Welcome to #1 Comic of the Week, a series where our comics editor, Susana Polo, tips you off to a neat new story or series that kicked off in comics this week — just in time for some weekend reading.
This week’s comic didn’t technically come out this week. Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin published the first issue of Barrier on the small digital comics retailer Panel Syndicate in 2016. All five issues of the series have been available there on a pay-what-you-want basis for some time now.
But this month is when Vaughan and Martin’s Eisner-nominated story is, through Image Comics, available in a physical format for the first — and only — time, and it is worth checking out no matter how you read it.
The first thing you’ll notice about Barrier is that it’s horizontal. Spin the comic until the spine is on top, and flip the cover like you’re opening a chest in a Zelda game, and you’ll get the story of Libby and Oscar in widescreen.
The format gives a hefty cinematic weight to Martin’s art, and his layouts are chosen with maximum impact in mind. A particularly effective series of seven pages show the parallels of our two protagonists’ lives on either side, with a central panel between them that gets skinnier and skinnier with each new page — until it disappears the precise moment their stories finally collide.
Oscar is a Honduran father attempting to cross the United States-Mexico border, while Libby is a rancher in south Texas who believes that the mutilated horse head left on her property was a warning from a Mexican gang wanting to use her land as passage. But it turns out that it’s not smugglers or coyotes (border-crossing guides) who are messing with her animals. It’s aliens.
As we find out when Libby and Oscar are simultaneously abducted.
Libby and Oscar embody the linguistic twist that goes along with the comic’s visual change in orientation. Libby only speaks English, Oscar only speaks Spanish, and Barrier is fully bilingual. (Trilingual, I suppose, once the aliens show up.)
“We hope that, thanks to the power of comics, our weird tale will ultimately be clear to all readers,” Vaughan shared in the first issue’s afterword, “including those of you who aren’t fluent in either/any of the languages featured.”
He gives a tip of the hat to Martin and the Honduran Consulate in Barcelona for helping translate his “wonky American English.” To this wonky American, barely semi-fluent in Spanish from a recent Duolingo habit, the magic of comics did indeed aid my fumbling comprehension. But knowing exactly what Oscar was saying felt more like I had a cheat code — you’re still going to enjoy the game without it.
The first two issues of Barrier are on shelves this week, with the next three due out before the end of May. Vaughn has said this is the only time it will be published in a physical format: He and Martin do not have plans to produce a collected edition through Image, and the single issues are well bound in cardstock covers to last.
If physical copies aren’t your thing, each issue is still available on Panel Syndicate for “name your price” pricing. (And, as a warning, the series does contain some nudity and sexual content.)