(w) Mark Russell (a) Steve Pugh
Some day, I will learn to stop doubting a premise by writer Mark Russell. First, the idea of his Prez revival sounded ludicrous, but it’s cancellation ended up as one of the true tragedies of the “DCYou” initiative. Next, a revival of The Flintstones and a Snagglepuss comic? Gold. Then the higher ups at AT&T decide that Vertigo isn’t the place for a satire about Jesus and modern Christianity. Ahoy Comics was rewarded for not having the same reservations. Now, Russell and The Flintstones artist Steve Pugh are taking on wealth inequality with Billionaire Island, perfectly timed for the current political climate. Like previous series, Russell hits the reader with a lot of world-building in a first issue that has sparse plot progression.
Russell is very economical with his use of this first issue. He introduces the titular billionaire island, named “Freedom Unlimited”, and the filthy rich bastard that’s meant to be the target of readers’ ire, Rick Canto. Huge credit goes to Steve Pugh, who draws Canto with a face that can only be described as “punchable.” He is a perfect caricature of modern extreme wealth, which includes silencing those that threaten his power. Those potential threats exist because he is directly responsible for a major problem facing the world, and he is able to run away and hide from them on his hidden, decadent enclave.
The creators also explore how this rampant wealth inequality has impacted everyday lives. In one humorous panel, a man is dressed in a bunny suit promoting a Chuck E Cheese stand-in while complaining, “I have a PhD goddammit.” While it is played for laughs, it is often reflective of the reneged social contract that many find themselves in. The promise of better paying jobs as a reward for pursuing a higher education has been voided over the years, shrinking the job market and keeping salaries stagnant while graduates are saddled with crippling student debt. This is just one example of the fun-house mirror reflections our world that is sprinkled in throughout the issue.
One thing that has received recent attention, or at least has gained wider awareness, is that news outlets are by and large owned by larger, corporate entities that have their own agendas. As a result, the reported news is often reflective of what is in the best interest of those corporate entities. Look at the recent suspension of ABC News reporter David Wright for evidence. Billionaire Island takes this idea and runs with it, as the aforementioned Rick Canto has an untraceable prison where he locks up journalists, employees, or anyone else who confronts him about his own misgivings. Russell and Pugh use this as an opportunity that even in the worst situations, peoples’ tendency towards greed and wealth accumulation will shine through.
There is even some time dedicated to the presumed hero of this book, a man seeking vengeance against the billionaire class. The motivation is solid enough, as Trent’s (that’s his name) family falls victim to the pandemic the wealthy caused. How did they cause a pandemic? Well, by trying to hide a sterilization virus in the food supply in order to curtail population growth. You know, your classic villain-creates-his-enemy scenario. It is a bit contrived, but it works well in this setting.
From an art perspective, Steve Pugh’s work is fantastic. The veteran artist is tasked with bringing to life this exaggerated reality, which he does through an emphasis on expressive, believable characters. These are individuals that I want to invest my time in in part because of their visual depictions. Even Canto, who is loathsome, possesses a degree of visual charm that makes me want to see where the story takes him. Chris Chuckry’s colors are equally essential to this book’s visual success. The vibrant colors of Freedom Unlimited provide a great contrast against the darker, mundane tones that the rest of the world are painted in. It is an effective visual contrast between the haves and have-nots.
Billionaire Island #1 is successful in cramming a bunch of ideas into a standard, single-issue comic. If presented as a series of vignettes with a narrative throughline akin to Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olson, this would undoubtedly be a 5-star, 10/10 book. However, that’s not the case. The uneven pacing is a major detriment to an otherwise great book. The commentary and wit are as sharp as ever. The art is fantastic. The characters are engaging. The story itself just needs a some structural kinks to be worked out.