Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Barrier #2. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Paper Girls) with art by Marcos Martin (The Private Eye, Doctor Strange: The Oath) and colorist Muntsa Vicente (The Private Eye, She-Hulk), this long-awaited issue uses language barriers to connect the reader with the emotional experience of the alien-abducted lead characters. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Remember Barrier? The first issue of writer Brian K. Vaughan, artist Marcos Martin, and colorist Muntsa Vicente’s new comic series appeared out of the blue last December, but months passed with nothing new. Barrier disappeared as Vaughan and Martin got to work on their The Walking Dead tie-in comic (more on that later), and then, without any warning, a new issue of Barrier appeared on Panel Syndicate earlier this week, nine months after the book’s debut. That’s a long time to wait between issues, but one of the benefits of the Panel Syndicate publishing model is that the creators don’t have any set schedule. They don’t make any promises that a series will come out on a regular basis, and while that may frustrate readers who want more as quickly as possible, those readers are also paying what they want for the book so they can’t complain all that much.
Barrier is still in its very early stages, and given how significant the shift in storytelling is between the first and second issues, it’s impossible to know where the series is headed. For most of the first issue it looks like this is going to be a comic about a Texas rancher, Liddy, interacting with drug runners and migrants that use her land to cross into the United States from Mexico. Oscar is one of those migrants, and Barrier #1 splits focus between Oscar’s journey to the U.S. and Liddy’s actions across the border, with the two threads intersecting at the moment when the creative team completely upends the reader’s expectations of what kind of story is being told. Just as Liddy discovers Oscar on her property, a bright light shines down on them and they are pulled off the ground by the neon pink tractor beam of a giant spaceship, ending the first chapter with a major twist that makes the nine-month wait between issues especially cruel.
Vaughan has always been a writer fascinated with the concept of alienation—Y: The Last Man alienates the lead character from the rest of his sex, Runaways alienates teens from their parents, Saga alienates two lovers from their warring peoples—and he pushes this theme even further in the pages of Barrier. Liddy and Oscar are already feeling alienated before they’re abducted by extraterrestrials and thrown into a strange, frightening spaceship environment, and despite their shared humanity, the language barrier keeps them separated. That language barrier is also intended to alienate any readers who don’t know both English and Spanish, and the lack of translations forces those readers to experience the same confusion as the characters.
Bilingual readers definitely have an advantage here in terms of comprehension, but a major part of this book’s intrigue stems from that lack of understanding and how it ties the reader to the characters. Vaughan is aware that a significant percentage of readers speak both languages, so he also finds other ways to create that sense of alienation. Barrier #2 opens with a short scene at NORAD and USNORTHCOM headquarters in Colorado, and the dialogue is filled with abbreviations that aren’t broken down. Most people probably don’t know what B.M.E.W.S. or P.I.R.E.P.S. stand for unless they work in a field that requires that knowledge, and Vaughan uses this scene to start disorienting the reader before the story gets really confusing.
After a mysterious short sequence showing Oscar and his son on the streets of San Pedro (is it a dream or a flashback?), the narrative takes a heavy sci-fi turn as Oscar opens his eyes and finds himself trapped in a cell surrounded by an invisible force field. The floor opens up beneath him and he falls down a long spiral slide that ends with him in what appears to be a giant egg farm harvested by giant, frightening alien vessels, and when he tries to make a run for it he finds Liddy, completely naked and armed with a horse femur. It’s a barrage of new information with no explanation, and it only gets stranger when Liddy is pulled away and meets the beings that abducted them.
Liddy and Oscar try their best to introduce themselves in the midst of the chaos, and while the naked Liddy initially responds with justifiable fear and aggression, the tension dissipates when Oscar announces his name while offering Liddy his hoodie, an act of kindness that quickly forms a connection between the two characters. They may not understand each other, but they understand that they’re each other’s best chance for surviving their current situation. While the finer details of their conversation will be lost to people that don’t speak Spanish or English, the intent of their words is always conveyed clearly in the artwork, and key words are put in bold so that readers don’t gloss over them if they’re in a foreign language.
Marcos Martin is one of the best artists in comics, and Barrier is an outstanding spotlight for his storytelling skills because his artwork needs to transcend the language barrier and make the characters’ emotions clear for readers who can’t understand the dialogue. The big moments look incredible, like the neon-colored cosmic burst of the spaceship teleporting into outer space or the splash page revealing the egg farm, but it’s the small visual touches that bring clarity and emotional depth to the story.
When Liddy and Oscar tell each other that they don’t speak the other’s language, Martin presents the two of them in silhouetted profile, a panel that accentuates the separation between them through their spatial relationship and the differences in their body language, with Liddy turning away from Oscar as he’s getting off the ground. That image reinforces an emotional distance between the characters, and yet they are still connected on a deeper level thanks to their silhouetted forms. Their languages are different but their humanity is the same, and that’s the thing that ultimately brings them together.
Muntsa Vicente doesn’t color very many comics, but it’s a big deal when she does. She has an impeccable understanding of using color to accentuate the tone of a scene, and her subtly detailed rendering adds dimension without drawing focus from the strength of the linework. She primarily works with artists Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido, who have a lot of overlap in their visual styles, and the crisp lines, high contrast, and bold graphic elements of their art have pushed Vicente to make more dramatic choices in her coloring. Barrier #1 features an excellent sequence where Liddy and Oscar’s individual experiences are presented on the same page, and the separate plots are unified by a dominant color for each page. It’s not clear if these colors are specified in Vaughan’s script, but either way, it’s an extremely effective use of color as a storytelling element that brings the characters together.
That first issue end with a wave of neon pink and green that immediately indicates things are moving in a more fantastic direction, and the coloring only gets more vibrant and stylized in Barrier #2. There are still moments when Vicente shows restraint, though, like the conversation between Liddy and Oscar, and using a more muted palette for this scene grounds the visuals as the script moves away from the alien spectacle to explore the burgeoning character relationship. Those intense colors return when Liddy’s captors pull her away, and the combination of Vicente’s neon rainbow palette with Martin’s peculiar design for the aliens makes for another high-impact cliffhanger that leaves the reader hungry for what’s next. What do these creatures want with Liddy? What could they be saying in their jagged word bubbles filled with a single color and no text? Hopefully it won’t take another nine months to find out.