This year, Image Comics’ push title for Free Comic Book Day was Barrier, which is kind of an odd choice given that it’s an existing, already completed title from Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s creator-owned website. Moreover, despite most of us getting a free copy of Barrier on FCBD, it’s being republished in a slightly different format this week. This is a tough move for Image, which doesn’t have the interlinked universe of a Marvel or DC Comics where exposure to one character eventually exposes you to others. Image really can’t handshake new readers with its entire company the way other publishers can, so, Barrier it is. It’s a Vaughan title, so one assumes that they expect it to sell itself on the creator’s clout alone.
Barrier touts itself as a story revolving around the immigration debate, specifically, the Mexican and Central American refugee aspect along the Texas-Mexico border. Based on these two issues, that’s a pretty bare description of the series. The sympathies of both sides are presented: Oscar, a Honduran, is fleeing slave labor, gangs, and deadly terrain to get to a safer land; Liddy, a rancher, is dealing with trespassers, gangs, and drug runners who are killing her animals and threatening her life. And then both get abducted by aliens, and the story really turns into a mutual survival tale where neither character speaks the other’s language.
The real twist to Barrier comes from Oscar’s portion being written in Spanish and Liddy’s being in English, so the reader is presumptively crippled to the same extent the characters are. If you’ve got a basic understanding of Spanish, then you can muddle through Oscar’s words; otherwise, you’re either dependent on Google Translate or your own imagination. It’s a very different take on Vaughan’s writing, who usually combined broad world-building with snappy historical anecdotes and pop culture trivia. Aside from a Star Wars reference, this has neither. Certainly, Vaughan is departing from his usual stereotype of himself, though that does cut against the story. By the second issue of Y: The Last Man, we had a broad sense of the world the story was set in. Barrier is considerably more restrained, and that cuts against the wonder Vaughan usually establishes.
That does leave us largely dependent on Marcos Martin’s art, which is impressive enough for this cross-country, outer-space, widescreen story. Language is limited in this story, so we’re very much dependent on the storyteller to convey emotion and scope. Martin is the right choice here, as the dry Mexican and Texan landscapes carry a heavy sense of despondency and danger. The alien craft is shown even moreso: it’s weird, and Martin employs some bizarre design techniques which are effective in conveying how out of their element the characters are.
But is Barrier worth a long-term investment? There are three more issues due out this month, and it’s hard to say. Vaughan’s other classic stories do a tremendous amount of tone setting and world building in a limited space. Barrier is considerably more open-ended and left to the imagination. In other words: it could be good, but that trademark Vaughan intrigue just hasn’t established itself yet. It basically comes down to man and woman taken by creepy aliens and we’re not clear if there’s more to the story than that. Issue #3 is probably worth a look, but whether the end product will be satisfying isn’t clear at this point.
Rating: Three abductions out of five.