was talking about, though maybe we should indeed dwell on it in more detail. But I’m actually thinking of a passage near the end. After the enemy militia refuses to honor a truce, Prez gives up his pacifist stance and calls in the military in order to save more lives. His compromise does not sit well with his followers:
I would have been interested to see how Simon handled Prez’s gradual shift from idealism to pragmatism (and the question of what Prez’s new pragmatism is in service of, exactly)—if indeed that’s where he was going with it.
Oh yeah, Skateboard Dracula. He’s not really Skateboard Dracula—he’s lost the use of his legs at some point and for some reason they don’t regenerate—so it’s really a little dolly he wheels around on. I have no idea how this is supposed to fit into the big picture, really, except that it affords Grandenetti the opportunity to draw a very Grampa-Munster looking Dracula scooting around the White House.
Also, I love that this is the cliffhanger the series goes out on:
I’m imagining a Warren Ellis-written series exploring the geopolitical ramifications of creating a vampire-oriented Marshall Plan to rebuild the infrastructure of the land of the dead. It would be drawn by Joe Sacco, and its three issues would come out over the course of 17 years. Get cracking, guys! Make this deal!
*Eternal thanks to Barry Hannah for coining the term “posteritite.”