THIS REVIEW OF ‘BORDER TOWN’ #1 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Brendan F. Hodgdon. While reports of DC Vertigo’s supposed demise had been greatly exaggerated (as recent books such as Deathbed and Motherlands would attest), there’s no denying the excitement around this most recent revitalization of DC’s venerable imprint. There seems to be a particular focus on new and distinct perspectives in this go-around, and given all of the fraught “debate” lately regarding that particular issue, it is gratifying to see such a noteworthy brand on the right side of history. With an exciting lineup rolling out over the next few months, DC Vertigo seems intent on reclaiming the relevance they once held. And thanks to the terrific Border Town #1, the imprint makes a definitive and vibrant mission statement to that end, and offers up a damn good story to boot.
Eric M. Esquivel and Ramon Villalobos have created a series that riffs on the formula of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and gives it a new, timely energy. Like Buffy, it’s a story of a new kid in town who falls in with a gang of misfits and confronts dangers both supernatural and social. But the layers that Esquivel and Villalobos add here, built on geography and race and culture beyond anything Whedon attempted, elevates the whole book to another level. This is not a story of casual escapism, but rather an honest, if severe, exploration of the American powder keg.
Esquivel’s script is unapologetically political, and very clearly stems out of the realities of the present. He doesn’t shy away from the real-world dangers of modern America; rather, he embraces them. MAGA vigilante turds, skinhead classmates, and the risks of being undocumented all play a role in this story, adding pressure and escalation beyond the supernatural backdrop. This is already a threatening, upsetting landscape for our hero Frank and his new classmates, even before the shapeshifting monster shows up to start eating people.
What’s more, the creature that initially menaces the town of Devil’s Fork functions as a smart extension of the atmosphere of fear that permeates the world. This creature takes on the form of its victims’ worst fears, be they immigrants or ICE agents. Through this, Esquivel deepens his story beyond the (necessary) acknowledgement of xenophobia and white supremacy to call out the sort of evil that manipulates those anxieties to its own ends. Regardless of where that metaphor goes in future issues, it provides a smart consideration of how this conflicted world leaves us vulnerable. It’s not just that Border Town builds on the current sociopolitical moment, it’s that it is an essential, unfiltered reaction to it.
At the heart of all this is our protagonist Frank, the grounding element of all the tension and danger of the story. Based on context, one could easily imagine a dweeby, soft-bellied version of Frank who learns to recognize the true strength of character within himself while standing bravely with his new friends. Thankfully, Esquivel avoids this trope and gives us a Frank who has been hardened by bitter experience. He knows when it’s time to throw hands to defend himself, and how to do it well. He’s a hothead, eager to stamp out the bullshit around him. As a hero, he’s flawed and damaged, but not to the degree of eyeroll-inducing cliché. He feels like a kid who has the moxie to confront whatever weirdness the story may bring, but might also bite off more than he can chew. It’s a potent recipe for dramatic tension, for sure.
Esquivel’s script is easily matched by the art, as Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillan provide career-best work in these pages. If you were to remove the mystical components of the story, their work would make the coming-of-age portions a visceral, resonant piece of graphic fiction on its own. As it is, the grotesqueries of the story (both human and otherwise) are brought to life in unsettling, hateful detail. And the violence is equal parts bloody and kinetic; Villalobos captures a face being caved in by a punch better than anyone I’ve seen in awhile. On top of that, the arid Arizona heat feels almost palpable, thanks to Bonvillan’s sun-drenched palette.
Border Town is an essential comic that captures a much-needed perspective in a wild and entertaining fashion, right at a time where we need such things. Much like Frank, it confronts the ugliness around us with bloody knuckles and a righteous attitude, promising a rollicking (and hopefully long-running) adventure to come.
Written by Eric M. Esquivel.
Art by Ramon Villalobos.
Colors by Tamra Bonvillan.
Letters by Deron Bennett.
8.5 out of 10