Saga co-creator Brian K. Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin have been hypnotizing readers since 2007, when they released Doctor Strange: The Oath. In 2013, they put out Private Eye, a critically acclaimed 10-part sci-fi series that tackled privacy in an internet-less world. Its release was something out of the future, too, as it posted to their own digital platform, Panel Syndicate, where patrons could pay any price they wanted to download each DRM-free issue. In 2015, the book won both the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Digital Comic / Online Comics Work, respectively.
That same year the creative duo started up their next webcomic, Barrier, a five-issue alien abduction story layered with heavy themes of illegal immigration and environmentalism. Even more ambitious was the plan to have half of the series feature South American Spanish dialogue, without any translation.
Once again, the duo struck a nerve, as Barrier has been Eisner-nominated for Best Digital Comic. Like Private Eye, Barrier was long available exclusively online until a deal was struck with Image Comics to produce it in print; it will run as a weekly series through the month of May, with the first issue available on Free Comic Book Day this Saturday.
SYFY WIRE interviewed Vaughan and Martin about the themes and process in creating Barrier, the reaction of their online patrons, and their experimental delivery system.
It took a while to release Private Eye to print through Image after being exclusive to Panel Syndicate. You waited a similarly long time with Barrier. Why now?
Brian K. Vaughan: Marcos and I obviously love digital comics, but we owe our careers to brick-and-mortar retailers, so we both responded to Image publisher Eric Stephenson's audacious plan to release this five-part story in print weekly throughout May, exclusively through your friendly neighborhood comic store.
Did you find there to be different reaction from readers who could only read the English as opposed to those who could read both South American Spanish and English?
BKV: I knew that some people would react... strongly to being confronted by a language they might not understand — that's one of the things our story is about — but I wasn't prepared for HOW strongly. It made some readers furious, even if they paid nothing to read it through Panel Syndicate. But I like to think whoever we don't completely alienate with that first issue will ultimately connect with Oscar and Liddy's stories, whether they speak English or Spanish or neither.
Marcos Martin: It was also interesting to see the opposite reaction on the part of some readers who understood that was part of the "barrier"concept and how that sparked a bit of a debate between both points of view.
The first time reading Barrier, I resisted translating what I couldn't read. I really wanted to work through the language barrier and focus on the art to see the story Marcos and (colorist) Muntsa Vicente were telling visually.
BKV: Yeah, any comic about language lives in the cold shadow of those (Alan) Moore/ (Rick) Vietch Swamp Thing issues set on Rann, which really made me start to appreciate what this medium can do that film or theater or novels can't.
MM: To me, that's the way it's meant to be read. I mean, I understand the effort many people put into translating the bits of dialogue they can't read, whether it's English or Spanish, it's only human. But not being able to understand some parts of the language is an essential part to the experience of the series. I actually made the effort of using as much Honduran slang as possible so that even the Spanish parts would be obscure to most Spanish speaking readers. It's a rare case where you're getting the most from the story by not getting most of the story.
Barrier originally came out in 2015-2017 and we're currently in a very… challenging political climate where there are more walls in front of us than ever. Was this a specific theme Barrier explores?
MM: Absolutely. Unfortunately, this inability to understand each other and even worse, complete lack of empathy, is a constant trait in the history of humankind. And it's obviously not exclusive to the U.S but a worldwide theme as we've seen with the Syrian refugees arriving to Europe, Brexit in the UK or the Catalonia crisis in Spain, just to touch on a few examples closer to my home.
Barrier #3 has no dialogue. What were the challenges you encountered?
BKV: After twenty years of writing comics, that was my first attempt ever at a wordless issue, and it was surprisingly tough to write, though I bet it was much tougher to draw.
MM: Brian's scripts are always detailed enough to give the artist a clear idea of every element in a scene without feeling constricting in any way and this issue was no different. There might have been a slightly higher amount of panel shuffling around the page than usual since there were no dialogue beats to follow.
But the hardest part had to do with portraying certain actions without the help of any explanatory texts or sound effects. Simple things you wouldn't give a second thought when describing them in writing or shooting them for the screen like tapping a soda can, become these incredibly headache-inducing conundrums.
How much of Issue #4 was purely Marcos and Muntsa running wild or Brian, did you explicitly detail what you wanted to see?
BKV: I may have suggested what they're doing from moment to moment, but the design and execution of those aliens was entirely Marcos and Muntsa.
MM: Again, Brian always provides enough visual information both in terms of mood, action and story elements for the artists to build from. He's also always open to integrating any crazy suggestions I might come up with, which is always an encouraging aspect to the creative collaboration. Well, either that or he's just too tired to argue with me. Either way, I think it's fair to say all visual elements in the book belong to the three of us equally. Although, extra credit should be given to Muntsa who brings everything to life with her amazing color design.
One of the most interesting choices in the series is how the aliens communicate. Could you explain that crucial choice without spoiling anything?
BKV: Marcos and I originally discussed this story having three languages — English, Spanish, and a completely new tongue that was truly alien to the others — and we wanted to find visual ways to have them both separate and connect different characters who maybe aren't as different as they think.
In addition both Private Eye and Barrier, Panel Syndicate has grown to offer Ken Niimura's Umami, Albert Montey's Universe! and David Lopez's Blackhand Ironhead. Have you come to any conclusion about the pay-as-you-like delivery model experiment?
BKV: I thought that Marcos' quasi-socialist business plan would be an immediate failure, so I'm shocked that it's still around five years later. And the fact that Panel Syndicate now gets to host other amazing creators, all of whom keep every penny of whatever readers choose to pay them directly, feels like the coolest achievement of my career, especially because it involved zero work on my part.
MM: When we started Panel Syndicate we never thought of it as a replacement to print comics but rather as an alternate distribution system that would allow for a smarter relationship between readers and creators. I'm proud to see if it has achieved many of its goals like reaching a global audience, producing high quality material at an affordable price or increasing the awareness of a co-responsible relationship between the authors and their readership. All of that without any kind of sponsors, publicity or external help other than our work, readers' word of mouth and the selfless support from many industry professionals, from editors to retailers to journalists.
Is there more story in Barrier left to tell?
BKV: I love these characters, so I hope they'll stay with readers for a while, but no, I prefer stories that have endings.
MM: Stories sometimes take strange turns and fly off in directions you didn't initially plan they would. But this one ends exactly in the way Brian intended it to when we first talked about it and personally, I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.