After a nearly four-month layoff that feels closer to four centuries in the dystopia that is the year 2020, Mark Russell and Steve Pugh return with the second issue of their Billionaire Island series, a worthy followup of a debut I raved about back in March. No writer in modern comics handles social satire quite like Russell, which makes him one of the most apt creators out there to handle the hell that is currently planet earth.
It’s worth remembering that Russell’s script for this issue was written well before the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide civil unrest in the face of police brutality, and the recent bombardment of long-term sexual abuse scandals in the entertainment world. Even so, Russell has penned a story that feels if it was just written yesterday.
The latest wave of the #MeToo movement has come upon the comics community over the last week, as repulsive actions from Cameron Stewart, Scott Allie, Warren Ellis and more have come to light on social media. Well, what do you know: the first page in Billionaire Island #2 is a spoof ad for a Steven Segal-like film about revenge on a sexual predator who defends himself by stating, “Look man, I grew up in the 1970s. Things were different back then.” It’s mind-blowing that this is literally the intro to the latest comic from the medium’s premier satirist.
The twisted world of June 2020 rears its head again later in the issue with the discussion of America’s top television show, Famous Last Words, produced at Don’t Give a Sh*t Studios. A TV exec explains to a dehumanized denizen of this all-too-real country that once he dies on camera, payment will be made to his next-of-kin. In an entertainment landscape where even Cops has been canceled in the wake of the social uprising after the murder of George Floyd, it’s disheartening to think that a progam such as Famous Last Words would actually garner millions of viewers across this country.
The timing of Russell’s actual writing of this issue vis a vis what’s happened in American society as of late is a reminder that these problems have been plaguing the world long, long before they were exposed in today’s technologically connected culture.
Illustrator Steve Pugh once again proves to be the ideal complement to his frequent collaborator in Russell. The cartoonish style he perfected when working with Russell on DC’s The Flintstones works just as well here. The thinly-veiled social commentary that carries itself throughout the series lends itself more to an outlandish technique, which is best seen in the greedy grin of a Texas cowboy catching a private flight to Freedom Unlimited, a look that quickly adds him to revolutionary assassin Trent’s hit list.
This is to say nothing of the critiques of the financial industry and the modern economic structure of the United States that sit at the heart of Billionaire Island, as readers can clearly see in the one-percenter utopia of Freedom United. Pugh brings the average person’s horrors to life with his depictions of the Alan Greenspan Fun Academy and The Invisible Hand Massage Parlor in the skyline, painful reminders of the failures of the way Reagonomics set the country on its current path of income inequality in the 1980s and of Adam Smith, the de facto godfather of capitalism, from whom these issues plaguing modern society have trickled down.
I spoke with Russell back in March in an interview before the first issue of Billionaire Island dropped. Regarding the series, Russell stated, “It’s about how our greed and gullibility have made us the greatest threat to our own survival.” Whether it’s the tax-loopholing CEOs looting the American public or the fools who refuse to wear a face mask at Trader Joe’s, Russell’s words have never been more poignant.