The benefit of large comics publishers offering smaller imprints is that it provides a built-in space for titles that differ in some way from the main lineup. They’re often experimental or off-brand, highly creative, and deeply personal. For years, fans have been bemoaning Vertigo’s slow starvation under DC’s leadership, but Border Town #1 feels like a triumphant return. It’s not that Vertigo’s been missing entirely, with titles like Deathbed and Sheriff Of Babylon appearing occasionally in the last few years. But Border Town, accompanied by 10 other titles, four of which are part of the reinvigorated Sandman universe, is hitting shelves in the middle of a real revival. And so far, it stands out from the pack. Artist Ramon Villalobos remarked on Twitter that Border Town isn’t just a comic; it’s a religious experience. And he isn’t wrong. The book is fresh and sharp in a way that’ll be wholly expected by fans of his and writer Eric M. Esquivel’s, but will likely catch new readers unaware.

As the title implies, Border Town revolves around a community on the Arizona border with Mexico. It delves into fears that many Latinx people living on the border feel, with rumors of monsters heightening the sense that nothing is safe. The characterization is sharp and smart without being overwrought or forced, which is an especially good thing since most of the main characters are teenagers. It can be too easy to slip into adult thinking or theatrics when writing teens, but these are clearly kids on the cusp of adulthood, forced by dint of their location and the color of their skin to reckon with heavy topics, but they’re still stupid and hormonal. The way this issue is constructed makes it clear just how different things are for some kids (and adults) these days: There’s the obligatory bully, of course, but he’s not just a jerk with a grudge; he’s a Nazi skinhead with an armed clique backing him up and goading him into violence.

Esquivel and Villalobos have constructed an unflinching portrayal of the elevated and layered fears that marginalized people face every day, wrapping it in dynamic, considered art and a mythos that’s deeply rooted in time and place. Villalobos’ lines have a texture that feels rare in superhero comics, and it lends his work a sense of grit and determination as well as a feeling that things are constantly in motion. Colors by Tamra Bonvillain add depth and even more kinetic energy to the panels. It’s great to see these two back in action together. Their work for the canceled-all-too-soon Nighthawk with David F. Walker was remarkable, and their artistry has only grown and become more refined.

The entire issue is dotted with fascinatingly weird things, as in the creatures that have adopted costumes based on the things that people fear most, and the final pages and the epilogue accelerate quickly and nail a couple of storytelling beats that will suck in readers who might still be on the fence. While these toothy green monsters have previously appeared as ICE agents, Bane, and an “urban youth” to immigrants, a teenager, and a white woman, respectively, the final monster shows up as a balding, mustachioed cop to break up a fight among high school kids. Combined with the revelation in the epilogue of where these monsters come from, it’s an apt metaphor and a perfect visual to make it clear just what Border Town and the creative team is all about. With the team’s clear vision and explicit opinions about immigration, racism, structural violence, and oppression, it’s built a compelling story with enough mystery to leave readers eager for the second issue. Fans mourning the loss of the Young Animal imprint should jump on this title immediately, especially as early reports show a lot of stores selling out.