Brian K. Vaughan has done the superhero thing, he’s penned critically-beloved works like Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man, and he’s currently writing a pair of powerhouse Image titles in Paper Girls and Saga. Vaughan also runs Panel Syndicate, a webcomics platform through which he puts out widescreen graphic stories directly to readers, along with collaborators artist Marcos Martin and colorist Munsta Vincente.
Panel Syndicate is where the recently-Eisner-nominated Barrier comes from. It’s a bilingual story of immigration and borders with a sci-fi twist, and following a Free Comic Book Day tease, it arrives this week in local comic shops. So, we're diving into Barrier ourselves, having not yet read the full series, approaching it as a first-time reader.
Barrier, unsurprisingly, is well-done and interesting, of the same quality as the creative team’s past collaborations: Private Eye (2013) and The Walking Dead: Alien (2016). Barrier’s first issue consists of dual narratives, one of a borderland ranch owner in South Texas, the other of a migrant headed to the U.S. from Honduras.
This setting and concept is a personal one for me. Vaughan’s ranch owner lives in Pharr, Texas...which is where I got my first job out of college as a cops reporter for the local newspaper. I covered migrant deaths, Border Patrol, drug smugglers, crashes, coyotes, all of it.
While I have nitpicky issues with details (there are no Minute Men in the real Pharr, and a character references Marfa like its a neighbor, despite Marfa being 9 hours away), Vaughan and Martin depict a serviceable border, and anyway, creating a hyper-realistic Pharr isn’t the goal. The goal is a convincing borderland locale, and I got that.
Vaughan’s other narrative, the migrant traveling north, also rang true. The Spanish dialogue worked well for me. I have decent Spanish, so the decision to use it instead of bracketed-English lent the story authenticity, and for non-speakers, I suspect Martin and Vincente’s visuals provide sufficient clarity.
In fact, the imagery does much work throughout, showing us haggling with callous coyotes, a train named The Beast that pulls the diaspora north, and myriad other dangers Oscar faces en route. Vaughan obviously researched the dangers migrants face, and his collaborators illustrated his research well. I’ve seen this imagery often in documentaries, but rarely in visual fiction, and never in comics. The effect was a powerful one.
I was especially impressed with a sequence of wordless storytelling showing our heroes under the same sky, a sky that shrank as they approached one another. Observe:
Overall: Barrier #1 uses the widescreen webcomic format to great effect, and Vaughan’s incorporation of two languages creates a literal barrier between the book’s dual leads, serving its plot and its theme of separation. Based on Vaughan’s past work, Barrier seems poised to raise fascinating questions about the intersection of seemingly disparate worlds. 9/10
Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at@zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.