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Why Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s Barrier Is a Tool for Empathy in Trump’s America

By Chris Kindred

In the tail end of 2015, writer Brian K. Vaughan, artist Marcos Martín, and colorist Muntsa Vicente—the powerhouse team behind the sci-fi noir The Private Eye—quietly dropped Barrier #1 on their pay-what-you-want digital comics outlet Panel Syndicate.

Tearing Down Walls

For those that missed its initial run, Barrier is a sci-fi miniseries that cuts straight to the heart of the conversation around American immigration. The miniseries introduces Liddy, a cattle rancher who prepares to protect her land from Mexican drug traffickers after finding a mutilated horse head on her property. Liddy’s arc runs parallel to that of Oscar’s, the series’ second (but not secondary) protagonist. His story starts with a deal to hitch a ride into the United States from Honduras with the help of a local smuggling ring. When Liddy and Oscar finally meet, they struggle with navigating not only their language barrier, but an alienation of the fourth kind. And though Barrier was crafted a few years ago, and saw print for the first time last week under Image, the comic's message about communicating across differences has become even more potent in today’s political climate.

The five issues unspool a story that analyzes the ways that language and culture separate people, and how people choose to reconcile those differences. In its first chapter, the comic establishes itself as a snapshot of America during the 2016 presidential election season, running in the background of the story’s original release. Then-candidate, future president Donald Trump had already made statements about foreign countries “bringing their worst,” casting them as rapists and murderers in his speeches. Though it was only a precursor to anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., it marked a significant point of escalation as Trump’s rhetoric gained popularity among his supporters. This is made clear in Liddy’s vigilance to keep immigrants—especially cartel-affiliated gangsters—from entering the States through her land, which lies right on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the real world, Liddy’s narrative is just one way cultural walls are built and kept.

When I first picked up Barrier, I hit a wall before I could even sink my teeth into it: a large chunk of the first issue’s dialogue is in Spanish, with no translations readily available, and I only speak English. iPad in hand and not at all ready to start live-translating a comic, I registered that this titular language barrier was the comic’s central narrative device. That frustration underscored each story beat, and had done so so seamlessly that I didn’t even recognize it as a deliberate decision. Confronting the reader with an unfiltered representation of another culture in a comic proves to be an ingenious tool to represent frustration—the struggle of trying to solve a problem with another who doesn’t speak your language. As a bonus, it’s also a powerful tool for generating empathy.

“We recognized that an untranslated, bilingual comic about immigration wasn’t exactly destined to be a commercial hit, but Marcos and I were both excited to see if we could tell a story about the way language can divide us, by using the (hopefully?) universal language of comics,” Vaughan writes in an afterword. Comics is one of the few art forms that can shift the narrative weight back and forth between the art and color and writing at will. It’s a delicate dance and one that takes a fair degree of mastery to pull off successfully; the creative team takes a huge risk and pulls off an equally huge feat to make this particular challenge a main feature of the story.

If you can only read English, don’t sweat it: Martín and Vicente’s visual storytelling and atmospheric prowess carry the reader through Oscar’s half of the story, despite (or propelled) by his Spanish dialogue. Readers can glean a basic understanding of what’s happening without the dialog, again, underscoring comics relevance as a visual medium.

Empathy Is a Choice

However, translating the Spanish as you go reveals a more nuanced picture of Oscar’s character and the people he meets on his journey to the States. Barrier doesn’t necessarily demand a perpetual translation to move through the plot, but it does reward the effort with more flavor. This narrative element mirrors the process of connecting with actual people. In real life, that same attentiveness and effort is required to build bridges across that murky space between humans. Doing that work, taking that extra step to understand Oscar’s motivations and circumstances, makes him a much more fascinating character to follow.

And through this narrative tool, Barrier suggests that empathy itself is a choice: a piece of art that allows a person to choose how to engage with the Other, or someone whose life and background are fundamentally different from your own. It’s not only relevant, but a move that falls just short of being a political act. During the rise of the Trump Administration, from just before the president’s campaign to a year plus into his first term, the American public has witnessed a galvanization of hatred. More specifically, white nationalists and those complicit are refusing to empathize with others and are calling for the bridge between different cultures to fold completely. The result transforms blatant racism into policy, with immigrant families picked apart by secret-police-style tactics and rallies against the concept of cultural and workplace diversity.

Barrier acknowledges the spectrum of racism we see in conversations around immigration through Liddy considering (but ultimately not choosing to) enlist the help of a gun-toting, rebel flag-waving mercenary, ready to kill the first Mexican he sees. In an era where racism and hatred are emboldened, I want to see more comics offer the reader tools to build social and cultural bridges wherever possible. The more people that understand how empathy is fostered, the smaller the powers causing division will become. That’s a lofty goal—one that may take generations to meaningfully achieve—but as long as works like Barrier exist, that goal can remain in a collective consciousness moving forward.  

Barrier #3 by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martín, and Muntsa Vicente releases Wednesday, May 14, 2018