The Bad Guys Won! Let’s Laugh at Them!
A look at the recently completed and collected Billionaire Island comic series
We‘re almost to the end of 2020, which is more than over a quarter-million of COVID-19 victims can say. The slight majority of America have hopefully realized what happens when you elect a wealthy celebrity businessman with money into an elected office. We get a person who doesn’t know what he’s doing and doesn’t care. So they do what they naturally do, which is capitalize on their position to benefit themselves and other business partners (but mostly themselves). And if unhindered enough, they can cause near-irreversible damage to everyone around them. And if wealthy enough, they can continue to fail upward while being supported by other wealthy people and an abused populace who lives vicariously through said businessman’s cruelty.
Now let’s talk about the recently collected Billionaire Island comic series and try to pretend it doesn’t seem like a combination of documentary and prophecy.
Ahoy Comics already deserves a spot in the medium’s history for the material it has put out in seemingly direct retaliation to the scary political zeitgeist of the last few years. Much of the work I’ve seen rests on the shoulders of writer Mark Russell, the first creator I’ve seen in a while who appears more interested in writing stories that touch on real life rather than connecting the dots of event comics month.
If politics is, as John Dewey describes, “…the shadow cast on society by big business,” then the last four years have seen all shadows lifted with America’s leader not only shown to have no clothes but also defecating all over the place. Mix in progressive movements like #MeToo, and that adds up to a lot of ridiculous yet powerful people in the limelight that almost defy parody and gross exaggeration. Billionaire Island meets that challenge fairly well.
Set twenty-odd years in the future in a world where capitalism has run its course (feels like they could have cut that time span in half), Russell, along with his Flintstones art partners Steve Pugh Chris Chuckry, focus less on the bad guys behind the floating island/conglomerate haven known as Freedom Unlimited. Instead, they put more attention on the victims (a journalist, a betrayed contractor and several out of favor employees) who are driven to extremes and breaking points wile trying to appease, escape or destroy their captors.
It’s one thing to have an artificial island created by the privileged in order to survive the collapse of civilization only to have poorer types either invade or become trapped on it. It’s another thing entirely to see the story’s “ heroes” and other sympathetic characters flail about with no real success.
Movie critic Bob Chipman once pointed about his favorite film Robocop (1986) the bad guys in the story — namely the business conglomerate enacting widespread gentrification and the privatization of the police — had already won and remain in power despite the success of the hero’s own personal journey. You can see shades of Robocop in Billionaire Island. Not just in the satirical commercials (which in some ways are the weakest ammo the books arsenal) but in how every victim is ineffectual in finding a way to beat The System. It’s like viewing several purported wise men and women debating on the shape of an elephant’s foot while it’s crushing them.
Even when the characters have occasional moments of lucidity, it falls beautifully short because of who they are. There’s a favorite passage of mine from one of the exiled builders of the island:
“The problem with billionaires is that they expect the best of everything. They just don’t want to pay for it….It is the world’s greatest danger, and perhaps, also it’s salvation. The fact that these men can succeed at ruling the world…and yet fail at basic math.”
It sounds like inspirational words setting up a triumphant third act, until you remember that the person uttering them has been living in isolation on the island for years with a mannequin as his one true love.
Earlier this year, I had a mini-debate with an online friend on the effectiveness of satire. He argued that great works like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”were ultimately ineffective because they did nothing to dethrone the figures in power they criticized. On the other hand, I see satire as an important respite, the last refuge of the sane but helpless person in the face of certain defeat from insane forces. If Reganomics had been easy to overthrow, what would it have mattered whether or not Robocop had emulated them effectively. Would Billionaire Island resonate so much if we weren’t so helpless to stop the last four years of Trump?
If Robocop’s future was really the then-present day of the eighties, then Billionaire Island is definitely our present decade’s end, which seems equally inescapable despite — or because of —the current administration’s meltdown. At best, the money machine that runs the world in full view now will go back in the shadows again, with no real comeuppance. How appropriate then that when the wealthy people behind Freedom Unlimited meet their end, it’s not done through any one person’s actions but through the arbitrary system that had kept them in power.
As I finish this piece, America’s future path seems like it will be chosen just as randomly as a dog selecting a meal from three different bowls. It’s already the kind of warped reality that Russell, Pugh and Chukry have been able to channel. At the end of this ride — be it January or whenever — everyone should have a copy of this book just so we can tell someone else years from now, Yeah, it’s good, but it was way worse back then. To the hardened cynic, maybe that’s the only praise good satire earns, but Billionaire Island deserves at least that.