3 artists made a bilingual comic to show how complicated immigration really is.
Liddy heard a scream one night from the backyard of her home in the border town of Pharr, Texas.
She was having trouble with undocumented immigrants passing through her property. She'd been especially worried ever since she found one of her horses killed and skinned, which she took as a warning sign from a Mexican drug cartel.
When she went out to her backyard to investigate the sound, she was disoriented by what she found. But not half as much as I was.
That's the basic setup to a cool new web comic called "Barrier."
Written by Brian K. Vaughan with art by Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente, "Barrier" is a digital-only comic about immigration and aliens — legal, illegal, and extraterrestrial. The self-published series is available online, with the purchaser setting their own price, and the horizontal pages are optimized to fit your screen or tablet.
But here's the interesting part: The comic is bilingual. Which means I can't understand all of it.
Aside from a few years of high school Spanish that I can't remember and some random Irish phrases that I never use, I'm ashamed to say that English is my only language. But half of "Barrier" follows a Honduran immigrant en route to the United States, and there's no translation guide.
It's annoying and confusing — but, well, that's kind of the point.
"We wanted to try something different, presenting a story with no translations, so that readers in various parts of the world would each have completely unique experiences," explained Vaughan — who, like me, only speaks English.
Vaughan's artistic collaborators, Martin and Vicente, are both from Barcelona.
Unlike Vaughan, they speak Spanish. But their Spanish (and Catalan) is different from Honduran Spanish, or Mexican Spanish, so while they were making the comic, they ran the translated dialogue past the Honduran consulate in Barcelona too, just to be safe.
But again: That was kind of the point.
"It’s vital to the story that readers experience the same feeling of being lost and confused that people face when finding themselves in a different country," said Martin. "And judging by the both positive and angry responses we’ve received, we’ve apparently succeeded."
"We wanted to find an entertaining, unconventional and, most importantly, visual way to explore a complicated issue [like immigration]," Vaughan said.
Before "Barrier," the trio worked on a similarly experimental webcomic about internet privacy called "The Private Eye," a digital-only story that was pay-what-you-want and free of any copyright locks or encryption. This time around, Vaughan says they wanted to tackle what might be the most important topic of conversation for the next five years.
"We didn’t exactly need a crystal ball to guess that it might be immigration," he said, although he admitted that none of them realized just how big of an issue it would be.
From a reader's perspective, the lack of translation in "Barrier" really does make the story that much more effective.
You can still figure out what's happening, for the most part; not every language uses words, and the artwork in the comic speaks for itself.
I might not be able to interpret the dialogue during Carlos' trek through South America and Mexico, for example. But thanks to Martin's and Vicente's incredible artwork, I can at least understand that he's feeling anxious, lost, and confused — because, after all, so am I.
"I’m always humbled and fascinated by the way that language both unites and separates us all," said Vaughan. "As a visual medium, comics can often smash through that language barrier, which was a phenomenon I always wanted to investigate more deeply."
And just to drive the point home even further, there are sequences without any words at all, but they still tell a powerful story. You can see it in the pages below, or in the upcoming third installment of the series, which ... well, let's just say it takes the idea of feeling alien to differently literal level.
The disorientation of not knowing what's happening brings clarity to the issue of immigration in an incredible way.
"Languages are not only about communication, but they also model the way we perceive, understand, and experience the reality and the world around us," Martin said.
The artists know some people will miss out on certain subtleties and nuances in the story because they don't speak the language. Some people will likely understand a different point of view entirely. Others might follow their instincts and block out the half of the story they can't understand, even if they could still infer the story from the images and moments.
But, come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the larger debate around immigration.
When it comes to a complex topic like immigration, sometimes it's hard to find the right words. But that's exactly why "Barrier" is worth checking out.
Stories bring us together, and when a story like this is accessible to anyone, it makes it easier for people to have important conversations about things like immigration and surveillance — regardless of their native tongue.