“All The Billionaires Ended Up With Terrible Hair As A Kind Of Class Identifier”: Talking With Mark Russell And Steve Pugh About ‘Billionaire Island’
by Olly MacNamee
Olly MacNamee: Gentlemen, AHOY Comics have only gone and got the band back together. again. How does it feel working together again after some time?
Mark Russell: The good thing about working with an artist you’ve worked with before, particularly someone who gets your sensibility the way Steve gets mine, is that you don’t have to think too much about your art notes. You can write minimal notes and trust them to know what to do. So, at the very least, it saves time.
Steve Pugh: Feels great! As Mark says, there’s a trust there. I know the script is going to be golden, and it’s my job to run with the spirit and intent of the scene and make sure it makes it to the page and then pass that on to Chris Chuckry to enliven.
OM: Has a collaboration between the two of you been on the cards for a while? How did this project come about in the first place?
MR: No, Billionaire Island came first, then the collaboration. Tom Peyer suggested Steve for this project, which I hadn’t even considered a possibility. I figured Steve would too big to work with me after Breaking Glass, but luckily he was available and apparently needed the money.
SP: Yeah, it was almost an accident. There was always a hope to hook up again for a project, and I always choose a project by who I’ll be working with, but the pieces fell into place with this one.
OM: I think I know you both well enough to say you share a similar sense of humour. I imagine that’s a great help when creating a satirical comic like Billionaire Island?
MR: Yeah. One of the things I’ve had to learn when writing scripts in the last few years is to include the emotional states of the characters and to describe the level of darkness or levity I’m going for. And the reason I’ve had to learn that is because Steve got it without any explanation. I was spoiled early on. I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful artists, but Steve’s brain just sort of resonates on a similar frequency to mine. I hope I can say that without being insulting.
SP: I think Mark’s scripts use a lot of subtle tone shifts and acting that are pivotal to making the scenes work. It’s sometimes like scoring a movie, with each character having themes which can go from playful to heavy noir, yet keep their identity and not throw the reader out of the moment by going too broad.
OM: Now, while we have a strong tradition of biting satire in our comics here in the UK, outside of Mad Magazine and the like, it’s not something you come across too often in mainstream comics in the States. Given how AHOY Comics took up Second Coming, as well as some of their other offerings, do you both think we’re seeing a revival in such comics? I mean, looking at the world today, there seems to be no better time for such voices.
MR: Yeah, the world is in such a bad way right now that I have a hard time understanding why anyone is writing about anything else. I mean, I’m glad they ARE, because otherwise there’d be nowhere else to go in our minds, but to me, it sort of feels like talking about baseball on the deck of the Titanic. A metaphor I use in Billionaire Island is someone in a river clutching a log to remain afloat. There’s safety in clutching that log, at least until you see that there’s a waterfall ahead. The goal of satire is to convince people that it’s time to let go of the log and swim to shore. But it’s hard to do because most people will hold onto that log even as it goes over the waterfall because the log is comfortable. It’s always worked for them up to this point.
SP: Keeps you sane, I guess. I think there’s value in seeing someone else is noticing the craziness too.
OM: Steve, I know that you based your Fred Flintstone on UK comedian Tommy Cooper, but are there any real-life influences hiding behind Billionaire Island’s very own Rick Canto, or any other characters in this story?
SP: Rick’s look mainly came out of his personality on the page. I saw him as kind of a Roman child emperor, a Caligula with his own floating palace. A mean kid’s face with a weird hairline (I don’t know why, but all the billionaires ended up with terrible hair as a kind of class identifier). There is a character later on who I based on a sunburned old festival dude filtered through Buster Keaton, and there’s a film producer who looks like my nightmare of me.
OM: Mark, while it’s clear from your writing of Canto that he is an amalgamation of all that’s worse about the global billionaire community, were there any specific billionaire boogiemen you had in mind? Or, are you even at liberty to say?After all, Alexa, Siri or even Google could be recording this!
MR: I didn’t want to base him too squarely on any single figure because I thought people might see it as being a goof on one bad apple, rather than commentary on the dangers of extreme inequality on principle. Rick Canto gives me an efficiency in storytelling because he not only owns a social media company, but the world’s largest food corporation as well.
OM: While it’s a world that has been somewhat exaggerated for satirical effect, there are serious themes being explored. As well as the disparity of wealth, there are clear aims taken at the ongoing environmental crisis slowly cooking our Earth, scarcity of employment and tax avoidance, amongst other targets. What else can we expect from upcoming issues, without letting the fat cat out of the bag, so to speak?
MR: We also take a few shots at private prisons and xenophobia. I saw a thing about a restaurant in New York that serves gold-plated chicken wings, so I put a restaurant that only serves gold-plated food on Billionaire Island. To which, Trent observes, “You people are so rich you’re literally shitting gold.”
SP: There’s a bunch of fake movies included as background colour that are definitely going to be made for real. We should pitch them, because someone will.
OM: Speaking of Second Coming – also out this week in trade paperback – now the dust has settled, how has it felt for this little series-that-could to be met with such wide-spread critical acclaim? It’s certainly a far cry from it’s initial reception from certain quarters of the media…
MR: The acclaim has been nice, but it’s something that can only ever be hoped for, never expected. What I did expect was for people to maybe withhold judgment until they’d actually read it. So now that it’s out and people can read it for themselves, it’s gratifying to see that people are getting it. For the most part, they understand that it’s not an assassination attempt, but a comic that tries to ask serious questions about the Christian faith and the meaning of Christ’s teachings.
OM: And, congratulations to you too, Steve, on the hit Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass graphic novel from last year. How was that experience, working with the amazing Mariko Tamaki. It was a huge hit with my own teenage daughter, but you must be pleased with its own reception with fans and critics alike?
SP: Yeah, I’ve had a fantastic run of luck with collaborators on books! Mariko’s Harley was so on point with the kind of book, and characters I wanted to be drawing and I think everyone just put in 300% to make it happen. Mariko actually knew my work through reading Mark’s Flintstones so that was great!
OM: Finally, then, and possibly courting controversy; with leaders in both the White House and our own No.10 Downing Street being accused of racism, and adopting policies by both governments favouring the rich rather than the most vulnerable, is there any better way to deal with these outrages than to laugh? I mean, it’s either that or crying, isn’t it?
MR: Well, and hopefully by voting. And challenging the traditional institutions of wealth and power. The danger of satire is that people will have a good laugh and then decide that nothing more need be done. That is not what I want people’s take away to be at all. I don’t want people to feel like hopeless passengers of their own destiny, but rather to feel like they’d better grab the reins and fast because the people we’ve entrusted with control of the world’s resources are not going to save them.
SP: Most people are pretty okay. Most people just want to build something and share it. It’s so easy for one guy to bring it all down, that if there weren’t hugely outnumbered there wouldn’t be one stone left sitting on top of another one. I mean, that’s a kind of hope.
You can read our review of Billionaire Island #1 here, available now from AHOY Comics