REVIEW: ‘Barbalien: Red Planet,’ Issue #1

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Barbalien: Red Planet #1

Barbalien: Red Planet #1 is published by Dark Horse Comics, written by Tate Brombal and Jeff Lemire, art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, colors by Jordie Bellaire, and letters by Aditya Bidikar. Mark Marz is an alien on Earth. He is known to the world at large as Barbalien—a superhero and protector of the people. His powers include the ability to change shape which he uses to wear the guise of an everyday law enforcement official. But these activities are not why Marz was sent to Earth. And his real mission, it seems, is about to catch up with him.

Barbalien: Red Planet #1 opens with our protagonist in chains. He has been given quite the beating as he struggles to keep his head up. Before him, his judge is proclaiming his crimes. It seems he was sent to Earth to invade and conquer it. Instead, he fell off the grid and was presumed dead. When he was eventually found, it was while he was wearing the guise of a human and in the embrace of a human man. Clearly, this was unacceptable. And now, for his crimes, he will die…

Rewind to a short time earlier on Earth. We quickly learn it is 1986. Marz, in his guise as a police officer, is on his way to help restrain a mob from turning violent. We can instantly tell there is some tension between his partner and himself. It seems Marz crossed a boundary his partner wasn’t pleased with. Luckily for Marz, his partner sees him as a big enough asset to the force that he’s letting it slide.

Once the duo arrives at the site of the disturbance, we see it is a protest of the government’s mishandling of the AIDS epidemic. While the protestors seem visibly upset, chanting loudly with slogans and demands, there is no sign of violence occurring. Nonetheless, upon arrival, the police begin wading into the crowd in full riot gear.  The situation teeters on a knife’s edge.

The images presented during this sequence provide an unsettling reminder of how worn these steps in society are. It reminds us that now, 30+ years later, the same steps are still happening as the powerful ignore the cries of those they cannot be bothered with. It was just so much easier back then to keep the situation from seeming as bad as it was. There were no phone videos showing up on social media back then.

While Barbalien: Red Planet #1 focuses on these moments through the lens of its alien protagonist, that only helps to emphasize how bad the situation is. Even the alien, who has no connection to these people, seems upset by the scene that is developing.

A misstep by the protests’ leader causes Marz to have to take action. Once the protest is broken up, an extremely conflicted Marz is seen setting off to try to gather his thoughts to better understand what is transpiring and his place within it. Beyond this, the book closes with a glimpse of events as they transpire back on Mars. And while our protagonist takes a moment to center himself, it looks like others are on the move.

Obviously, many of the themes handled in Barbalien: Red Planet #1 are of a sensitive nature for many. Whether it is for the oppressed in the moment that they portray or the relatability many will feel looking back, it can be a lot to take in. Happily, writers Brombal and Lemire handle the book’s content with, what feels to me, as the utmost respect. Nothing is done for shock value. The imagery itself remains fairly tame, but the emotion expressed by those speaking up for themselves is all too real.

For its part, the art furthers this emphasis on the emotional quite well. As officers move through the crowd, the anger and pain are clear for all to see. Just like the righteous fury of the Martian in the opening scene condemning Marz takes over the panels it occupies, every feeling here is put on poignant display by artist Walta.

This focus is further enhanced by Bellaire’s subtle but exquisite use of color. By keeping the background coloring in a simple, muted style, the eye is never distracted from the characters and moments that the story wants you to focus on. It is no surprise given her amazing track record lately.

The final touch in Barbalien: Red Planet #1’s emotional delivery comes in the form of Bidikar’s lettering. Every chant and slogan is put in vibrant, thick-colored lettering that fully delivers intensity. The sequence with the crowd just reads loud. However, while the bulk of the lettering delivers the story wonderfully, it does have a misstep. When the story moves to Mars, the Martians are given a rather unique font to their words. While I’m sure this is meant to deliver a sense of uniqueness to their speech, it also struggles with legibility. I love when letterers put some extra tone into fonts, but when it makes the book harder to read, I feel like it’s a miss.

All told, Barbalien: Red Planet #1 delivers a strong, impactful first issue. Where the story goes from here and whether it can continue to deliver a strong, emotional story remains to be seen. But it has certainly put a good foot forward in this issue.

Barbalien: Red Planet #1 is available on now wherever comics are sold.

Barbalien: Red Planet #1
4.5

TL;DR

All told, Barbalien: Red Planet #1 delivers a strong, impactful first issue. Where the story goes from here and whether it can continue to deliver a strong, emotional story remains to be seen. But it has certainly put a good foot forward in this issue.