Smash Pages Q&A: Mark Russell on ‘Billionaire Island’

The writer of ‘Second Coming’ discusses his new release from Ahoy Comics, which imagines an island where the rich escape from the end of the world.

Mark Russell has made a name for himself as one of the leading satirists in comics and a deeply subversive writer. I think it’s fair to say that no one envisioned The Flintstones or Snagglepuss the way that Russell wrote them, as these complex, thoughtful and tragic stories that addressed social issues in such pointed ways.

In addition to those books, there’s the two books where, with Shannon Wheeler, he reinterpreted The Bible (God is Disappointed in You, Apocrypha Now). He also wrote The Wonder Twins series for DC, which recently wrapped up, and Second Coming, which was originally going to be published by Vertigo, but the company dropped the series about Jesus becoming roommates with the world’s mightiest superhero. 

Russell is back with a new series from Ahoy Comics, Billionaire Island. Taking place in 2044, it concerns an artificial island where the wealthiest can take their money and avoid the problems that come from dealing with humanity – and all the problems that the wealthy created. It is funny and outrageous – and someone is probably working on how to build such an island as we speak. I spoke with Russell about the book, being outrageous and taking guidance from Winston Churchill.

Where did the idea for Billionaire Island come from?

A lot of articles started showing up about “bug-out bunkers” in New Zealand, and escape yachts and billionaires buying private islands in remote places, and I was just sort of struck by the cynicism of it all. I felt like it just sort of laid bare the argument we were all told growing up that we should allow people to accrue massive fortunes and not pay any taxes on it because they’ll do a better job of taking care of us than any of our own institutions. The truth, apparently, is why would they do any of that when they can secure their own survival for a fraction of the cost? Why would we trust them to care about the end of the world when, for them, it represents little more than an extended vacation?

Now some people might think that this is outrageous satire and others think, well, at least one person is actively planning this as we speak.

It’s an exaggeration, but not by all that much. I’d set out to write a goofy satire, but it’s getting harder by the day to outflank the sheer absurdity and cynicism of the real world.

We talked when Second Coming came out, and I remember you said “Believe it or not, I don’t set out to shock anybody.” Does that still hold true in this comic?

Completely. I never set out to shock anybody. I set out to talk about the things I think about the most in as blunt and forthright a way as possible. Though, admittedly, some people find that in and of itself to be shocking.

What was the challenge here, because you’re not building off or playing with characters who are archetypes. You’re crafting the world and the characters from the ground up.

Normally, I work with licensed characters so there’s this short-cut. You can borrow on the cultural equity these characters had with people before you came along. You don’t have that if you’re writing a creator-owned title (unless, of course, you’re writing about Jesus Christ), so you have to build that connection to your characters from scratch. But, I find that whether you’re writing characters you just created or characters that have been around for decades, the process by which you create connections between them and the reader is more or less the same. Present a character in their vulnerability and be honest about the cost of their survival.

Related to that, it is a great concept, but how did you decide on the point of view characters and the way into the story – both your way into crafting the story and how to introduce readers to it?

I think that’s just it. You give each character a point of view. A reason for feeling or thinking the way they do, even if what they think and do is reprehensible. And then let the readers decide who’s right and who’s wrong. Because no one sees themselves as evil. At worst, we see ourselves as “justified.”

I don’t want to spoil the hamster cage, but I have to ask, did you wonder, “Is this too heavy handed a metaphor?” And what made you go, “Nah,” and run with it?

Winston Churchill once said that you don’t make a point with a feather, you make it with a sledgehammer. Personally, I’ve never seen the point of a subtle metaphor, unless you’re embarrassed by what you have to say. The hamster cage was the strongest and clearest metaphor I could come up with, therefore it was the best.

When the drones protecting the island were introduced, I kept thinking, “Why not large balls protecting the island?” So I was always on board with being over the top, admittedly.

The Prisoner is one of my all-time favorite shows and, now that you mention it, probably exerts a heavy subconscious influence on Billionaire Island.

The book is set in 2044. Why did you decide to open by stating the year? Is that helpful for you? Do you think it helps the readers or can it have a distancing effect by stating a year? 

It was a somewhat arbitrary choice for the near future. I wrote this series in 2019, so 2044 was exactly a quarter-century later. There’s no good reason for picking a specific year other than to sear it in people’s minds that this is the near future. One most of the people reading this series (fingers crossed) will be alive to experience. That, like it or not, this is your problem.

You’re re-teaming with Steve Pugh for this book. There’s a lot of reasons why you’d want to work with him again, but what was your collaboration like for this book, and was it different this time around?

We know each other better, so there was less communication overall, I think. We sort of get each other. Like a married couple for whom the romance is gone, but the understanding is there.

After Second Coming, what’s kept you working with Ahoy and the team there? What do you like about the people and how things work there?

I like working with Tom and Hart, and they tend to let me get away with whatever I want, which is a pretty effective recipe for keeping me around.

So what can we look forward to in the future issues of the book? What’s coming up?

There’s a movie studio on Billionaire Island that hires all the disgraced actors who can no longer work in Hollywood. It’s literally called “Don’t Give A Shit Studios.” And a couple of the issues start with film trailers for movies being released by Don’t Give A Shit Studios.

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