BARRIER #1 successfully blends a story about immigration, language, and violence into a sci-fi package. Brian K. Vaughan did his homework and carefully took care to show authentic Honduran Spanish. Martin's art is unsettling at times but excellently captures Liddy and Oscar's worlds. It's a must read.
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Immigration is a complex social issue with no easy solution. What does it mean to be an immigrant? This is a question that BARRIER #1 — a story about violence and immigration with a sci-fi twist — aims to tackle. In fact, writer Brian K. Vaughan (SAGA, THE PRIVATE EYE) and Marcos Martin (THE PRIVATE EYE) couldn’t have picked a better time to re-release this five part mini-series that addresses immigration. However,  it needs to be noted that BARRIER #1 — and its subsequent issues — is a limited print run because the creators have no plans to collect the stories in a trade paperback edition.

A quick word of warning: there are spoilers in this review so if you have any interest in the series, read the review summary. If you don’t mind spoilers, then read on.

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A Tale of Two Americas

BARRIER #1 begins in the US-Mexican border town of Pharr, Texas as an illegal Mexican immigrant — Balthazar — discovers a decapitated horse’s head with flies all over it. Soon, we meet Balthazar’s boss, Liddy. We learn that the horse is one of Liddy’s. In fact, she makes a reference to THE GODFATHER’s decapitated horse head scene. Liddy also believes that a drug cartel is behind the act. In the prologue Vaughan smartly foreshadows a few things to come. Namely, Liddy’s English only policy with Balthazar, which creates a divide between characters. Balthazar suggests that aliens (as in illegal aliens) might be the culprits, which hints at the sci-fi element.

As Liddy meets with her friend Joe — a border patrol agent — Liddy suspects that drug cartels are the horse’s killers. Thus, Liddy requests that Joe monitor her property for one night with a surveillance blimp. This suggests one of two things about Liddy. First, Liddy has her share of biases against immigrants despite that she employs Balthazar. Second, she doesn’t have many friends she can turn to for help. Ultimately Vaughan suggests that Liddy is a woman who can take care of herself.


Courtesy of Image Comics

Lost In Translation

Meanwhile in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, we meet Oscar as he pays smugglers to take him to the U.S.-Mexican border. Oscar’s half of the story is entirely in Spanish, so Google Translate is a must if you don’t speak Spanish. As a result, Oscar’s side of the story puts readers in Liddy’s shoes because most American English speakers do not speak Spanish. Normally, comics have a translation present. In series such as MAYDAY, the creators translate Russian into English. Because Vaughan chooses not to translate the Spanish, he creates an interesting dichotomy between immigrants and Americans. That is to say, that the Americans in this story don’t want immigrants and the immigrants want a better life.

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As the story progresses, we slowly start to see Liddy and Oscar’s stories intersect until both worlds collide. As Liddy sleeps, she hears a scream that suddenly wakes her up. The source of the scream is Oscar who has injured his leg while trespassing on Liddy’s property. When Liddy and Oscar finally meet, the former speaks in English and the latter speaks in Spanish. Because neither Liddy nor Oscar understand each other, language becomes a barrier (pun not intended). Suddenly, the tense moment is cut short by a tractor beam that lifts Liddy and Oscar into a UFO.

Liddy and Oscar: Two Lonely Souls

The creators excel at characterization. When we meet Liddy, she’s riding a horse with a cowboy hat on before we get two additional splash pages of her face and location. We see her face clearly with a soft shadow, and identify her as an important character. Liddy is not afraid to fight. At one point, she stands up to a man who tries to grope her. As the story progresses, we learn that Liddy loves to drink whiskey but is also a widow who lives alone. We learn that Liddy is so lonely that she watches porn in the darkness of her kitchen. In showing Liddy’s loneliness, one can’t but empathize with her sense of insecurity.

Courtesy of Image Comics

Likewise, Oscar is characterized as persistent, stoic, and self-reliant. Oscar feels familiar because he can very well be a neighbor or classmate. While we don’t know Oscar’s full history, he hands a wad of bloody U.S. dollars to the smugglers. The bloody dollar bills implies that he must have must have done something dark in order to acquire the money. Furthermore, we later see that Oscar approaches a gun toting thug in Mexico. In the next panel, Oscar points the gun at the same thug who ferries him across the river into Texas. The thug’s red cheek in the panel suggests that Oscar beats up the thug prior to that scene. Evidently, Oscar is a man with a heart of gold who does whatever is necessary to get what he wants. Like Liddy, Oscar ultimately travels alone.

BARRIER #1’s Landscape Style Pages Feels Refreshing

With the landscape style, artist Marcos Martín uses the page size to great effect. Not only does Martín use traditional panel sizes to illustrate action, he also makes use of wide panels. With the wide panels, Vaughan suggests a geographic gap between Liddy and Oscar that closes when they finally meet. For instance, in the introduction to the smugglers, Martin shows the leader’s wide smile which reveals a gold tooth. Additionally, another great example of wide panels is a scene where Oscar and Suyapa hide in the grass as Guatemalan authorities seize the smuggler truck. Notably it’s a rainy scene with red and blue mists of the police vehicles as the cops arrest immigrants. All in all, the realistic art style helps bring the world of BARRIER #1 to life.

Courtesy of Image Comics

Martín Employs Excellent use of Silent Panels

The landscape style gives the story a cinematic vibe because they set up for excellent silent panels. For instance, at one point Martín juxtaposes Liddy and Oscar’s actions to the passage of time. In one page, while Liddy rides her horse in her Texas ranch, a middle panel depicts a blue sky while Oscar jumps out of a mobile train somewhere in central America. Likewise, while Liddy digs a mound at sunset to a grasshopper in the foreground, Oscar walks in a desert landscape with a rattlesnake in the foreground. The middle panel gets increasingly narrow until the climax when Oscar and Liddy meet. This sequence is the art’s biggest highlight in this issue. Overall, BARRIER #1 likes to show rather than tell and it’s quite effective.


Closing Thoughts

BARRIER #1 is a vital series to read in this day and age. Thanks to an intriguing story, authentic Spanish language with Honduran words, and some thought-provoking themes, it’s worth a plunge. Furthermore, the dual language adds a texture to a story that drives home the U.S.’ relationship with immigration. Once again, Vaughan and Martin’s venture into a story that makes readers think is a treat for fans of THE PRIVATE EYE or anyone who wants to read a great sci-fi story. In fact, it feels important more than ever.

If you didn’t get your copy on Free Comic Book Day, BARRIER #1 will be available at your local comic shop on May 9th. You can check which shops have it here.

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