Fence Vol. 1 trade paperback
Writer: C.S. Pacat
Artist: Johanna the Mad
Colors: Joana Lafuente
Letters: Jim Campbell
Cover artist: Shanen Pae (regular and variant)
Editor: Shannon Watters
Publisher: Boom! Studios
Price: $9.99 US
Boom! Studios has a knack for finding and promoting offbeat and fun new properties that appeal to a wide variety of readers, and a comic book about fencing seemed intriguing to me. Unfortunately, writer C.S. Pacat has constructed a mini-world that represents just about everything I detest about sports. Fence takes us to a place where abuse and betrayal are commonplace, where hardly anyone thinks about someone other than themselves and where one’s skill at an antiquated contest determines one’s worth rather than one’s character. To make matters worse, this first collected volume of the series doesn’t even come close to offering a complete story arc of any kind.
Nicholas Cox is a poor kid with a lot to prove, but he has one thing going for him: he’s adept at the sport of fencing. Of course, he comes by it honestly, as he’s the secret love child of a heralded world champion. A scholarship provides Nicholas with the opportunity to attend an expensive private school and to make its fencing team, and therein he sees the path to better coaching, to the state championships and to a chance to face off against his half-brother, whom his father coaches. One major obstacle is in his way: arrogant fencing prodigy Seiji Katayama, who’s attending the same school and vying for one of the few coveted spots on the team.
Johanna the Mad’s manga-influenced artwork is definitely attractive. She employs smooth, flowing lines that capture the grace and movements of fencing pretty nicely, and she communicates the mechanics of the sport clearly as well. The characters all boast an appropriate youthfulness. Perhaps what’s most intriguing is the gender and sexual fluidity of the characters as well. That several characters look a bit too similar to one another is a bit distracting at times, and at times, the scale of the settings is far too large (Nicholas and Senji’s dorm room is implausibly huge, for example).
The pacing of this series seems to work well for individual issues, but it’s horrendous as a trade paperback. Boom! Leaves its audience in the middle of a tournament to try out for the school fencing team. There’s no payoff for the reader. It feels like we get only half of the story here. At the very least, it seems like the book should have ended with the result of the tournament. It’s an odd choice.
Perhaps C.S. Pacat’s greatest misstep with this book is characterization. Senji appears to be defined solely by his arrogance. We really don’t get a sense of why he’s so cold, so the audience is left thinking he’s just a ick. Nicholas is the underdog of the story, the guy for whom we’re meant to root, but he’s depicted as a jerk most of the time as well. He’s trying to improve his lot in life, but his motivation appears to be to just stick it to his absent father. He seems driven by spite, and that’s far from the most appealing quality in a protagonist.
I have to admit my own personal issues with organized sport — from varsity athletics to pro leagues — colored my view of Fence. I’ve never had any real interest in sports in general, and I’ve always taken issue with the glorification and prioritization of athletics in education, in society and in culture. I acknowledge a lot of good can come from organized sports, from socialization skills to teamwork to friendship, but Fence wallows in everything negative about athletics. I found it incredibly off-putting, but one’s own perspectives and experiences will no doubt affect one’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of this book. 5/10