The king of comic book satire is back, as Mark Russell, fresh off the heels of Second Coming at AHOY Comics, turns his attention from organized religion to income inequality and global climate change in Billionaire Island #1. Russell deftly helps readers laugh through the pain of these critical real world problems while also shining a light on issues that are truly plaguing modern society.
To put Russell’s concepts that sit at the heart of Billionaire Island in a greater context, look back to an interview he did with Adventures in Poor Taste regarding the series just this week. “It’s about how our greed and gullibility have made us the greatest threat to our own survival,” Russell says. “We’ve created an economic system that not only destroys our habitat, but then gives all the proceeds from that destruction to the people with the least incentive to do anything about it.”
Russell does that from the jump, concocting his trademark blend of social critiques and humor as a billionaire by the name of Rick Canto advertises Freedom Unlimited, a floating, drifting island in international waters free of environmental ruin (the island rises with the sea level), anyone who’s not a billionaire and, of course, taxes. Despite the series being set in 2044, it’s a reality that doesn’t seem so far off from the current economic and ecological climate. Billionaire Island feels like an imaginative dystopian future until you change the channel to CNN or scroll through your Twitter feed.
Satire is always thinly veiled in Russell’s work and that’s no different in this debut issue. When Canto imprisons reporter Shelly Bly, a nod to highly influential investigative reporter Nellie Bly, she finds herself in cage with a few others who’ve crossed Canto or who’ve asked too many questions about his shady business practices. Within their cage, there’s a human-sized hamster wheel, as these folks, representative of the 99 percent of people who make up the have-nots in this world, run the gauntlet and are left in stasis. The billionaire churns them out until their left gaslit, wondering if they’re truly the ones in the wrong.
Steve Pugh, who collaborated with Russell on the wacky, yet simultaneously existential, The Flintstones series from DC Comics a few years back, handles the illustrations here. Pugh’s pencilling is equal parts animated and poignant, proving to be the perfect partner for Russell. He keenly expresses the hilarity of a billionaire’s personal infomercial for a “paradise” that houses the rich elite. He’s also capable of handling more somber moments too.
When the CEO of Canto’s corporation finds himself handcuffed to his bed with a gun pointed to his face, Pugh quickly flips the switch to a serious tone. This leads into a long-winded tale of how Canto’s company has intentionally sterilized people across the globe through distributed food supplies in order to limit population growth. Pugh doesn’t explicitly detail a mass grave of bodies in Angola, but by giving depth and stepping away from the scene of these heinous crimes, he’s able to depict how billionaires really feel about “ordinary” people: they’re indistinguishable and nothing in their eyes.
Few writers can mix deadly serious real world issues with laugh-out-loud jokes like Russell. When paired with a familiar partner like Pugh, the duo create one of the most original comic book series out there.