AHOY Comics Deep-Dive: Billionaire Island by Katie Liggera

Ahoy! Welcome (back) to my column where I praise the most intelligent, witty, and hilariously smart comics released by AHOY Comics. I have entirely too much to say about every line AHOY puts out. Thankfully, CFC here has given me the opportunity to rave about AHOY Comics as much as I want! Without further ado, let’s deep-dive into another one of my top three AHOY Comic titles, Billionaire Island.

Billionaire Island has to be the most fitting comic to parallel the saga that is the entire year of 2020. Not only does the comic talk about a virus, but the individual issue publication was interrupted by the COVID-19 virus. Oh, and in the meanwhile, all the billionaires became wealthier than ever. 

Even without the insanity of the past year, I still think I would have enjoyed this comic to the same extent. The satirical genius, Mr. Mark Russell, merely witnesses the continual absurdity surrounding us and transfers current events into an extended metaphor for reality. Also, I am a huge fan of all of Mark Russell’s comics. It’s not the least bit surprising that Billionaire Island was inducted into ‘Top 2020 Comics’ lists. 

During this whole virus/lockdown/general craziness, I have seriously struggled with my mental health. I was already enrolled in an entirely online program, but it was still stressful having to complete my last three semesters worried about a lack of income — and the possibility of contracting a deadly disease. My entire life, I’ve exhibited two behaviors that have made this year especially difficult: I’m a germaphobe and I have extreme anxiety. A lot of my anxiety stems from being unable to relax without feeling productive, as well as wanting to have money. Even when I was a kid, I was obsessed with saving any money I received. I didn’t like to buy things (and still don’t) and would lose my mind if a ten dollar bill accidentally dropped out of my pocket. So, the pandemic has really been a double whammy for someone like me, who feels fulfilled only when I have things to do and cash increasing that digital number on my bank account app. 

Enter comics. I got a few trades for my birthday in July and remembered that I used to read comics all the time. And I loved comics. High school was also a nightmare for my general social anxiety and self-appointed fear of failure, so I had a book or comic book with me at all times at school to avoid the inevitable conversation. Skip ahead to now, where I have finally graduated from college, and I have read a few hundred (or more) comic book issues in the last six months. When reading through all of the Hanna-Barbera Beyond titles a few months ago, I was shocked by the levity and poignancy of both The Flintstones (2016) and Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (2018). Both were written by Mark Russell! I quickly set a goal to read every comic Russell has released (I’m still working on that list).

All of this background information exists solely to explain the importance of Billionaire Island in my own life this year. Comics and writing about comics have saved me from spiraling down a self-deprecating hole of perfectionism several times this year. Billionaire Island touches on classism, xenocentrism, and most importantly, the high stakes coupled with hoarding wealth. I can honestly say that I felt no guilt at all about spending money to purchase this lovely trade. Hopefully, this passionate review of Billionaire Island will resonate with you as much as it did with me. 

Firstly, the transcendent team from The Flintstones (2016) of writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh work in perfect tandem again in Billionaire Island. Chris Chuckry’s colors play a substantial role in communicating the varying tones and socio-economic divergences evident. Rob Steen, the AHOY Comics letterer, might as well do the speech bubbles and dialogue boxes for every comic that exists. AHOY Comics creates teams for their issues that always deliver in every category. Applaud them. 

Billionaire Island opens with overflowing images, dialogue, and exposition that takes ahold of your attention and screams “PAY ATTENTION”. And of course, you comply, because this story only gets more engrossing as each issue zips along. 

Let’s also acknowledge the gorgeous color palette immediately introduced. The tantalizing blue hues of the ocean and vehement red surrounding the bomber are intoxicating to look at. Set in 2044, this slightly futuristic world is not so far off from our own. And an island where only billionaires hoard their money and hide away from the working class seems — unfortunately — entirely plausible. Also, the dude in the pink bunny suit looks so incredibly irritated. Those costumes look horribly hot and uncomfortable.

Billionaire Island stars hawaiin-shirt, bermuda-shorts-wearing Rick Canto. Even though he’s the prime antagonist, his witty quips and stretched facial expressions make him an amicable villain. He’s almost endearing, even though he’s a major douchebag who wants to murder anyone beneath his elite billionaire status. But look at that guy! He’s like a used car salesman you hate but he preys on your impressionable nature. He’ll eventually start to charm you with his carefully scintillating words and then you’re walking out with a new car and he’s pocketing your cash before you blink. In other words, Rick Canto is a perfectly executed villain. 

Billionaire Island places high value on bluntness in its satire. It pulls all the punches and doesn’t let up, even on the final page of Issue #6. The main plot revolves around a food supply company called Aggrocrop and its murky connection with releasing a sterility virus that killed some immigrant refugees. Rick Canto worked with fellow billionaire, Aggrocorp CEO Corey Spagnola, to create Freedom Unlimited (or the unofficial colloquial title, Billionaire Island). If you didn’t catch it, Freedom Unlimited’s initials are F.U., so thank you Mark Russell for these never ending easter eggs. All the billionaires are planning to isolate themselves on this island as a direct result of the impending food shortage, climate change, and desertification of land on Earth. Russell emphasizes this direct reflection of our current day crisis in Billionaire Island. We continue to remain willfully ignorant or vastly uncaring as a response to these global issues. Russell’s comic reinforces the magnitude of these huge economic problems that billionaires could contribute their money and resources toward. Billionaire Island wants you to understand these issues without letting satire detract from the thematic significance in the comic. 

Rick Canto and his motley crew of billionaire scumbags are the antagonists that will leave you seething with rage. Shelly Bly and Trent Arrow are the protagonists you’ll root for and respect. 

Fearlessly persistent reporter Shelly Bly wants to unearth the secrets of Billionaire Island, and she’s an infinitely compelling character. When Canto dupes her into entrapment in a human hamster cage, Shelly stops at nothing to figure a way out of her horrible situation. She’s a journalist who won’t face defeat without a fight, and I love her resilience. Shelly is a conflict-resolution mastermind. I desperately envy her problem-solving abilities and outgoingness. 

Shelly’s fellow inmates are more than compliant with their inexplicably humorous fate. Pugh draws grown, business-oriented adults running around on a hamster wheel and drinking out of a water tube. The framing of panels and dialogue boxes on page 14 in Issue #1 gives readers a complete understanding of the mental degradation the working-class has to endure. Middle-class lifestyles are cutthroat and time-consuming for little reward and financial gain. It appears all too easy for Shelly’s companions to lean into a life with free money and food. We’d probably say we would want to escape the life of a hamster, but in reality, most people might come to terms with an easygoing life inside a cage. Man, I can’t get enough of these panels. Running on a giant hamster wheel is probably pretty exciting. 

Trent is your relatable everyman that murders in the name of justice for his family and dually seeks to take down the uber elite on Billionaire Island. Trent reveals that his entire family had been working in a refugee camp. His wife and children ate the same food as the refugees, but only his family were unlucky enough to have antigens in them that fatally reacted to the trial sterility virus enacted by Corey Spagnola’s Aggrocorp crew. His family died at the hands of Spagnola, so Spagnola dies at the hands of Trent. Trent’s tragic story and the inequity of immigrants immediately allow you to empathize with Trent. He’s extremely tough. Watching Trent fight is a fluid, beautiful battle. But Russell also shows that Trent is a flawed individual. His motives, though initially fueled by an ambiguously justifiable plan for revenge, become essential to his character arc. Still, Trent cares about making a difference when all the wealthy individuals around him only want to increase their own wealth. Trent’s the kind of hunter I’d like to be friends with. 

Trent’s interrogation scenes chilled me. The dialogue moves away from satire and into an emotionally-charged monologue about the vast disparities the ultra-rich have with reality. Russell dials up the intensity here so forcefully that you’ll be thinking about these words long after you finish reading Billionaire Island. When a not-so-outlandish comic bridges the gap between reality and fiction in a way that leaves you breathless, that’s a comic that needs to transcend comic fan readership. Mark Russell’s social commentary on capitalism and Steve Pugh’s unhinged, haunting artwork here should be broadcast on a billboard for all to see. 

The formidable speech given while Trent endures torture is later given comic relief with my favorite character in Billionaire Island. The revoltingly inked, Harvey Weinstein-influenced character Ron Fang informs Trent that a mysterious “Chairman” will decide whether Trent lives or dies. Not only is the “Chairman” the richest resident on Billionaire Island, but he influences open market financial decisions for billionaires everywhere. Without revealing too much, the “Chairman” concept sledgehammers home the ridiculousness of the world’s 1%. The intense angle and seriously drawn art and coloring of the Chairman’s revelation left me hysterical. The Chairman might as well predict the stock market. He’s a good boy!

Billionaire Island has mass appeal, especially since only 1% of the world’s population are billionaires. Russell, Pugh, and the entire team preyed upon my emphatic vulnerability in this comic. I’ve read it several times since I bought the trade. I keep revisiting it when I need to have hope that survival in a twisted world is possible. Billionaire Island stresses the ethical importance of cultural awareness. Possessing sensibility in the face of adversity remains paramount to making a difference in, not just the society, but in our own lives. This year has felt like a fight for rationality. Billionaire Island illuminates irrational behavior and serves as a moral template to learn from. 

AHOY Comics always bring me cathartic relief, but Billionaire Island is also a call to action. I would recommend anyone to read this comic and actually contemplate the heavy thematic material. My perception of wealth and happiness were put in check. I reflected on my own issues broadcast in front of my face on comic book pages. I questioned why I felt that this comic had such a strong emotional grip on me and. Accordingly, Billionaire Island forced me to come to terms with and consider my outlook on my own self-worth, ideologies about wealth, and compassion for others. I hold Billionaire Island in the highest regard for its brashness,sincerity, and urgency. If nothing else, it will make you laugh. AHOY Comics will always make you laugh.

I’ll have another recommendation on the next AHOY Comic Deep-Dive! Anchors away!

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