For today’s review, I’d like to first take a minute to talk a little bit about the nature of satire, and why writing a good piece of satire is an incredibly challenging task. It requires the author to understand their issue, their audience, and their society in such a way that they can mock all three, while at the same time produce thoughtful contemplation from their readers and encourage those same readers to attempt to affect that change. Done poorly and you end up with little more than a shallow spoof or mean-spirited sarcasm. Done well and you can change the world.
In the world of comics, there is perhaps no more famous work of satire than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen. Now, I say it is a satire but sadly that is a fact that far, far too many people seem to have missed. When you look at this team that Moore has assembled, you do not see a noble group of heroes, but instead, characters that are hopelessly damaged and end up causing more pain and suffering than they actually prevent. They are losers and sociopaths, and Moore never, ever meant them to be looked to as heroic or admirable, but instead as failures.
In no character is this more obvious than Rorschach.
Rorschach is, to be blunt, a lunatic extremist, and Moore intended him to be viewed as such. Rorschach is an emotionally damaged man, clearly suffering from extreme PTSD, which leads him to become committed to his own demented, fascist vision of what the world should be. He is a man who will happily murder anyone he deems to be morally corrupt as part of his plan to make the world better, and while committing these killings he clings to his own sense of moral superiority. He has fantasies where he envisions all of the people he feels he is better than begging him to be their saviour and then delights in denying them salvation, like a twisted version of Christ. He is a character that drips with brutality, fascism, and hypocrisy, and for creator Alan Moore, that was the whole point.
See, for Moore, Rorschach was a satire of Steve Ditko’s creations Mr. A and (the much more well known today) Question. Ditko was an Objectivist, a follower of the philosophical teachings of Ayn Rand. Ditko wanted to explore the boundaries of Objectivism and see what it would be like for a person to truly live a life in line with that philosophy’s precepts. The results were characters with very black and white views of the world and of criminal justice, lacking any shades of grey, or space for compromise.
For Moore, that debate was stupid, and he has been quoted as saying “I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy laughable. It was a ‘white supremacist dreams of the master race,’ burnt in an early-20th century form. Her ideas didn’t really appeal to me, but they seemed to be the kind of ideas that people would espouse, people who might secretly believe themselves to be part of the elite and not part of the excluded majority.”
And yet, decades later when HBO did a mini-series set in the Watchmen universe and set up a group of white supremacists as Rorschach fans, people expressed outrage over how one of their “favourite characters” was being portrayed and accused the producers and writers of misrepresenting who the character was.
Moore never wanted Rorschach to be someone’s favourite character. He wanted him to be mocked at best and despised at worst, but instead, he’s seen by many today as just another dark and gritty anti-hero, admired for his violent approach and personal code. How did things go so wrong? How did he go from being Moore’s harsh criticism of superhero and objectivist morality to the poster child for grimdark heroes?
Obviously there are plenty of reasons for this shift in our perspective, not the least of which is the way that director Zack Snyder deified the character in his film adaptation of the graphic novel. The fact that Snyder is a fan of Ayn Rand and her ideologies no doubt playing a big part in that, but to lay the blame on a single film like that misses the seismic shift caused by the original work itself. Comic heroes got darker and grittier in the ’80s and began looking more like Rorschach. Characters like The Punisher and Frank Miller’s Batman helped make the violent anti-hero seem more palatable, and so newer readers going back to Watchmen after being raised on those works, and many others like them, now brought their current cultural and social understandings of what superhero was to the work and interpreted him much differently than Moore intended. Rorschach looked like any other anti-hero, and in many ways, he seemed tame in comparison to some of the other characters filling the comic shelves.
Moore wrote a dark and twisted tale to satirize where he saw comics going, and by doing so ended up writing one of the defining comics of that very moment. Ironic, but also telling of the issues with writing satire. Interpretation is everything, and time will always, always affect how it is interpreted.
Now, I could spend all day picking apart the issues with satire, but I feel like this article is already running long so it’s time to get to the point. Today I want to talk about Mark Russell’s Billionaire Island, an ambitious, but somewhat flawed modern-day satire. I want to dissect what works in this story so far and what doesn’t, and ultimately see if I can prove that Billionaire Island has enough going for it that it warrants a read. Will it stand the test of time? Does it have what it takes to affect social change? Or will it, like Watchmen and countless other satires that came before it, be destined to be misunderstood by future generations? Let’s find out.
Here’s the blurb: A savage satire reuniting the critically acclaimed team behind DC’s The Flintstones, Mark Russell (Second Coming) and Steve Pugh (Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass), in an all-new creator-owned series! Welcome to Billionaire Island, where anything goes…if you can afford it. But the island’s ultra-rich inhabitants are about to learn that their ill-gotten gains come at a very high price.
Right off the bat, this is a series with some serious talent behind it. Russell’s work on The Flinstones has been widely hailed for its intelligent and biting satire, and Breaking Glass is probably my favourite of all of the DC young adult retellings so far. This is a solid team and both of their work has shown tremendous amounts of clever satire. Russell is a great writer, and I have read and enjoyed a lot of his work, most recently his work on Wonder Twins and Second Coming. Both were very funny books that did a nice job of displaying Russell’s sense of humour, as well as highlighting his social and political views. (Wonder Twins btw was one of the favourite books from the Wonder Line that Bendis helmed).
Breaking Glass, meanwhile, had some of the most visually interesting art I have seen in a while, and Pugh should be lauded for his brilliant use of page layout and colouring. It was a visual treat that played with conventions, and the new Harley design was so solid that I now want a statue of it to put in my collection.
So what have these two fantastic talents created with their latest work? Well…
Billionaire Island begins with a tremendous amount of potential. I like the idea of the wealthy elite creating their own giant moving platform to escape the laws and regulations of the rest of the world, and with current news stories highlighting how our own 1% use offshore islands and banks to avoid laws already, this feels very timely. Creating a physical island where they literally hideout seems like a natural progression of that trend and lends itself to numerous opportunities for both satire and storytelling. Sadly, however, that potential is also where I feel this book is currently stumbling.
As the blurb says, Billionaire Island is a place where anything goes, but so far most of “anything” has been a little tame. The majority of the rich on the island are not portrayed so much as evil villains as they are entitled, narcissistic assholes. They brag about wealth, take constant selfies, mock the poor, and generally behave like rich children. Disgraced celebrities star in blockbuster films, and those who question the island elite get locked in giant hamster cages where they’re fed burgers and showered with money each day to keep them happy. The satire pokes fun but sometimes fails to really dig as hard as it could.
On one hand, I understand this choice. If the satire was too specific, I could easily become outdated; however, by keeping a lot of the satire very general it makes it a bit confusing in some places to understand what exactly is being mocked. It’s hard to be motivated to make changes when you’re confused about what specifically needs to be changed.
I’m not saying that I want Billionaire Island to go full-on Garth Ennis, but I’d like to see the satire be a little more realistic and a little more biting. Sometimes it feels like we are getting lost in following characters that are not as fleshed out as they could be, and issue three had some fairly heavy-handed monologuing about the environment that I both agreed with and felt was unnecessary. It just feels a little too safe. I’m not saying the humour isn’t good (The Church of Jesus Christ: Businessman made me audibly chuckle) but I’d like to see the focus move away from soft targets like pollution and internet culture to more serious social ills.
There are two main plotlines going on in Billionaire Island. The first involves Shelly Bly, a reporter who is attempting to get to the bottom of an investigation into the founder of the island, a Mark Zuckerberg-esque character named Rock Canto. He’s clearly a slimy scumbag, and Bly is looking to expose what he’s up to. In the course of her investigation, however, Canto has her tossed into the aforementioned hamster cage. She eventually escapes, although not until after she finds herself overwhelmed with frustration at the apathy of her fellow inmates and the ludicrous nature of her imprisonment. When she eventually escapes, she discovers that she has no way to actually get off the island and must figure out how she will reveal what Canto is doing to the world.
Bly’s arc is really solid, and I wish that her’s was the only oneBillionaire Island focused on. She’s a great POV character for the audience, and her reactions to the increasing lunacy she is forced to deal with are fertile soil for both satire and humour. Plus, as one of the few female characters in the book, it would have been nice to see her deal more with the inherent sexism among the wealthy elite of the island. Still, what we get of her story is solid enough and interesting enough that on the strength of her character alone I would recommend Billionaire Island.
Our second plot thread follows a Frank Castle type vigilante, complete with a dead family-related motivation, who is on the island to get revenge for what the corporations have done to him and the world. It’s not that I feel his plotline is bad, or poorly written, and a lot of the more biting humour from the book does come from him and his experiences, but overall this plotline seems to be off tonally compared to Bly’s. His arc starts off serious and violent, but by issue 3 it turns almost comically silly, in a way that just doesn’t quite seem to work in an arc dealing with a husband and father seeking revenge for the death of his family. Again, it’s not a bad story, but I wish that the first arc of this series had focused solely on Bly, and a second arc following our assassin would have been saved for the second. Both plots have a lot of good stuff in them, and I wish they would have been given the room to breathe that I feel they deserve.
Now again, I want to be very clear in that I did enjoy Billionaire Island, and if the harshest criticism I have of it is that it still has a lot of potential to explore that’s a pretty good thing. Honestly, I feel like a lot of this first arc is world-building, with the maze being set up for the proverbial rats to run around in, and I am very hopeful that there will be a second arc where we get to see that happen more. I would love to see Billionaire Island get a little more serious and tackle class division, celebrities and billionaires attempting to adopt woke culture, politics and political campaigns, and rights for women and POC. I think Russell is a very bright guy who has a lot to say about those topics, and I hope that he gets the chance to really flesh those ideas out with this world he has crafted. I’d love to see a story arc about the normal people who have to work to keep this island going, and why they continue to work for these people who despise them so much they left the mainland to get away from them. There is a lot of great potential there that I’d love to see tapped.
I also think the art on Billionaire Island is very solid. The character designs are good, and at no point did I have trouble following the story or understand the flow. Some of the best jokes in this series so far have been the visual gags, and Pugh should be praised for how wonderful his art has been. His mastery of expressions and body language serves to frequently help elevate the humour and the narrative in the same way that Gibbon’s art made Moore’s story so much better as well.
Will this book stand the test of time? Honestly, I don’t know if I can answer this. As I said, some of the humour is a little vague and I do find myself scratching my head sometimes at what the target of the mockery is supposed to be. Writing satire that is topical and biting is challenging and writing satire that will stand the test of time is even harder. Ten years from now a lot of readers coming back to this book might scratch their heads like me over a joke about Louis C.K., or not understand why eating gold is mocked. Again, I liked Billionaire Island, and really respect the work that Russell and Pugh have put into this. That’s why I’d love to see some larger social issues really addressed, to give the book the staying power I feel it deserves.
Despite some flaws and a few rough patches, Billionaire Island is a solid title that I honestly believe readers will get a lot out of. It has a good deal of potential, and I want to encourage you to pick up a copy if you can. Plus, Ahoy comics is a great and unique publisher that has been willing to take risks on new and different ideas (like Second Coming), and anything that can be done to support a publisher like that is a good thing to do!
Did you make it to the end of this monster? I know, I had a lot to say this week. Next week I might just upload a video of me giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on 5 titles.
Until then, stay safe and remember that comics are for everyone!