Reading “The Golden Boy”

While much of Worlds’ End up to this point has felt very middling, I have to say that I unreservedly love the story in issue 54.  “The Golden Boy” is rife with weird riffs on the life of Jesus but if someone like him were to grow up in twentieth century America and ascend to the office of President (not the least of these weird bits is the conceit that becoming President doesn’t involve compromising on the radical notion of discarding power that Jesus’ ministry as we remember it was largely based upon), and all this strangeness adds up to a piece of fiction that strikes me as unrepentantly optimistic.

The premise of this issue is that our frame story protagonist, Brant (I have to look up his name every time he comes up because he’s so inconsequential), stumbles into a small library where he listens to an Asian man tell a devotional story about the life of Prez Rickard, the youngest person to be elected President of the United States.  The narrator is something of a disciple of Prez, and it’s this quasi-religious connection that tints the entire narrative.  We get recapitulations of famous episodes from Jesus’ life, like his teaching at the Temple when he was a child and his temptation in the desert, all depicted in the context of civics rather than spirituality (and with a white, blond-haired central figure).  The core conflict is the tension between Prez, who seeks power only for the purpose of improving the world around him, and Boss Smiley, the shadow ruler of Prez’s world who continuously offers Prez things that he wants in exchange for simply not upsetting the order of everything.  It’s a relationship that’s clearly built to mirror the adversarial relationship between Jesus and Satan that’s depicted at many points in the Gospels.

What’s interesting about Prez and Smiley’s relationship is that for all Prez’s talk about not doing what Smiley wants, he still gets most of what’s promised to him.  He’s offered the job as President before he announces his intention to win it on his own, and an extended scene where Richard Nixon appears in Prez’s bedroom one night to explain to him that it’s already been decided he’ll be President suggests that Prez’s efforts are irrelevant; it he wanted to really defy Smiley, he should have shirked the job entirely.  Instead, Prez’s election is shown with a large half page panel of his celebratory motorcade as a Smiley face bounces across the hood.  The implication’s pretty strong that Prez didn’t get to the top on his own, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not.  Later escalations of Prez’s standoff with Smiley are less ambiguous (the consequences for his rejection of Smiley’s influence in his re-election is the sudden violent death of his fiancee), but the story’s ending, where Prez encounters Smiley reigning in Heaven does little to ease the suspicion that Prez was manipulated all along; fortunately for him, Dream is present at this moment of Smiley’s apparent victory, and offers Prez the opportunity to leave his universe behind and become a story to inspire people in other realities, much like the deal Dream’s offered in the past to figures like Cain and Abel.

Temptation! (Artwork by Mike Allred, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

All of these twists in Prez’s journey to the top and back down offer a weird meditation on the nature of power.  The Jesus parallels are obvious, but it feels like there’s something fundamentally different in the stories; Jesus’ ministry was a radical rejection of power, while Prez’s ascendancy embraces power as a value neutral tool.  The ambiguity about Prez’s true efficacy as someone operating within a corrupted system highlights how his vision, though similar to Jesus’, is brought about by way of a flawed execution.  The optimistic tone of the story gets undercut by the ending’s implication that Boss Smiley wins, even if he loses Prez as a pawn.

Despite these strange, contradictory details about Prez and Smiley, I still really do love this story.  It’s a story about hopefulness in the face of overwhelming unfairness, and it features some incredibly bizarre alternate history bits that are simply joyous, if a bit daffy (my favorite is the throwaway line that in this America, once eighteen-year-olds got the vote, they voted to lower the minimum age for holding political office to eighteen; that strikes me as highly unlikely, though I’d love to read a story about the congresspeople who spearheaded that legislation).  In the canon of standalone Sandman stories, it’s a remarkably good one.

I also can’t let this story go by without noting that it’s illustrated by Mike Allred.  Allred’s an artist that I particularly like for his visual style that employs minimal texturing (perfect for the bright, primary color palette that Daniel Vozzo uses in this issue).  Allred has a talent for drawing faces that can look simultaneously glamorous and haggard (I know him best from his work on the early 2000s X-book X-Statix, which followed a team of reality star mutant superheroes who always looked like they were hungover), and he does a lot here to convey how Prez’s time in office wears him down.

The next issue will deal with the Necropolis, a place where all the burial rituals in the multiverse are studied and practiced, and we’ll finally get a small hint of why so many people have been waylaid at the Worlds’ End.  Brant will continue to be an incredibly forgettable perspective character.

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