The immigration narrative told through the lens of science fiction is one of my favorite tropes in storytelling and pop culture. Most of the time, movies and/or stories about immigration are as direct as a slap on the back of the head. Other times, elements of that narrative are just borrowed or touched on because the focus of the movie and/or story is one of outsiders, exclusion, and othering. Finding those kinds of those hybrid stories in comic books is easy, all you have to do is look to characters like Superman and the X men. But every once in a while, something different comes along and Barrier by Brian K. Vaughan is that something.
I read the first issue of Barrier when it was first published digitally in 2015. I don’t remember what my impressions were from that first reading, but I knew it would something cool because of the writer. I also figured it would be easier to wait for the story to finish rather than reading it as it was released. It took a few years, but the creators eventually completed the story and later announced that it would be available in print for a limited time. So rather than buying all five issues online as a digital copy, I waited to buy the physical comic instead.
So, before I get into my thoughts on the book itself, there will be spoilers if you haven't read it or plan on reading it. I'd much prefer y'all read the story and then come back to read what I have to say.
Being the nerd that I am when it comes to comic books, I've written about comics books dabbing into immigration before. I shared my thoughts on the book "The Best we Could Do" by Thi Bui and Marvel comics introducing two characters that are undocumented youth aka Dreamers. Not to mention a bunch of other blog post on Superman being an immigrant and my own personal reflections on how I used characters like Spider-man to figure out my own self-identity.
Barrier's story isn't a complex saga nor is it an overt effort to try and get you to feel sympathy for immigrants. It's the story of two people, Oscar from Honduras and Liddy from the U.S., who happened to be stuck in the same situation, being abducted by extra extraterrestrials. Both are from opposite sides of the border and each dealing with immigration in their own way, Oscar by making his way to the U.S. from Honduras and the Liddy living on the border as a rancher.
If you are familiar with Vaughan as a comic book writer, then you know he could have taken this story in so many directions, but the simplicity of the story works perfectly. The creative team made an intentional choice in not translating any of the dialogue of both the characters, which succinctly translates the exact experience of two people who speak two different languages trying to communicate with each other through gestures. "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," said Vaughan in this interview.
For the character of Oscar, the creators went out of their way to properly depict the Spanish spoken in Honduras by getting help from someone at the Honduran Consulate where they live. That to me is a great detail that might normally be overlooked by folks on their first reading, especially if they cannot read in Spanish. It also has to be stated that the team highlighted the story of someone from Central America versus someone from Mexico, which is what dominates the narrative. Told via flashbacks, Oscar's motivation for leaving his home is to be with his son in the U.S. and to get away from gang violence. Some of those scenes are brutal, but I don't feel they were done for the sake of gore. Instead, they help drive the fact that gang violence is real and one of the reasons Central American's are leaving their homes.
Since Oscar was traveling from Honduras, that meant he eventually had to take a ride on 'La Bestia,' the freight trains that people ride north to cut through Mexico. When I first saw the panel of the train, I was in a bit of disbelief because even though I've read about what people go through on 'La Bestia' and seen it through photos, seeing it in a comic book gives it a different weight to me. The weight comes from the fact that for a lot of people reading the book because they like Vaughan as a writer, this will be the first time they're exposed to that reality. It won't be a life-changing epiphany or anything like that, but hopefully, Oscar's journey helps them humanize the actual people going through the same journey.
The story and themes aside, the book is a visual treat that makes you slow down and appreciate every page and panel. What I enjoyed most from this comic was that the creators didn't set out in telling the greatest immigration story of all time, but rather a topic that they wanted to put their own perspective on. If you were to ask me or any other immigrant to write a comic book story about immigration, it wouldn't land anywhere near where 'Barrier' is. Sometimes it does take outsiders to gain a new perspective on a topic that is as personal and intimate as immigration. At best, I hope 'Barrier' serves as a jumping off point for someone who isn't directly impacted by immigration. At the same time, I hope this book reaches those who are directly impacted by immigration so they can see themselves from a different angle.
If you wanna read 'Barrier,' you can buy a digital version of the comic here. If you wanna pick up the limited edition printing of the book, then check your local comic book store. And no, you can't borrow my copies.