Vaughan And Martin’s ‘Barrier’ #1 Deserves All The Fanfare That It Didn’t Actually Get
Here are two things you already know and one thing that you probably could've guessed: Brian K. Vaughan is a pretty great comic book writer. Marcos Martin is a jaw-droppingly amazing comic book artist. Their new comic with Muntsa Vicente, Barrier, released digitally this week through their Panel Syndicate imprint, is easily one of the best comics this week, and it's well worth picking up.
Those are the basics --- and if we're being honest with each other, that's all you really need to know before you head over to their website and pick it up for yourself --- but Barrier is a comic that deserves a whole lot of fanfare. It's not just that it's well done, and it's not just that it's engaging and interesting, telegraphing an ending that still manages to come as a surprise when the last few pages hits. It's that everything about it is something that goes beyond those basics in every way.
The most fascinating thing about Barrier, for me at least, is how it arrived. Like Vaughan and Martin's previous collaboration at Panel Syndicate, The Private Eye, it's offered up digitally with a DRM-free, pay-what-you-want model that allows readers to name their own price. That's not entirely unique, although it's always nice to see big-name creators experimenting with that kind of format and testing out what you can do with the kind of direct distribution that exists online outside of Diamond's stranglehold on brick-and-mortar comics retail --- and, for that matter, what you can do outside of the Comixology as well.
But what is unique about this book is that it was released without any fanfare. There was no announcement, no interviews, no teaser image that I know of. And if you're like me, you found out Barrier existed the day that it was available to the public. And that's something that I love about what they're doing.
Admittedly, it's another one of those things that's easy to do when you're Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin and you've spent years building a following through books like Y, The Last Man or Martin's work on superhero titles like Daredevil, and it certainly doesn't hurt that the last time they did this they ended up taking home an Eisner award for Best Digital Comic, but still; the fact that they're willing to just drop a fifty-three page first issue onto an unsuspecting public is one of the best things about their work.
One of the most frustrating things about reading mainstream comics, after all, is the way that they're distributed, with the three-month lead time for solicitations and an even longer space for announcements, publicity, and interviews where creators can't necessarily say a whole lot. In the world of superheroes, the ideal time for a reader to get excited about something is three months before anyone can actually read the comic. Trying to keep a level of excitement up for that long is tough, especially with the fine line between doing enough to keep everyone teased about the upcoming release and giving so much that they're sick of it before the book even hits the stands.
Barrier, like The Private Eye before it, sidesteps that completely by simply arriving with a fully formed first issue. It's definitely a luxury afforded by the form --- immediacy has always been the selling point of digital comics, if only because the concept of "initial orders" simply doesn't exist --- and right now, it's not something that could happen with a book that wasn't being self-published. That it can happen at all, and that it can happen with creators on the level of Vaughan and Martin, is fascinating.
Really though, it makes sense that they'd skip out on all the announcement brouhaha, even beyond just the fact that it's a total power move. If nothing else, they can rely on people like me and sites like this one to get the word out for them, assuming that they've made a comic that's good enough to be worth talking about.
Which, of course, they have.
I mentioned above that Barrier telegraphs its twist ending from the very first moment, and I'm sure that's intentional. If Vaughan has a major flaw in his writing, it's that he sometimes gets a little too clever with setups that become distracting, but more often than not, it works. And here, under Marcos Martin's art, it works beautifully.
The story focuses on two characters: Liddy, a rancher in Texas who finds a skinned horse and suspects that it's a message from cartels running drugs across her land, and Oscar, who's attempting to make it to America from Honduras. The story is divided, and Oscar's section is presented in completely untranslated Spanish, which is another one of those gutsy choices that deserve to be appreciated.
As you might expect, the lack of a translation leaves Martin's work to carry the story in those sections for a monolingual reader like me. And, as you might also expect, he's more than up to the task.
That's the thing about Barrier: Even with a telegraphed ending, it's constructed well enough that the characters could have turned directly to the reader and said, "hey, here's what's happening on the last page" and it still would've been an incredibly compelling story. The divided narratives and the way that they're broken by a language barrier --- get it? --- are set up perfectly, and when those two stories start to become one, theres a sequence of pages where the physical divider between the two characters' panels --- the barrier, if you will --- starts to shrink until they finally become one single interconnected story.
That trick alone is worth whatever you want to pay for it. And that, I suppose, is another one of those things that makes a review of this issue unnecessary: If you're completely unconvinced that the model alone is worth supporting, or if The Private Eye left you cold, then you could literally try the book yourself with a price of zero dollars and see if the work stands on its own. It is, however, worth a whole lot more than that --- and to be honest, worth more than I paid to try it out. It's dynamite, and a great way to close out the year for Vaughan and Martin.
But then again, you probably could have guessed that for yourself.
Barrier #1 is available for download at PanelSyndicate.com.