Advanced Review: Barrier #1 Looks At the Role Of Language In Comics

by Rachel Bellwoar

“F***ing animals.”

Standing over the decapitated head of her horse, Sprinkles, Liddy is talking about her horse’s killer but, from the way Sprinkles died, the perp had to have been human, not animal. For that reason alone, Liddy’s use of the word “animals” is significant, but Liddy gave her employee, Baltazar, a hard time about his choice of words, dismissing “aliens” and “illegals,” before choosing “animals.”

Animals crop up constantly throughout Barrier #1. The first page, divided into three horizontal panels, is a lizard almost getting run over by a truck. In the bottom panel a sign, in English and Spanish, says, “Trespassers will be shot.” It wouldn’t matter what language that sign was written in, a lizard couldn’t read it, but when you have humans being called animals, the meaning behind the visual doesn’t need translating. Whether it’s the same meaning Liddy intended, with her need to be exact with her words, could be argued both ways, but Marcus Martin’s art speaks a universal language that the written word (even written by Brian K. Vaughan) can’t. Barrier is a prime example of how the comics medium can tell stories for everyone, whether they speak the same language or not.

Originally published on PanelSyndicate.com, all five issues of Barrier are coming to print for the first time this month, courtesy of Image Comics. I don’t know if this is a common slip-up, but I’ve found myself wanting to call the series “Barriers,” not “Barrier,” and thus thinking on why the singular form was chosen. Two candidates for the title’s “barrier” emerge: the language barrier and the barrier on the cover of issue one – the border between Mexico and America.

The language barrier is a preoccupation of the series, but if there can only be one, I feel it’s the fence that’s being talked about. With the language barrier we have a choice to let it stop communication, and while readers may not realize it right away (because the comic starts with Liddy), half of Barrier is written in untranslated Spanish. This is the half that traces Oscar’s journey across the border and in the Afterword, Vaughan talks about the choice to leave it up to readers to translate or not. I did, because I read the issue digitally, but doubt I would’ve done so for print. It’s very possible readers will pick up this issue without realizing the language is split and I’m glad. It means they won’t have a chance to rethink buying it.

Featuring a horizontal layout, each issue will be printed in landscape, providing sweeping, widescreen views that evoke the Western genre. By focusing on the ground level, there’s a constant sense of anticipation that someone could appear from any direction. The settings are isolated and Liddy is determined to protect her property.

Saving the best for last is a silent section where Martin adheres to the limits of landscape by dropping a swatch of sky in the middle of the page. Oscar and Liddy’s storylines play out simultaneously on either side, while the sky, colored by Muntsa Vincente, marks the passage of time. Sometimes the beauty of Vincente’s colors contrast with what’s going on. Other times, her smeary greys can bring you to despair. The sky creates a barrier between Oscar and Liddy, but it also unites them, underneath the same sky. It doesn’t get more poetic than that.

Barrier #1 goes on sale May 9th and will also be available for free on Free Comic Book DaySaturday, May 5th. Issue #2 goes on sale May 9th, too, and issues 3-5 are on a weekly schedule the rest of the month.