Barrier – A Recommendation
By Nicholas Finch
…Oh, I guess I should probably say why. Okay, but the first sentence should be the main takeaway here. If you end up reading this comic, then I don’t particularly mind if my supplementary comments weren’t necessary. But if you would like to be convinced, I can do that too!
I’ve often felt that the perception of comic books has always resided in somewhat of a nebulous space between “mainstream entertainment” and “artistic expression”. Like any book or film, a comic can easily cater to either audience – in many ways, comics are one of the best forms to tell a story, as they allow for the high-concept visuals a movie can provide (without the budget), and the introspective narrative a book can provide (but also with pictures, because books are really long and have lots of words).
Yet I also find it’s pretty hard to get even a die-hard comic book movie fan to commit to some of the comics, or to see teachers introduce comic books within their education curriculum. Usually, the two biggest exceptions to this rule are Watchmen and Maus, which are widely considered to be some of the most acclaimed and popular graphic novels of all time. Usually, most people who have even a passing knowledge of comics will either know or have read one of the two.
If that’s the case, Barrier should be their immediate next read. It’s that good.
Put simply, Barrier is a 5-issue series from Image Comics, created by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente. It’s about an American farmer (Liddy) and a Mexican immigrant (Oscar), learning to work together after being kidnapped by aliens. The story is told in predominantly two languages: English and Spanish, and the book makes NO attempts to teach you Spanish. To understand the story of Oscar, you simply have to rely on the artwork, letting the visuals tell the story of this man’s journey from Mexico, to America, to space. For Spanish-speaking people, the same would go for Liddy – being bilingual is not necessary whatsoever, though that would provide an interesting experience in itself.
More specifically, Barrier is a perfect primer for comic books because, like Maus and Watchmen, it displays and expands on ideas of what you can do in a visual medium from page to page. No name is more appropriate than “Barrier”: in equal measure, it refers to the barrier between countries, the barrier between planets, the barrier between panels, and the ever-present language barrier. This comic is also rather unique, in that it was published physically this year, but was made before the USA 2016 election, where immigration discourse was pushed to the front of public political discussion. It’s a good reminder that whether or not we hear about certain issues in the world, they still persist, and it’s important that we keep thinking about them, even when the media doesn’t give them attention.
Barrier is also unique in that it is printed horizontally, giving each panel a very cinematic feel to it. The book is surprisingly high-concept, and a lot of similarities could be drawn to the movie Arrival – between the language barrier to the abstract designs of the aliens. Currently, Barrier will only be printed physically in its five individual comics… which I personally don’t believe will be the case for long, but there’s currently no evidence to suggest they will be out in a singular trade any time soon.
Barrier is an absolute masterclass in how to stretch the creative boundaries of what comic books can accomplish. While the story is centred on American and Mexican relations, the messages of the book can and should resonate with all of its readers. Get it while you still can and recommend it to everyone: not only do people need to read a story like this to understand its important political statement, but it is also a prime example towards any skeptics you might know of what comics can do to meet the creative ambitions of movies and books – and even surpass them.