There’s so much to love about Dark Horse’s Barbalien: Red Planet #3. That might be why it gets a little frustrating when it feels it’s not living up to its potential. Writers Tate Brombal and Jeff Lemire, with artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Aditya Bidikar begin to course correct after their last issue, but still have room to grow.
Brombal and Lemire continue to show their passion on every page. You can hear it in their characters’ voices. These are characters who are fed up with injustice, fed up with being treated as “other.” It’s beautiful, what they have to say, but this script suffers from being a little one note. What the first issue of Barbalien did brilliantly was juxtapose all the gay characters and how open they are with how closed off and scared Mark Markz was. With Markz coming out of his shell and beginning the process of coming out of the closet, Brombal and Lemire have lost their balance. Every character now wears their heart on their sleeve. Whether it’s their bigotry and hate they’re showing to the world or their brave love and fearless showing of who they are and how they feel.
Of course, it would be silly to say Markz needs to get back in his shell. But Brombal and Lemire need someone who keeps their cards close to the vest. Someone who isn’t willing to explain why they hate Markz or why they’re proud to be who they are. The characters in this series are acting as a juxtaposition to “acceptable” society. Barbalien, as a series, beautifully shows how the underground gay community is bravely in touch with their emotions and shameless about their rage. But to not see what it is they’re bravely different from, to not see the “closed-offishness” they’re rejecting, the effect loses its potency. That said, with characters like Markz’s tight-lipped and closed-minded partner Officer Cole, Brombal and Lemire are beginning the road back to that balance. And with details like Dr. Day talking to a dying patient’s mother over the phone, they’re heart wrenchingly showing scenes of the gay experience in the 80’s.
Walta creates an emotional rollercoaster. We open on a scene of Dr. Day standing over a young man dying of AIDS-related pneumonia. Walta’s beautiful rendition of the young man’s face as he dies will haunt readers. On the next page, we’re seeing Barbalien and Boa Boaz’s confrontation. Walta wants us to focus in on the anger and the violence of the scene. He zooms in on the angry faces of Markz and Boaz, and on their fists as they meet their mark. Then we’re immediately back in the hospital. Walta shows the scared faces of Markz and Miguel as they burst into the room. What Walta does here is he shows the inner turmoil of the gay community in the 80’s. They’re surrounded by injustice, full of rage, and both perplexed and deeply moved by any sign of help. Walta creates an issue that’s sad yet stunning all at once.
Bellaire also highlights the violence of this issue. Her pages are full of red. Whether it’s the red of Martian skin, or the red of blood or paint, it’s all violence. We see that when Barbalien and Boaz come head-to-head. Violence runs through their system. We haven’t seen Barbalien quite as deranged. In the world of Black Hammer, Martians were bred to be warriors. And so, this is Barbalien’s “true form.” But the issue doesn’t stop there. We’re quickly met with the healing yellow powers of Dr. Day. She shows Markz how he can be a light in the midst of darkness. So when he and Miguel take a walk at night, with the sky looking red in the background, it’s not the red sky we notice as much as the yellow lamps lighting their way. Bellaire uses the mix of yellow and red to create a beautiful page.
Bidikar creates a great back and forth between being bold and reserved. In fact, Bidikar seems to understand the need for a balance in these characters. The need for characters to be both brave and a little scared. When Barbalien and Boaz fight, Bidikar releases all hell. The sounds of fists hitting flesh are large and colorful. There’s a reveling in the violence that’s happening. But when we see Markz again, he seems much more reserved. Almost as though he scared himself. His word balloons give lots of space to everyone else’s. You can hear the pauses he gives people, trying to be sure he doesn’t interrupt.
And when Miguel and Markz leave the hospital, Miguel proudly yells about Dr. Day and the Sunlight Sisters. Bidikar gives them their own font and shows in the jagged edge of the balloon that their names are being yelled. “They’re incredible,” Markz says quietly at the bottom of the page. Bidikar’s lettering is pushing for a balance. It’s showing reservations and fear where the dialogue often doesn’t.
Dark Horse’s Barbalien: Red Planet is just so interesting. It’s ripe with dramatic potential and full of poignant moments. Some of that potential gets squandered in the script. It’s not interesting to read every character’s thoughts, it’s interesting to guess at what they may be thinking. But this creative team is starting to reach a balance between the reserved and the bold. Hopefully, they’ll get at the subtlety of what’s going on between the lines soon. Pick up Barbalien: Red Planet #3, out from Dark Horse January 20th, at a comic shop near you!