Captain America— created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby—first appeared on the stands in March 1941, nine months before the United States entered World War II, but foretelling the sock in the jaw the Allied powers would be delivering to Hitler and his goons. From under-developed underdog to industrial powerhouse and world police, the arc of the United States’ “narrative of becoming” as told by the so-called “Greatest Generation” is paralleled by the story of 110 lb. weakling with a heart of gold: Steve Rogers-turned-exceptional-super-soldier. Captain America Comics #1 was a view of a future that would come to pass, at least in the stories America would tell about itself until the Vietnam era came along to cast doubt on that do-gooder legacy.
Both Joe Simon (writer) and Jack “King” Kirby (artist, plotter, writer, editor, genius, legend) would work on two different comic series for DC in the waning days of Vietnam (and immediately after) that provided two different views of the American future and thus a different potential American narrative: Prez: First Teen President and O.M.A.C: One-Man Army Corps. Neither of these properties would ever be a Captain America in terms of pliability of meaning, marketability and, frankly, a kind of unbelievable staying power, but they are oddly, and perhaps obliquely, proleptic, even if ultimately failures as great comic stories or examples of the creator’s work.
Joe Simon’s (with artist Jerry Grandenetti) 1973/74 Prez only ran for four pretty miserably bad issues. There was a reappearance of the character of Prez in an issue of Supergirl (#10, also from 1974) and there is the 1993 story from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman—a meditation on the narrative of an American golden age, but essentially those four first issues are what matter for our purposes here.
The premise of Prez is both a fairly obvious a logical extension of the influence of youth culture emerging from the 1960s and a complete and utterly absurd conclusion to come to based on that expansion. Essentially, after the passing of 1971’s 26th Amendment which allowed for 18-year-olds to vote, Prez posits a world where an influx of youth voting had a profound change on the political structure of the United States, leading to younger and younger people being elected to office, such that Prez Rickard (named such because his mother believed he would be president one day and she was right) becomes a senator and then youngest president of the United States once the age laws were changed.
The idea seems patently ridiculous now (both in terms of the changing of age laws and the actual demographics of voting since the 26th amendment), and clearly Prez is not meant to be taken as an accurate prognostication, but at the same time it does reverberate with some anxiety about the Baby Boomer generation (even if teenagers in 1973 were the back end of the Boomers). The 1960s saw an unprecedented explosion in the influence and reach of youth culture, and Prez takes that overvaluing of youth to absurd conclusion. The comic starts off interestingly enough, with go-getter Prez Rickard setting all the clocks in his clock-obsessed town to the same time and getting the attention of Boss Smiley, a crooked politician whose face is the unquestioned living manifestation of the “Have a Nice Day” face made famous in the 70s, with a little curly-q of a nose. Hoping Prez will be a “pliable” protégé, he encourages Prez to run for office, but for his own nefarious plans to profit from the building of an environmentally destructive super-highway. With the help of Native American sidekick, Eagle Free—who has the aid of animals of the forest (including a gorilla, polar bear and elephant!) because, you know, he’s like an Indian and has a headband and a feather and they’re good at that stuff—Prez throws off the yoke of Boss Smiley as election day comes. Eagle Free is the comic book equivalent of those 1970s PSAs with the crying Indian, a cartoon meant to simultaneously exude a mystical cool and serve as an evocation of national guilt, except in Prez he gets to run the FBI.
That’s the last we see of Boss Smiley. The comic rather judiciously gets rid of him and the symbols of the old system of corruption with one quick caption:
Unlike the pointless decompression of contemporary comics, Prez, leaps to the forgone conclusion between panels: Prez Rickard will be president, and any challenges he faces on the road to that are beside the point and quickly abandoned. Boss Smiley, rather than being used as a recurring villain representing the superficial feel-good mottoes of the Me Generation that allowed the political to become personal to the detriment of mass social justice movements, is just a straightforward corrupt official who never seems to be much of a challenge to Prez and his allies.
Instead of a personified nemesis, the real challenge to Prez seems to be Simon’s writing itself, which for all of its pretensions towards admiring the earnest enthusiasm and good-intentions of young people, seems to want to temper it with old-fashioned ideas framed within the narrative of good sense and moderation. In issue #3, Prez’s support for the Small Arms Bill that would effectively nullify the 2nd Amendment (I know that’s not how amending the Constitution works, but I didn’t say the comic was an accurate portrayal of the details of government) raises the ire of the self-styled Minute Men—“an extreme right wing organization” that hoards arms and “are fearful that the young liberals and minorities are all part of a Communist plot to take over the government,” retroactively echoing America’s own Tea Partyers—who believe in the inalienable right to bear arms. Prez is forced take up arms against them, realizing in the aftermath that they were in fact in the right and he was wrong. He vetoes the bill and tells the assembled U.S. Congress, “…this day I have passed from a callow youth to a mature man. I have learned that force cannot be met with cool phrases, love or flowers…” Just like that what is supposed to make Prez special, his youthful willingness to ask questions and imagine a different way of addressing the concerns of the nation rather than through the old and ineffective way—violence and corruption—is written away, and the very youthfulness that is supposed to make him appealing makes him “callow.”
This attitude is not quite consistent. In issue #4, for example, when members of Congress ask Prez and Eagle Free what they’ve been smoking when they try to warn of a Transylvanian plot to drop a bat bomb on the U.S., the young men are cast in a sympathetic light, quickly dismissed as over-imaginative potheads. Still, Prez’s presidency has all the markers of any modern Presidency: dubious FBI infiltration tactics, threats of violence, political partisanship, unchecked surveillance and nepotism (his mom is his vice president). Prez: First Teen President is a classic bait-and-switch, or perhaps more accurately, a wolf-in-hippie clothing—an appeal to youth and imagination that barely disguises a much older and pernicious perspective: profit.
I am not saying this is a surprise. It shouldn’t be. Comics are published to make money. Or more recently in the case of Marvel and DC to maintain character franchises through the creation of serialized raw material for the much more lucrative and popular films. What I am trying to point out is the precise way that comics became profitable again after the post-Wertham waning years: by appealing to a youth culture that was not only growing, but creeping upwards through adolescence to the college years and finally to what we have today, a popular culture that is for the most part indistinguishable from youth culture—something that was somehow made possible through the absorption and recycling of the counter-cultural movements on the margin as to blunt their edge. Prez is a prolepsis, jutting out into a future where “kidstuff” is mainstream and taken very seriously by many adults, but that has been totally separated from any of the possibility of youthfulness, in favor of an uncritical nostalgia at best and a dulling recapitulation of adult cynicism passing for trendy cool at worst. (Actually, I take that back, I don’t know which one is worse).
Jack Kirby in OMAC, on the other hand, is Orwell in comparison to Simon’s failures with Prez. The genius of 1984 is not that it warns us of the abandoning our agency to a totalitarian state, or that it’d function not through direct repression, but through fear of an ever-present eye in the form of our fellow citizens, but that it reveals the ways in which we are already living under that regime, and that there is no escape from it. The system of control is increasingly ideological and thus becomes more sophisticated and elusive. We become the mechanism of our own control, not through secrecy, but the elimination of privacy. The forever-managed life, curated for ourselves as much as for our social media “friends.”
The future world of OMAC is not unlike our own. I am not saying that Jack Kirby successfully predicted the future in 1974, but rather his work in this comic has some profound resonances with 2014. It is a world where all forms of dissent are mediated through preordained means. A world in which worker complaints are defused by managerial psychological diagnosis of employees. Disgruntled corporate drones are encouraged to visit “the Psychology Section” to let off some steam in a “Crying Room” or a room where you can smash stuff freely. There is even an option to set cars on fire, in case you really need a revolutionary catharsis.
In this “World that’s Coming,”—where we are introduced to Buddy Blank, destined to be genetically re-programmed into OMAC, the One-Man Army Corps—national armies no longer exist out of fear of world-ending nuclear reprisal, and instead small cells of ideologically motivated madmen strike out in attempts to wrest control of a system that functions through organized chaos and the fear it evokes. He is a worker unworthy of note, a “company dummy,” a frequent victim of bullies at his job for Pseudo-People, Inc., and a sucker for the surreptitious testing of a robot woman, Lila. It turns out Pseudo-People is in the business of automatons, but their latest “female” models are literally sex-bombs, meant to attract male targets and then explode at the moment of consummation. So when Billy goes looking for the strange woman he has met in the hall of his workplace, he finds that she is boxed and ready to be sold off as the ultimate terrorist weapon—weaponized sex. Through the robot woman, even desire is policed by capital, as the boss in charge of their construction only cares about the money to be made in selling them or using them to extort funds. Buddy is about to pay for his mistake with his life when the forces of the Global Peace Agency (GPA) through their all-knowing intelligent satellite, Brother Eye, imbues him with the power of OMAC via a “computer hormone operation.”
There is something beautiful about OMAC. He is a particular kind of Kirbyian masculine ideal. His pre-punk mohawk hairstyle evokes more than simple rebellion and ironic pose, but a primal power, as if Kirby was calling out to “positive” Native American stereotypes to give his champion the unique dignity he felt he deserved, in a less obviously cartoonish way than Simon did with Eagle Free. The eye OMAC wears on his chest, a reference to Brother Eye, is also a reminder that virtue is only possible when surveilled, as to be open to future re-imagining. The slipperiness of Foucaultian power dynamics in four-colors, struggling with a mechanical representation of a sexuality dismembered by over-categorization. Lila, creepily…oh so very creepily, depicted in her component parts, packed into a box and still carrying out her programming to please or kill men at the behest of other men. He is forced to destroy her and all her kind, unable to even imagine that she might have or ever gain any agency.
Despite the seeming benevolent intentions of the OMAC project and the Global Peace Agency he aids, there is something sinister about it. The ever-watching Brother Eye recall’s Orwell’s Big Brother, and the faceless GPA agents, with “colorless” masks meant to hide any note of ethnicity, race or nationality (but not, it would seem, gender) are meant to represent “all nations,” but nevertheless have that peachy Caucasian comic character look. Like a representation of the problematic “color-blind” race neutrality touted by some (read, dominant cultural discourse), they nevertheless reinforce whiteness as the preferred and default complexion. But even more disturbing than either of these is the creation of OMAC himself. As Colin Smith suggests in his erudite-as-ever comparison of OMAC to Captain America, Buddy Blank is wholly consumed by the agenda of the surveilling power ostensibly created to defend the world and make it more just. He is not Buddy Blank with the power of a “God of War,” but rather his identity is subsumed into the agent of an all-watching and seemingly all-powerful entity. I am reminded of Foucault’s claim in Discipline and Punish:
“Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces; the circuits of communication are the supports of accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, altered, repressed by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.”
There is no self that is not watched or watching—the “blazing eye” on his chest a symbol of both what is being done to him and what he does.
But despite the possible depths churning under the surface of OMAC: One-Man Army Corps, it is not a good series. There are flashes of brilliance—like in issue #2 when we learn that this near future is an “Era of the Super-Rich,” who can rent out entire cities for a party forcing the evacuation of all it inhabitants. While the story that ensues from such an interesting concept is pretty terrible—something about capturing Mister Big (a corporate mob boss type figure) in the act of killing OMAC, which turns out to be just a death simulation—the premise resounds with an increasingly unaffordable present-day New York City with its gentrification and poor-doors. Better written, OMAC could be a proleptic parable of Occupy Wall Street’s 99%.
OMAC only lasted eight issues, and while there have been other incarnations of the idea—especially in the OMAC PROJECT comic that was a part of DC’s crossover Infinite Crisis—none of them have really taken up the setting and premise of the original series in a way that fulfills its promise. There is a 1991 prestige-format black and white limited series version by John Byrne, but it is a convoluted mess of a time-travel story. It is a shame, because a non-DC universe version of OMAC set in a near-future version of our corporate-shaped surveillance state could be pretty fucking fantastic. Of course, it would not have Kirby’s art, which when all else in the series fails—including Kirby’s own turgid dialog—carries OMAC beyond almost all other contemporary comic art. Even at his worst, Kirby’s work surpasses most other examples of superhero comic art.
OMAC’s world was evoked by the tagline “The World that’s Coming!” and at its best, the comic would limn that edge of the near-future slipping always just ahead of us, even as it is shaped by our relation to knowledge as networked through our watching each other. But instead, the series ends with a cliffhanger. A villain turns OMAC back into Buddy Blank, but in an attempt to destroy Brother Eye as well, overheats his machinery and his island base explodes, ostensibly taking Buddy with it. The end. The anti-climactic ending is sad for a series with promise, but then again I sincerely doubt that promise might have ever been fulfilled. I still love looking through it, and imagining what could have been…perhaps if Kirby had had a writing partner.
Prolepsis, the representation of something in the future as if it already existed or had occurred, is usually used to refer to a literary device in which the future is referenced in the present—as in the phrase “dead man walking.” I am using it here, however, to evoke a simultaneity of anticipation of a future, and the sense of a future already past. Proleptic, not “prophetic,” to avoid the suggestion the very kind of supernaturalism that a critical mind is supposed to eschew, and because it would be stupid to say these comics actually represent a literal future or that Kirby or Simon could predict it. Instead, an examination of a vision of a future from the past is not about its predictive powers, but what that vision tells us about the fears of that era, and how those fears may manifest in our current era without taking the form of remote electronic hormone surgery or 17-year old presidents. Not necessarily Kirby’s fears or Simon’s fears, but wider fears embedded in these texts. In the case of Prez, all I see is fear of more of the same—politics as usual, but with a fresh face. Prez Rickard is the face of our “young presidents” Boomers like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (who is actually younger than Prez would be if he were a real person), supposedly progressive, but giving us the same old tired politically expedient supposedly practical bullshit. OMAC is more complex, but at its heart its theme of surveillance and fundamental change retroactively echoes the further destabilization of the American narrative since the era of the Vietnam War. The atomization of danger into individual cells with their own agendas, the inevitable messiness of State reactions to those groups and the cascading consequences, the manipulation of language to frame and re-frame these conflicts in ways that seek to obscure historical contingency—what OMAC suggests is what we are asked to do, as when, for example, we are told to accept the findings of the CIA torture report as necessary or to comply with corrupt and violent police “trust the system” and ignore a history of racial injustice, OMAC gives up his freedom, so that he might be “free.”
As a final note (even though I linked to it above), I want to suggest reading Colin Smith’s pieces on OMAC on his now defunct (but still accessible) blog, Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. You can read them all here (though they appear in reverse order), including a piece comparing 1974’s OMAC with the version that appeared in 2011. Smith’s work is the finest I have read on the topic of OMAC, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence my reading here.
As for Prez, there is not as much of critical note about the series, but the hilarious Traveling Through the Bronze Age podcast does have four full episodes dedicated to those four issues, and a bonus episode covering the afore-mentioned Supergirl #10. You can find them on their website and on iTunes.