Barrier comic creators on tackling immigration and aliens from a unique angle
As a medium, comic books have the potential to expand our imaginations with never-before-seen visuals and unthinkable concepts. But they can also get small and down-to-earth, boring into real-life issues and everyday struggles. Sometimes they even do both, as with Barrier,a five-issue comic from Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and Marcos Martin that tackles the topic of immigration from a distinctly sideways angle.
The horizontal-oriented comic focuses on two protagonists: Oscar, a Honduran migrant trying to make his way into the U.S., and Liddy, a recently widowed Texas rancher determined to protect her home. Because Oscar speaks Spanish and Liddy speaks English, they appear alien to each other — but that’s nothing compared to the actual extraterrestrials who show up.
Vaughan and Martin originally published Barrier online in 2015, right around the time Donald Trump was kicking off his presidential campaign and talking about the dangers of Mexican immigrants. Now Image Comics is publishing the comic in physical form, as a collector’s edition rolling out this month. The first two issues hit shelves this week, and the next three will arrive in stores every subsequent Wednesday for the rest of May.
EW caught up with Vaughan and Martin to discuss Barrier, its timely themes, and the challenge of creating original alien designs. Check it out below, along with scenes from the first two issues of Barrier.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You two previously collaborated on my favorite Doctor Strange comic ever, Doctor Strange: The Oath. What do you like about working together? How did you arrive at the idea for doing this comic?
MARCOS MARTIN: I love working with Brian, and really consider him one of the best writers ever to grace our medium. The things he comes up with constantly leave me scratching my head, in both wonder and a deep concern for his psychological well-being. But at this point, we’ve been friends for so long now we’ve basically become a much less glamorous, comic book version of the Ropers, where we basically try to find new ways of making each other miserable. I think that’s the reason Brian came up with the concept for Barrier. He was just trying to lure me into the least commercial project possible and I just jumped in, probably giddy at the possibilities it’d bring to torture him with my constant nagging.
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: Marcos is one of the most talented artists on the planet, and also one of the grumpiest people alive, both qualities I love. He never settles for anything that won’t challenge both us and our readers, so we really liked the idea of tackling an artistic experiment as unconventional as a multilingual, untranslated comic like Barrier.
This comic is filled with both English and Spanish dialogue, but there are also long sequences without any words at all. How did you approach and think about language and communication in this comic?
VAUGHAN: We wanted to explore the way that different languages can both separate and unite us. Marcos and I knew that passages of this story might alienate readers who don’t speak English or Spanish or either, but we like to believe that comics have a unique visual language that can be universal, so I hope people who stick with the story to the end will ultimately understand and connect with Oscar and Liddy’s journey.
Is it safe to say this story is an exploration of the different ways we use words like “alien” and “barrier”? We also see the American immigration debate from two opposite sides in the Liddy and Oscar characters. What were you interested in exploring about the whole subject, especially when it’s such a major topic in American culture right now?
VAUGHAN: When Marcos and I did The Private Eye at Panel Syndicate, we really lucked into privacy suddenly becoming a very relevant theme. For our follow-up, even though we conceived Barrier before there was ever talk of erecting a wall on America’s southern border, it was much easier to predict that illegal immigration was going to be a very important topic for all of us. We just wanted to find a way to tackle that complicated subject in a way that was fun, unexpected, and hopefully felt like it exploited everything that makes the medium of comics so great.
What was the thinking behind releasing Barrier in this non-traditional format, with all five issues out in a month?
MARTIN: That was all Eric Stephenson’s doing. He came up with the idea of using Free Comic Book Day as a launchpad to really draw attention to comics and focus on selling a book as a series of single issues which would only be available through local comic book stores. Also going with a heavier cover stock and nicer paper, so that the comics themselves are the deluxe edition and remind people what’s so amazing about the comic book format in the first place.
There are a lot of aliens in pop culture; how did you guys come up with such a unique alien design?
MARTIN: As usually happens with this type of thing, the alien design went through a slow process of mutations until it reached its final form, but it’s safe to say it was a textbook case of collaborative effort.
Our only starting point was simply to make them as alien and different from human beings as possible. Brian first pictured them as being quadrupeds, massive creatures that communicated entirely through colors, which they could manipulate through their bioluminescent skin, partially inspired by weird lifeforms like our own planet’s pyrosoma. I loved that idea but was concerned the depiction of the color-changing language could be too difficult to convey in a medium made entirely of static images. And since language was such a fundamental aspect of the series, I suggested translating the color idea to another basic element of the comics medium instead, the word balloons. We then decided to move to a more plant-like concept, and that’s when Brian came up with the idea of the sphere balls that unfurled to reveal some kind of bioluminescent meat flowers with a colorful orb at their top. Looking at it now, he really did all of the heavy lifting, I just had to put it in drawing!
VAUGHAN: As always, Marcos is far too modest. New kinds of aliens are fun to imagine, but maddening to actually bring to life. Marcos and colorist Muntsa Vicente couldn’t have done a more beautiful job creating creatures that felt unidentifiable, yet also strangely familiar.