Patriotism is difficult to define. There is no true article or concept of what patriotism is. It can, in the hearts and minds of the common man, come to signify a love for one’s country, but that is too ambiguous a definition. In the presidential elections, foreign and domestic, this word is coined with high frequency, and inevitably lost in a hodgepodge of disclamatory verbiage. Needless to say, like an inside joke, the true value of the patriot is lost on even the most well read of Americans. It is then fascinating why someone like Neil Gaiman, a Brit, can take on the task of defining patriotism given his outside perspective. The Golden Boy, Sandman’s 54th entry in the series is yet another challenging tale told at Worlds’ End Inn, in which Brant Tucker awakes after a long restful sleep in the inn to meet a lone Asian traveler (one bearing semblance to those that frequented the opium dens of Shanghai). The story told of Prez Rickard is a retelling of an earlier DC title Prez: First Teen President, which was canceled after the fourth issue. Gaiman’s reboot of the character follows the familiar beats of the original, but with a messianic twist, paralleling the Gospel of Luke. Written during the Clinton administration at the height of Generation X’s angst, the story is bold, insisting on the power of the voting youth. It is a ridiculing commentary on the blasé attitude of complacency during the political scandals that plagued Clinton’s presidency. Truth, Justice, and Ethos at their lowest in contemporary society, Gaiman’s timely revitalization of a failed DC pilot is as relevant as ever.
Populist figures in history are enigmatic, but not for their achievements. Taking a look at the lives of people like John F. Kennedy, Ceasar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama shows a common thread of dedication and idealistic pursuits. Whether or not these notable figures achieved their desired end, it is their drive to achieve that causes them to stand out. The genuine article can’t be faked, and people recognize that. The populist figure with whom Prez Rickard shares the most in common is Jesus Christ, as the opening pages show a birthing scene in a hospital with a distant star beaming in the background and the typical serene, saint-like faces of the birthing parents. Prez’s mother chooses the name “Prez” to define and shape her son, who sees in him a greatness that amounts to the presidency. This follows in line with Luke 1:31-33. Gabriel says,
“You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
“Jesus” was a common first name in the 1st century, originating from the Hebrew “Yehoshua,” meaning “yahweh saves.” “Christ” is a messianic title and serves in the capacity to foreshadow and substantiate the purpose of Jesus during his ministry. Prez’s name operates in the same function, and Gaiman successfully preserves the symbolism of Luke in the Sandman narrative. On the following page an account of Prez’s mother losing him in the city square, only to find that he has wandered off to meet with the city council to discuss civil codes and ordinances, draws further parallels to the Gospel of Luke. Here is an allusion to Luke 2:43-48 in which Luke describes Jesus in his adolescence going to the Passover feast at the temple in Jerusalem:
“…when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
A third allusion occurs when Prez begins his “ministry” (political career) and Boss Smiley is introduced, an allusion to Satan, as the “Prince of that World.” This title is in reference to John 12:31 (although the inclusion of the word “prince” occurs in Ephesians 2:2). Boss Smiley makes his reprising role in Sandman #54 in the same capacity of his first incarnation, with the subtle change that Boss Smiley is elevated to the role of God in Prez’s world. His iconic appearance, a humanoid with a smiley face, compounds the sentiment of disillusionment upon the end of the ’60s, where civil rights and humanitarian advances were made throughout the decade. At the height of the Vietnam War, Smiley (the coined name for the icon) became a ridiculing symbol for the dissolution of the ’60s spirit. Used in conjunction with mass marketing and novelty gift industries, Smiley continued to impart a hypocritical mood of progress in an era of social and political stagnation. Smiley’s usage in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen is made homage to in Gaiman’s retelling of Prez and the characterization of Boss Smiley in two ways. First, the word or figure alluded to as the “watchmen” or “watchman” points to the distant deist characterization of God. Prez’s active campaign to fix the broken watches of Steadfast contrasts with the uninvolved diestic god running the show above Boss Smiley and because of his actions operates as a savior figure. “Watchmen” also conjures themes of social accountability in an era of scandal and abuse. The slogan that popularized Moore’s Watchmen, “Who watches the Watchmen,” was coined originally by Juvenal, a roman poet that lived likely during the 2nd Century AD. Although no historian can accurately place the exact time in which the poet lived, the Roman political climate was ripe with treason and dispute, and rightly lampoons the illusion of justifying power in the hands of the social elite. The bloodied Smiley appears in one frame of The Golden Boy, providing another allusion to Moore’s work. Framed as a malevolent god, as well as taking into account the imagery imparted by Moore’s work, employing Boss Smiley as the figure of Satan in Jesus’s temptation becomes all the more appropriate. As Luke tells it in Luke 4:5-8,
The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
Biblical allusions aside, the story of Prez Rickard is relevant still in this age, and finds significance especially in light of recent elections and the formulations of Super PACs. In the issue, Boss Smiley’s characteristic inflections and business clothing conjures the prototypical corporate mogul. Historically, these moguls have had great power in the political process going all the way back to federal injunctions made by the US Congress in 1947, when the Taft-Hartley Act shut down corporations and labor unions that were giving money to election campaigns to push their own agendas. Boss Smiley is allegory to the rampant lobbying that currently drives political campaigns all across America. In the proceeding actions up to the conclusion of the 2012 presidential election, Stephen Colbert satirized the nature of the Super PAC, implying that the legal loophole they substantiate is equitable to money laundering. Boss Smiley’s coercive influence devastates Prez Rickard, when his wife is assassinated by one of Smiley’s paranoid agents, and roughly equates to the grip that large interest groups have on political leaders today. If Jesus was the messiah of Israel, then Satan would have been the Super PAC promising funds for his campaign, ensuring it’s success. Just like Jesus, Prez says no, and pays the ultimate price for his campaign’s success.
One could go on about the nuances of The Golden Boy. The issue serves both as a commentary on contemporary society as well as the potential that impassioned movements of the ’60s possessed. Later in the comic, during his reelection, Gaiman writes that Prez’s competition from the Democrats and Republicans are another 18-year-old and an “aging movie actor,” respectively. The subtle irony in this suggests the pandering both parties exhibit each year, giving the people want they want, rather than what they actually need. The idea of an 18-year-old president is laughable, but the fact that it is unbelievable is indeed troubling. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 by the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution because the youth being sent to Vietnam did not possess the right to speak up in the political process. It seemed logical then that if one was old enough to die for one’s country that they ought to vote as well. An amendment in response to the glaring inconsistency was erected, but 18-29 year olds still share the highest percentage of voter apathy in the presidential elections. A world like Prez Rickard’s is indeed possible, but has yet to manifest. Until then, a floundering America suffers, and what could have been never comes to be.