Sit Right Back for the Fateful Tale of 'Billionaire Island'
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
| All but the 1% are voted off this island... |
When I first saw social media about the 2020 Billionaire Island from AHOY Comics, I scrolled on by because the title made me think of sleazy, campy, reality television shows. It wasn't until I saw the cover for issue #5 that I paid attention to this gem of socio-political satire from one of my favorite writers, Mark Russell, and one of my favorite artists, Steve Pugh.
The image of man, draped in a flag, wearing a duck visor, sitting in front of the Presidential Seal definitely caught my attention.
It also made me think of certain other images from recent years: That event in 2019 when Donald Trump hugged, kissed, and caressed the American flag...
...That moment a few months later when Trump stood in front of an altered - one might say "fake" - presidential seal...
...And, any number of moments when Trump's hair was caught blowing in the wind (looks a bit like a duck's bill, don't you think?)...
Fortunately, I became aware of the genius of Billionaire Island just in time to pre-order the TPB - and was so glad I did. There are plenty of online reviews of the comic that can give you a sense of its biting satire, which is particularly critical of American capitalism, so I won't go into a lot of detail here (though I will mention that Russell's knack for political satire, as found in The Flintstones, The Snagglepuss Chronicles, and Prez, is discussed throughout the forthcoming Politics in the Gutters). But, whereas most of these reviews focus on how Billionaire Island eviscerates the "one-percent," they don't indicate just how up-to-the-minute the commentary really is.
Set in the extremely near future, the world is at the brink of total collapse from "War. Environmental devastation. A pandemic" (p. 98, emphasis mine). So, the nation's wealthiest build an artificial island as a refuge for survival, which they sell to the masses as being for the benefit of humankind - even though the rest of humanity will be left to their doom. The island, incidentally, is named "Freedom Unlimited," which is abbreviated /ahem/ "F.U." The plot is depressingly plausible, at least insofar as it serves as a poignant allegory for America's elite receiving life-saving COVID treatments not accessible to regular folx.
To prevent illegal entrance to the island, a prison is built using low-cost immigrant labor. Of course, the immigrants (who are all depicted as BIPOC in contrast to the very White billionaire founders) don't meet the financial qualifications for island residency and are promptly imprisoned in the very same same place they had just built - a not so subtle metaphor for the building of the socio-politico-economics of the United States through slave labor and the exploitation of BIPOC immigrants who even if not imprisoned or enslaved have been systemically denied full citizenship access and/or privileges. Though the topic gets only one page in the 138-page book, its deliberative and unblinking inclusion echoes the cries of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations throughout 2020 that called for, in the words of TIME Magazine, "America's long overdue awakening to systemic racism."
Of course, in such a contemporary political romp, there are digs at the news media, too. A couple scenes of financial programming remind me of CNN's Jim Cramer and Mad Money, who Jon Stewart famously criticized in 2009. And there is right-wing radio host, wearing a red ball cap, hinting at Trump's admiration for Rush Limbaugh. The shock jock plays a pivotal role in helping the 1% maintain power by convincing the masses that an attack on elite corporations is an attack on American values. Echoing the culture wars of the 201os, the pundit maligns scientists, journalists, "eggheads," "soft-boys," and "metrosexuals."
There are many other notable highlights of Billionaire Island - Easter eggs aplenty for fans for sci-fi, cli-fi, and apocalyptic fiction, for shrewd observers of pop culture, and for political nerds. No spoilers here, but I will leave you with one final thought from the book's closing narration: "How do we solve the problem that is ourselves?" (p. 138).
~Christina M. Knopf
27 November 2020