You’ve likely heard of Mark Russell before you’ve even read a single page of his comic books.
Russell is the man behind DC Comics’ completely out-of-left-field and thoroughly satirical The Flintstones series that shocked audiences with its serious societal critiques. His recent Second Coming series, the first volume of which was released in trade paperback last week from AHOY Comics, stirred the pot with its depictions of Jesus Christ’s return to Earth and takedown of clichéd superhero problem-solving.
The discourse around his work, even the fervently negative reaction he received from people outside the comics world, doesn’t faze Russell in the slightest. In a recent interview with AIPT, he says he’s a self-proclaimed heretic, adding, “Heretics are the only people with something new to say.” Despite religion being a common element in his writing, from the obvious connections in Second Coming to the innate desire to be a part of a religious gathering way back in The Flintstones‘ town of Bedrock, Russell does not consider his writing inherently anti-religious. Not that Second Coming detractors, who facilitated the book’s move from DC to AHOY, would ever notice.
“It’s not out of a need to mock religion or to deny its importance,” Russell says when asked about the role organization religion has played in his past comics. “In fact, it’s precisely because our religious experience is so important that we must continue to think about it. That we must ask ourselves in what ways our religions and their institutions are failing to serve us as human beings. And when these institutions fail, to subvert them.
He adds, “That, more than anything, is what I think ruffled people’s feathers. It wasn’t anything I had to say about religion, because they were upset about the comic before they’d read a single page of it. It was the idea that someone outside the control of their institutions dared have an opinion at all.”
Russell adds that humans are “by nature religious beings.” He indicates that he understands the extent to which religion serves its followers and the need to feel whole and connected to the rest of existence. However, he warns, “The danger of religion comes when we allow that need for connection to be co-opted by institutions… by churches, businesses, cable news networks… for their own purposes. My feelings about religion and the institutions that abuse it were a theme in The Flintstones. In Second Coming, both the need for religion and people’s abuse of that need is explored in much greater depth as it’s essentially what the story is about.”
Living up to that heretical billing, Russell is moving away from the topic of religion in his latest series from AHOY Comics, Billionaire Island, which hits comic book shops and online retailers on March 4. This book flames for another culture war: the American political economy.
Pairing himself with artist Steve Pugh, who he worked with on The Flintstones, Russell uses the story to travel to the near future (2044) to illustrate what happens when our current income inequality and excess are allowed to permeate totally unchecked. With the country on the brink of complete environmental ruin, and the ruling class more powerful than ever in Billionaire Island, Russell is once again holding back no punches with his continued emphasis on subverting the norms of the comic book medium.
“In a lot of ways, Billionaire Island bookends the story of human civilization that began in Bedrock with The Flintstones,” Russell says. “It’s about how our greed and gullibility have made us the greatest threat to our own survival. 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.”
To succinctly sum up the divide among the American people that will sit at the heart of Billionaire Island, Russell lays into a simple analogy. “If I created a lab experiment where Monkey 1 got a banana every time it pressed a button, but pressing that button also meant that Monkey 2 would get hit with a hammer, how long do you think Monkey 2 would survive? I think the primary purpose of nationalism and racism is to fool people into thinking they’re Monkey 1 when they’re really Monkey 2.”
But as he adds, “My hope is that people will realize which monkey they are before it’s too late.”