Sandman #54 (1993)

This is one of my all-time favorite comics. From the gorgeous cover – a very inventive take on the ascendance of Bill Clinton, who seemed in 1993 to be the new voice of a generation – through the terrific story, this comic completely captivates me every time I read it. Proving the old adage that there aren’t any bad characters, just writers who don’t see the full depths of characters, Gaiman explores the world of Prez Rickard, first teen President of the USA. Created in the mid-1970s, and often mocked as a silly and weird ’70s comic, Gaiman finds new depth in the character and his setting, using Prez’s career as a parable for the lost American idealism of the 1960s. Sparkling blonde and seemingly always smiling, Prez is a literal golden boy whose life elevates the quality of life for everyone he sees and meets. 

Writing in a wonderful style that makes the story read like a parable, Gaiman shows readers the rise and fall of Prez Rickard. I love this line: "My people have, of old, divided the world into two kinds of people: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing, Foxes know lots of little things. Prez Rickard knew two big things. One of them was America, the other was time." That comes at the beginning when we see Prez, who was born in the town of Steadfast, famed for its clocks on every building. Prez learns to fix clocks, quickly becoming the best ever at that job. None of the clocks in Steadfast are in sync with each other, but Prez fixes each and every one so that they all tell time correctly. In many ways, the clocks are an analogue for Prez’s political career. Where politicians see problems as a set of broken clocks impossible to fix, Prez sees them as a series of problems that can be fixed with deep knowledge and commitment.

And fix them he does. After becoming President at the age of 19, he does an amazing job: "That Prez Rickard was a good President surprised many. That he became a great President surprised almost everyone. In his first year in the Presidency, he initiated talks in the Middle East, and averted the looming ‘energy crisis’. Later that year, the major oil companies lowered then price of gasoline. He began to reduce both the federal deficit and then national debt. He hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live which garnered the highest ratings of any comedy show to date – appearing in a number of sketches with the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’. In later years, John Belushi was to describe it as ‘the most inspiring experience of my life.’" The Belushi panel is haunting, showing an elder Belushi looking peaceful, standing near the ocean.

Prez improves the lives of many people throughout the world, bringing a golden age to the entire planet. But everything turns dark after his beloved girlfriend is assassinated by a crazy woman who’s obsessed with TV personality Ted Grant the Wildcat, paralleling David Hinckley’s obsession with actress Jodie Foster. After Kathy dies, Prez fades a little. He becomes quieter, less a public figure during his second term until he quietly leaves office. "The turn out at the November election was spectacularly low. People seemed to feel that if they couldn’t vote for Prez then they had no wish to vote at all. A new President was sworn in, and Prez returned to Steadfast." America went back to normal with a normal man in office. Things were no longer golden: "it wasn’t that things got bad. It was just that bthey weren’t spectacularly goood any more." Prez withdraws completely from the public eye, until he suddenly dies. In a beautiful touch, his death isn’t reported on television or the newspapers, but everyone feels his presence leave.

Finally, on his death, Prez is granted immortality by Death. But how could he not be immortal when Prez is the symbol of idealism in America? Prez is an idea as much as he is a man. Like patriotism, he can’t die.

This comic shows the brilliance of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Prez is clearly a symbol of that uniquely American brand of idealism that grew out of the best ideas of the 1960s. He represents a trust in the natural order of the country, paralleled with a passion for solving problems. Prez can be seen in many ways: a general national idealism, or perhaps the hopes invested in Bill Clinton’s Presidency, or as a parable for the death of liberalism and rise of conservatism. It’s a remarkable achievement for a British writer like Neil Gaiman to so perfectly capture the American spirit, as he does here.

Perfectly complementing Gaiman’s story is the wonderful art of Mike Allred. Allred was the perfect choice to illustrate this story, as his style has a wonderful brightness and idealism about it while also maintaining a slightly hard edge. He draws Death and Dream especially nicely, and does a wonderful job quoting scenes from the original Prez comic. This is a sprawling comic, with nearly every panel showing a different scene from the panel before it. This could be a daunting task for a less versatile artist, but Allred does a great job with it. Every panel pulses with passion and charm, and Allred’s style, which is loyal to past artists while at the same time being modern, is the prefect fit for this issue.

I know this is collected in the "World’s End" Sandman collection. It’s a must-read.

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