March 3, 2020

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REVIEW: Billionaire Island #1

Billionaire Island #1
Created by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh
Written by Mark Russell
Art by Steve Pugh
Colors by Chris Chuckry
Letters by Rob Steen
Published by Ahoy Comics

These are challenging times. There’s serious concerns about the Coronavirus. The American political landscape has become a strange and frightening place. Mike Bloomberg is running for President, and people are consistently defacing his campaign offices with "Eat the Rich" and other similar messages. Things are...pretty weird right now. And I always value creative people who are able to look at the times in which they’re living and hold up a mirror to those times. I was saying recently to someone that what I wanted to read was a comic that was as compelling and thought-provoking (and as devastating a look at society) as Parasite (directed by the great Bong-Joon Ho). Something that really captures the zeitgeist.

Well, thankfully there is a comic creator who has a track record of using the comic storytelling medium to deliver some really huge ideas and razor-sharp satire. That writer is Mark Russell. And his newest book, with incredibly talented artist Steve Pugh, is Billionaire Island.  Set in 2044, Billionaire Island is the story of an offshore floating luxury island located in international waters, founded by social media billionaire Rick Canto.  And the story begins with a terrific TV advertisement/sales pitch on the exclusive Caviar Network explaining why Freedom Unlimited (the name of the island) is the place for billionaires to be.  But 2044 looks like a pretty terrible place to be. There are food shortages around the globe, and climate change continues to wreak havoc. And without going into too much detail, there are plenty of people with reason to be angry at the existence of Freedom Unlimited, and with its inhabitants.

Mark Russell is one of my very favorite writers working in comics. I think he’s writing some of the smartest, most interesting, insightful comics out there. And Russell and his artistic partners deliver this social commentary in the unlikeliest of places.  A Year of the Vllain: Sinestro one-shot was probably my favorite single comic issue last year, as it used a silly DC event to tell a dark story about the way that people can weaponize religion, class distinctions, and people's mistrust of one another.  An issue of Wonder Twins served as a devastating indictment of the prison-industrial complex. While these various comics are filled with sharp satire and social commentary, what elevates Russell's work is the fact that the searing social commentary does not come at the expense of strong character development. Russell and his artistic partners do a great job bringing to life characters for whom you'll feel a lot of empathy, whether they be old cartoon characters (The Flintstones, the Wonder Twins, Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles) or messiahs (Jesus in Second Coming). And not just the main characters in the stories.  One of the most emotionally devastating issues of a comic I've ever read was the one about the plight of the Armadillo that serves as Fred Flintstone's bowling ball.

Speaking of The Flintstones, that was the last artistic collaboration between Russell, Steve Pugh, and terrific colorist Chris Chuckry, and I don't exaggerate when I say I really, really loved that book.  Pugh is an incredibly detailed, precise artist.  He's also, as it happens, an incredible visual humorist. And is also an extremely empathetic artist, bringing out the character and humanity of any human, dinosaur, alien or ancient animal that he's drawing. And Chris Chuckry filled the pages of The Flintstones with bright, vibrant colors that served as a counterbalance and unsettling juxtaposition to the sometimes unsettling subject matter.  So that combination, elevated The Flintstones from just being great, to being a truly special comic. Some of the most devastating social critique I've read in a comic came wrapped in this hilarious, gorgeous package. I was thrilled when I heard they were re-teaming for a new story, and it's fantastic thus far.  And in the interim, Pugh did some absolutely stunning, drop-dead gorgeous work in Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass.  The whole creative team is coming knives-out for the wealthy, the powerful, and our whole messed-up, wealth-obsessed, misguided-priority-having culture.

 
Pugh and Chuckry are back in fantastic form in this issue. Every single panel of every single page pops with great, vivid color. As seen in the preview pages included here, the look of the book is modern and vibrant. Particularly in these pages, which reflect the salesmanship at play in trying to convince billionaires that they deserve better, and should be living a lifestyle that suits their status. Pugh's linework is as precise and thoughtful as ever.  While a little stylized and exaggerated, all of the locations in the comic feel like real places. He similarly puts great detail on scenes of 2044 Miami, with its decaying buildings and rising coastline. On those pages, he and Chuckry bring those scenes to grim life as well, effectively illustrating the decaying corpse of America. 

But worry not, there is visual humor a-plenty. I don't want to give away too much of the story here, but even as seen in these preview pages, Pugh and Chuckry bring to life some darkly funny moments. And I mean dark.  Rafts of refugees being pulled away from Freedom Unlimited by drones, terminally ill patients turned suicide bombers, PhD's turned sweepers - your depressing (and probably accurate) vision of future America brought to gorgeous, hilariously terrible life by Pugh and Chuckry. The Flintstones was full of tiny visual gags that made each isues worth a reread (or several); the same seems to be true here, as you can see one of the drones marked with the words "FU Island".  Along with the drones and "wealth detectors", the message is clear.  The ultra-wealthy can finally have a place to live where they don't have to be surrounded by the resentful, ungrateful populace.   The level of detail and verisimilitude that Pugh and Chuckry bring to this book, even to the most absurd ideas, really helps sell the compellingly dark humor of the story.    
And to be clear, Russell and the whole creative team aren't just pointing their scorn at the ultra-wealthy, however deserving they are. They're not just punching up, they're punching laterally (i.e., at all of us, including themselves). The gross future of this story - climate refugees, a world where real journalism barely exists, and our coastal cities have been abandoned to flooding. This is the future that awaits everyone if we don't rise up and speak out and take action to deal with climate change and fight global inequality. The ultra-wealthy will, as they always do, look out for themselves until the very end. So it's up to the rest of us to face these challenges. 

In case you haven't figured it out, I strongly recommend this comic. If you want your political and social satire in a funny, compelling, highly readable and accessible comic (like getting the nutrition of a salad while eating a slice of cake), then you need to go to Billionaire Island.