Foreign Language in Barrier #1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente

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*Disclaimer: In my efforts to stick to this month’s theme, I kind of lost track of everything else. Consequently, this comic is NOT kid friendly due to violence, quite a bit of swearing, and some other stuff. I think it would be fine for an older teen, but don’t quote me on that.*

*Disclaimer #2: I promise I’ll stop talking about Brian K. Vaughan soon*

As everyone probably knows at this point Brian K. Vaughan is the name in today’s comics. The sales figures of Saga are well documented (apparently, these numbers are not particularly accurate, but the most important part here is the difference between Saga’s sales and the numbers of other books), and you know you’ve got it made when even Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda, tweets about your comic.

You know what Brian K. Vaughan followed up Saga with? The Private Eye, a landscape-oriented pay-what-you want webcomic. The Private Eye is well worth talking about, but I’d like to focus on Barrier, the recently released second project done with the same artist and in the same format as The Private Eye. Barrier is a 5 issue miniseries, with only the first issue available right now, so it’s easy to dive right into it.

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Barrier #1 follows Liddy, as she tries to protect her plot of land in Pharr, Texas, and Oscar, who tries to make his way to the US from San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Barrier is a great read for a variety of reasons, but the most striking to me is its use of Spanish. BKV is known for using foreign languages in his comics: there’s some Russian in Y: The Last Man, quite a bit of Esperanto in Saga, as well as the strange alien language in Paper Girls. None of BKV’s comics, however, use foreign languages as much as Barrier, about half of which is in Spanish. I don’t know any Spanish, and Brian K. Vaughan is open about the fact that he doesn’t either, so it’s absolutely fascinating to me how a language most readers don’t understand can be used so effectively.

Reading a language you don’t understand is a rather uncomfortable experience , but that’s kind of the point. Whenever foreign languages pop up movies are usually quick to put in subtitles, while comics put in angle brackets. <Therefore, you can imagine a character speaking any language in the world, yet you still understand it as clearly as you would English>. That becomes especially problematic with stories about immigrant experiences, because subtitles and angle brackets, the latter more so, annihilate foreign languages and simply make them palatable for the general audience.

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In a brief afterword at the end of the first issue BKV says the hope is that their “weird tale will ultimately be clear to all readers, including those of you who aren’t fluent in either/any of the languages featured.” It’s worth noting that the most striking and effective panels of the comic contain no dialogue at all. The way Barrier finds common ground for its readers and characters is not by making every language English but rather by dropping language altogether.

For this reason alone I consider Barrier a comic people should pick up. The idea of a work being understandable regardless of language is not novel on its own, Shaun Tan’s wordless comic The Arrival did that to great effect 10 years ago, but the way the team behind Barrier segregates its readership at the beginning just to bring us all together at the end of the first issue is something I haven’t seen done before. I’m excited to see what else the team has up their sleeves in the next 4 issues.

Barrier can be purchased or downloaded for free at http://panelsyndicate.com/