HEAT VISION

How Brian K. Vaughan's 'Barrier' Deconstructs the Immigration Debate

The comic book series from the 'Runaways' co-creator brings literal aliens to the politically charged subject.
Marcos Martin/Image Comics
The comic book series from the 'Runaways' co-creator brings literal aliens to the politically charged subject.

This month, the immigration debate is going to start to involve a whole new definition of aliens. Image Comics is releasing Barrier — the five-part sci-fi immigration drama by Runaways and Saga co-creator Brian K. Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin — in print for the first time since it debuted in 2015 digitally.

Opening in Texas, Barrier sees figures on both sides of the immigration debate — a rancher in the U.S. and a Honduran man trying to get to the United States — kidnapped by aliens and forced to try and communicate and work together despite their language barrier (mirrored in the book itself, which is bilingual with both English and Spanish dialogue) to try and escape, offering both a classic science fiction tale and pointed commentary on a subject that is, seemingly, permanently a hot button topic in American politics. Barrier was previously only available digitally from Vaughan's and Martin’s Panel Syndicate platform, and the first issue will debut in print Saturday during Free Comic Book Day.

Heat Vision talked to Vaughan about how the rise of President Donald Trump has impacted how the series reads since its original digital release. 

What made Barrier the right project to follow up The Private Eye? There are obvious similarities — both are stand-alone sci-fi stories that touch on issues that are relevant to today's readers — but it feels as different from the earlier project as it does similar.

I think Marcos and I both aspire to make work that feels relevant to 20 minutes into the future, to steal a line from Max Headroom. With The Private Eye, we pretty much lucked into the theme of privacy before Edward Snowden/the Sony leaks/Cambridge Analytica, etc., made that story feel prescient. For our follow-up, even though we decided to do Barrier long before there was any talk of a wall on American’s southern border, it was already a lot easier to predict that immigration was about to become a similarly important subject for all of us.

Was there any nervousness about the bilingual nature of the book — or, more so, the lack of translation for English-speaking audiences? We can all use Google, after all, but still.

Marcos only gets nervous when whatever we’re working on feels like it’s not challenging, either for us or for readers. I pitched him a few different ideas before he finally sparked to Barrier, probably because it felt so aggressively non-commercial to make something that would likely alienate at least half of most audiences. 

Still, I think we both like to believe that the language of comics has a unique ability to communicate universally, so it felt like we could at least try to exploit this art form we love to tell a story that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.

One of the pleasures of Barrier is that it feels like the work of a team in complete creative sync — the silence of the last third of the first issue especially feels like the work of a single writer/artist, as opposed to two different people. (Three, including colorist Muntsa Vicente.) What is your collaborative process like? How has it evolved since The Private Eye?

Every collaboration I’ve ever had in comics is different, and working with Marcos is unique because he, more than any artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, drives me absolutely fucking bonkers. Every script requires multiple Skype calls to dissect what I’ve done wrong, and to explore how Marcos will fix it all by cutting panels or adding pages. And we're both inevitably disappointed by any changes or compromises, until we finally see Muntsa’s colors, at which point everything is suddenly way better than either of us ever imagined. It’s been like that since Marcos first came up with the idea for Panel Syndicate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.     

Barrier is, if anything, more timely now than it was when the digital edition debuted in 2015. Given all the many discussions, arguments and sad developments surrounding the US's relationship to immigrants and immigration in the time between then and now, does it change the way you feel about the series? Would you do it differently if starting today?

Having written this story years ago, it’s beyond surreal to now have President Trump ranting on Twitter about the same kind of “caravan” from Honduras that we show Oscar surviving in our first issue. I wouldn’t change a thing, especially the final scene of the series, which feels more appropriate than ever.

Panel Syndicate as a platform allows for a level of experimentation and freedom that print comics don’t, generally. What are your future plans for the platform, either separately or together? 

For the moment, we’re just concentrating on making these print issues of Barrier worthy of being on shelves for a long time. As important as digital comics are to us, Marcos and I both owe our careers to brick-and-mortar retailers, so we loved Image publisher Eric Stephenson’s idea of releasing this story weekly in print, exclusively through comic shops. We have no plans to ever collect these five issues into a trade paperback or anything, so each comic is made to last, with great paper and a classy-ass cardstock cover. I'm embarrassingly proud of how nice this once ethereal digital story now smells.

After we finish getting these books out the door, Marcos and I are meeting up in the Canary Islands for their TLP Tenerife show, where we’ll finally discuss the future. For now, Panel Syndicate continues to host some of the best, most truly independent comics in the world, including Umami by Ken Niimura, Blackhand Ironhead by David Lopez and Universe! by Albert Monteys, all of which are available to download right now for any price readers think is fair to the creators, including $0.00. I can’t believe Marcos’ crazy ‘business model’ is still viable five years after we launched, but I hope we’re just getting started.  

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The free print edition of Barrier No. 1 will be released Saturday, May 5, at participating stores. More information can be found here. That will be followed by a deluxe version of issue No. 1 the following Wednesday, alongside the second issue. Issues will be released weekly through May.

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