by Patrick Ehlers and Spencer Irwin
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: Border Town hinges on an obviously loaded concept: the membrane between the monster world and the human world lies along the border between the US and Mexico. All the xenophobia, all the paranoia, and all the actual danger is exaggerated. But there’s another component of the traditional border dispute narrative that’s cranked up to ten — culture. Writer Eric M. Esquivel and artist Ramon Villalobos take care to bask in the cultural specifics of our heroes, while only hinting at the implied culture of the monstrous villains. It’s a fascinating look at what humanizes people on either side of either border.
The issue kicks off with a flashback to Quinteh wrestling with his own shyness. He’s decided that he can’t face the kids at school for another day. We don’t know much about Quinteh at this point in the series: he doesn’t talk much, is big for his age, and always wears a luchador mask. His mother suggested the mask as sort of an ode to his Kiowa ancestors, who would dance all night before a battle, so they eject their souls from their bodies, making room for the spirits of great warriors to inhabit them in their stead. It’s a beautiful nod to both what is important to Quinteh’s family in the traditional sense, and what is important to Quinteh now.
This is also the first time in the issue that some of the text goes to a different color and identifies itself as a non-English language. Esquivel, Villalobos, and letterer Deron Bennett are all working in concert to express Quinteh’s cultural identity, which is something the character uses to protect himself emotionally.
Villalobos fills the issue with all different kinds of iconography, alluding to the sometimes ultra-specific works of art that form these characters’ personal and cultural identities. Julietta’s got a poster for Kevin Abstract’s “American Boyfriend” on her bedroom wall. That’s provides a specific look into her life and values, but again Bennett takes it one step further, giving her phone it’s own effect-y speech balloon filled with musical notes. There’s no staff here, so I can’t make out exactly what it’s supposed to be (and the interjected treble clefs suggest it more musical nonsense than anything else) but the fact that it looks specific is enough to suggest that we’re catching a moment in a teenage girl’s actual life.
She’s listening to a playlist called “Lofi Study Beats” when she gets the alert on her phone that there’s… some kind of something… happening downtown. And she immediately goes to the town’s twitter page to get more information. That stands in contrast to how Quinteh gets the news: he catches the news on TV. Aimi hears it on the radio, and discards her sketchbook to go see what’s going on. Aimi’s room gives us clues about her too, including a nod to the Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta comic series East of West.
The level of detail in each of these rooms is both astounding and revelatory. When we see Frank’s bedroom, it’s still mostly packed-up except for a guitar and one Green Lantern poster. He’s in transition from Wisconsin, unclear of what his cultural identity even is in Devil’s Fork, and the fact that his whole life is in boxes is evidence of this. And then there’s Blake, whose father seems more interested in feeding a rabbit than seeing that his son got the shit beat out of him.
And what’s this flag? It’s got the look of a white supremacist flag, but I wasn’t able to identify it. Even without knowing exactly what I’m seeing there, I can still make out the jugs of water, flood lights and neatly stacked bins all around the living room. Blake’s dad will confirm that he’s something of a doomsday prepper in the next panel, but Villalobos has already given us this information here.
Spencer, I can’t tell if the monsters are or are not treated the same way. Esquivel gives us a roll call of all the monsters, which is sort of a who’s-who of creatures from Mexican folklore. But the second one of them starts to show the teeniest bit of individuality, Mictlāntēcutli rips the fucking top of its head off. What do you think Spencer? And can you tease out any more meaning from our heroes’ bedrooms?
Spencer: I think those bedrooms are probably the key scene of this issue, Patrick, so I’d love to tease some more meaning from them — I’ll loop around back to them in a bit, though. Since you brought them up, lets talk about the monsters and their world first.
You’d have to go back to Border Town 1 to get a real good look at the landscape of “the subterrestrial nightmare realm of Mictlan.” There’s some genuine beauty to it, and our little Chupacabra refugee clearly has fond feelings for his home, for a moment not even remembering why he wanted to leave so badly — not until Mictlāntēcutli returns, at least.
This spread is so focused on the vast hoard of monsters that Mictlāntēcutli summons to chase and terrify the Chupacabra that the background itself — all the details of the world the Chupacabra calls home — are choked out completely, rendered simply as black, blank space. That seems like a pretty apt metaphor for what Mictlāntēcutli has done to the land of Mictlan, transforming it from a beloved home to a place the Chupacabra will risk life and limb trying to escape. Culture is less important at this point than survival.
Border Town‘s premise draws a pretty obvious parallel between the Chupacabra and immigrants who cross borders “illegally” to try to find a better life in America, and that makes Mictlāntēcutli a stand-in for the dictators, crime, and corrupt governments that drive people to flee their homelands in the first place. This central concept, of course, is meant to humanize immigrants and refugees; ironically, those who so cruelly, flippantly, and wrongly dismiss immigrants and refugees as “illegals” or monsters are more likely to empathize with literal monsters than their fellow human beings (though I doubt many of them would make it to a second issue of Border Town in the first place).
The power of this parallel — the kind of empathy this premise is meant to build with the readers — is also present within the story itself, most obviously with Quinteh.
Quinteh recognizes a part of himself within the Chupacabra, quite literally touching his face before touching the Chupacabra’s, making their connection explicit. As Patrick pointed out, Quinteh wears his mask to hide his fears, and he immediately recognizes that the Chupacabra is doing the same. His willingness to view the Chupacabra as human, to understand what’s driving it, is what moves him to help it.
The other kids’ motives might not be as pure. Aimi seems to be driven by curiosity/obsession, and Julietta by self-preservation. Most interesting to me, though, is what drives Frank to leave home and seek out the Chupacabra. Esquivel leaves his motives a bit more opaque, but I think that Green Lantern poster Patrick mentions is more important than it might at first appear to be. Villalobos and Esquivel, after all, give it a prominent place in the panel where Frank makes up his mind to go after the Chupacabra.
Although colorist Tamra Bonvillain gives this Lantern Hal Jordan’s brown hair, it’s pretty clearly supposed to be Kyle Rayner — he’s wearing a costume design that only Kyle has worn before (this was Kyle’s outfit in the early 2000s, around the time of Judd Winick’s Green Lantern run, Joe Kelly’s run on JLA, and the JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice crossover). I don’t think putting a Green Lantern poster — and especially a Kyle Rayner poster — in Frank’s room is just a random choice, because Frank and Kyle seem to have a fair bit in common.
Specifically, they both have one major aspect in common: both are half-Latino, with both having mysteriously absent Latino fathers specifically. I don’t think this is a coincidence — in fact, considering that this poster is just about the only thing Frank has unpacked, I’d venture to say that Kyle is an important character to Frank, probably specifically because of that background they share (Frank also has a box of comics in his room, so it’s not unreasonable to think that he’d be familiar with Kyle’s background). Frank’s a bit of a loose cannon, and later says that he want out to chase the Chupacabra because he wanted to take control of his own narrative, but that prominent focus on Frank’s GL poster at the exact moment he decides to take action makes me think that there’s more to it than that. Even if he doesn’t act on it often, perhaps Kyle has shown Frank that someone like him can be heroic, too.
While it’s not exactly the same as the empathy that drives Quinteh, these are both examples of stories giving people the power to see beyond themselves, to draw strength and learn compassion and heroism from others. It’s a powerful, yet subtle message from a book that’s otherwise always fun, always powerful, but not usually this subtle.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?