by Jarrod Jones. There’s a flashback sequence towards the end of Billionaire Island I keep coming back to. It’s a moment where Freedom Unlimited—the conglomerate haven that serves as the backdrop to the comedy series from AHOY Comics—has finally been constructed. Assembled there are the people who control the world’s largest construction company, food provider, and its most productive mines, along with the man who designed FU (which, hyuk). We read the dialogue and realize that, for this wall-eyed architect, there’s a relief in knowing that these charmed folks will survive the collapse of society and go on to rebuild it.
Then comes the knife’s twist, the whole gorgeously constructed point of this flashback: these fabulously wealthy people are the folks who simply inherited these corporations. They have zero knowledge of how these industries function—let alone any idea how one would go about “rebuilding” anything, forget about human society. Following this discovery comes a response from Falco Jakes, that architect I just mentioned: “Well, even so… I’m sure the human race is in good hands.” Brutal. Just brutal.
If I had to pick a moment that best represented Billionaire Island, that flashback would be it. Mark Russell, Steve Pugh, Chris Chuckry, and Rob Steen’s miniseries, among 2020’s best comics and one of the best satirical books I’ve read in over a decade, throws punches at the State of Things in our world today with surgical precision. You laugh at the things that happen in Billionaire Island, but you wince a bit, too.
Because the truth of the matter is that we’re being driven towards oblivion by terrible people just like the rich buffoons of Billionaire Island and nobody seems to really notice—because the ride’s taking place on this not-entirely-crappy pleasure cruise where we’re allowed to play with all our toys. A grim view, and not an inaccurate one. I ask Mark Russell, comics’ most acute satirist, if he ever feels like he’s competing with the absurdity of real life, and his answer is as direct and to the point as the comedy he writes.
“I’m not trying to outflank the ridiculousness of our rapidly deteriorating civilization,” he says. “I’m simply trying to be as blunt about what I think is happening as possible which is, by its nature, going to be ridiculous. Subtlety is fine when you’re writing poetry or a comedy of manners or something like that. But I think of Billionaire Island as being more genetically related to airplane emergency instructions. When you’re trying to make a point that you believe to be a matter of life and death, subtlety goes out the window and you want to be as loud and clear as possible.”
Now that Billionaire Island is in the rearview Russell’s returned to his other AHOY title, the controversial and equally on-point Second Coming, reuniting with artists Richard Pace, Leonard Kirk, and Andy Troy on a story that attempts to naviage the morality of modern society when our saviors often aren’t (or, less often, more than) what they’ve been made out to be. It’s terrific.
Issue #2 of Second Coming: Only Begotten Son drops January 20, and ahead of its release DoomRocket spoke with Mark Russell about Billionaire Island, Jesus and superheroes, the concept of “hope comedy”, and where all of it stands during these dark days.
1. You’ve said that writing ‘Billionaire Island’ was a cathartic experience in dealing with the absurd nature of our modern lives. Now that it’s done, bound in a trade collection and put on the shelf, how do you feel about… well, life, right now? Has the catharsis waned at all?
Mark Russell: I feel pretty much the same way about life that I felt before. Writing doesn’t really change how I feel about the things I write about, though it does make me feel heard. And not alone. And that is something.
2. The last five years have been bonkers, Mark, and not in a fun way. But when I read ‘Billionaire Island’ again I got the feeling that this book could have been produced without necessarily having to experience the last half-decade. This could have been written ten years ago, our societal trajectory hasn’t deviated from its course in so long. (If it ever did, but that’s a different interview.) But with Trump and Trumpism and QAnon and all the other utterly absurd crap we have to put up with alongside the usual brand of corruption and greed—when you’re writing comedy, do you ever feel like you’re competing to out-ridiculous reality?
No, because reality would win that fight every time. I’m not trying to outflank the ridiculousness of our rapidly deteriorating civilization. I’m simply trying to be as blunt about what I think is happening as possible which is, by its nature, going to be ridiculous. Subtlety is fine when you’re writing poetry or a comedy of manners or something like that. But I think of Billionaire Island as being more genetically related to airplane emergency instructions. When you’re trying to make a point that you believe to be a matter of life and death, subtlety goes out the window and you want to be as loud and clear as possible. But in an ecological disaster or a civilizational collapse, that “emergency” can last for decades, so after a while it stops feeling like an emergency. It feels more like the normal patter of everyday life. But it’s a very dangerous thing to get acclimated to.
3. How has the overall reception for ‘Billionaire Island’ been like for you? Has there been any instances where you felt people might have missed the point of the book?
I’m actually pretty well pleased with the book. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who missed the point and infinitely more who simply didn’t care to read it, but that’s okay. I didn’t write for them. I wrote for the people for whom this moment in history might also feel like a log ride over a cliff.
4.I mean, most of us seem to take for granted the dire state of things and hope against hope that these various disasters “will work out on their own”, but then there are folks who pretend that everything’s just hunky-dory. Harebrained hope despite the knowledge that everything is a disaster and those who hold all the cards have no clue what to do with them. How do you write people who are so willingly disconnected with reality when it’s… well, it’s really like this?
I try to write these fictional characters as the somewhat thinly veiled spokespersons of the people in real life who are essentially saying the same things. I think what I try to do in writing a satirical analog for a person or an archetype that exists in real life is to ask myself what would go through that person’s mind if they were truly honest with themselves and then have the made-up character say the quiet parts out loud.
5. Let’s talk about writing gags. One of the unsung aspects of ‘Billionaire Island’ is the stuff you and Steve cook up as “media” in this world. (“‘Booty Kill!’—In theaters this summer!” had me falling out of my chair.) When you’re constructing these one-page or one-panel gags that take a poke at things like influencer culture or billionaire worship or your typical online streaming dross, how do you condense all your feelings about the subject into a joke? Do you grapple with your contempt of these things, if “contempt” is the appropriate word I want to use here, when you draft these gags?
This may be a blessing or a curse, but a lot of times I’ll have a funny idea for a story, but then I’ll realize that I’ve completely exhausted the idea in one page. And sometimes, even a page is too much room for what I had thought was a good idea, so I’ll cut it down to a panel. And sometimes I realize that even that is too generous, so it becomes a background gag. That’s what most of these gags are. Ideas that didn’t really pan out enough to walk under their own power. These comics that have densely packed gags in them are, in fact, dark testimonials to my failure.
6. On that tack, let’s talk about the artists you’ve spent a good chunk of the last couple years working with, Steve Pugh, Richard Pace and Leonard Kirk. Depicting irreverence can be tricky in comics, but nailing straight-faced buffoonery takes capital-T talent. And across the board the comedic timing in both ‘Billionaire Island’ and ‘Second Coming’ feels simultaneously effortless and deliberate—naturally you’re the common denominator here, so how are you drafting scripts for these artists? Do you change your approach to detail in your drafts depending on the artist you’re working with in the moment? I can’t see Steve or Rich & Leonard needing a whole lot of guidance.
Not really. I just write what I write. I think the important thing when working with an artist, in particular a good artist like those guys, is to leave them as much room as possible to work with your ideas. Don’t get too granular with the details and don’t cram too many elements into a single panel. If a detail doesn’t need to be in a panel, I usually leave it out of the script so they have more freedom in how to draw it.
7. Expanding on that last question, there was an example I wanted to touch on from last month’s ‘Second Coming: Only Begotten Son’ #1: Sunstar’s mom, Zoldana, is gobsmacked by how small his escape rocket is—and who can blame her? Pace & Kirk’s rendering of said rocket is hilariously dainty. How does a moment like that come together?
A lot of what I talk about in the art notes is the emotional state of the character. So I might make a note at how underwhelmed Zoldana is when she sees his rocket and then leave it up to Richard and Leonard to come up with a rocket that warrants that reaction.
8. I’d like to jump over to your next volume of ‘Second Coming’, ‘Only Begotten Son’. The first volume was definitely a genesis point for Jesus’ story (with my apologies), and guessing by this first issue ‘Only Begotten Son’ feels like it’s laying more storytelling foundation underneath Sunstar. What’s so great about this is that it establishes why this Superman-type is so down-to-earth. Not a “Kansas farm boy” kind of thing, but just… this normal guy, trying to make a difference, not exactly the best at it, perhaps. This may sound insane but I genuinely would like to know: for you, which character is easier to write for, Jesus or Sunstar?
Definitely Sunstar. In part because he’s less philosophical than Jesus, but also because a lot of his panels are taken up with flying and punching sound effects.
9. What does writing ‘Second Coming’ feel like for you after having written such a wild satire like ‘Billionaire Island’? With aspirational characters like Jesus and Superman operating as the molds for your characters in ‘SC’, is there an antithesis to satirizing the miasma of human ignorance? What’s “hope comedy” look like?
I read once that laughter evolved in chimps to announce the passing of danger. Like maybe a chimp was terrified by a leopard passing under the tree, but then the leopard kept walking without ever looking up, so the chimp emitted a sound out of relief that the leopard was stupid. And this is the sound that became laughter in humans. So, while the danger isn’t passing us by anytime soon, I suppose for “hope comedy” to work on a visceral level, it should probably be rooted in the belief and the desire that it someday will. We laugh, not to diminish the terror, but to convince ourselves we will survive it.
10. I’d like to wrap this up with a general question: what is the function of the superhero today, do you think? Do you think they have the same potential to inspire real people as they once did? Or has some of the shine come off with the assembly line of endless glossy superhero multimedia projects? I mean, it’s just a matter of the right superhero yarn hitting the right person at the right moment in their lives, isn’t it?
I think the value of the superhero is, and probably always has been, that of a thought experiment. A chance for people, at a very young age, to start asking themselves what it would take to set the world right and what that would entail. If they had the power, how would they use it? At least, that’s a lot more interesting to me than professional wrestling with characters who can fly.
The first volumes of ‘Billionaire Island’ and ‘Second Coming’ are available now. ‘Second Coming: Only Begotten Son’ #2 hits stores January 20. Head over to comicsahoy.com for more info or contact your LCS to snag copies of your own.
Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Billionaire Island’ TPB, courtesy of AHOY Comics!
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