There are a lot of comics out there, but some just stand out head and shoulders above the pack. With “Don’t Miss This” we want to spotlight those series we think need to be on your pull list. This week, we look at “Fence,” a sports manga themed series from Boom! Box that was originally slated to be a mini, but was quickly upgraded to an ongoing series due to overwhelming critical and fan support.
Who Is This By?
“Fence” is the first foray into comics by Australian novelist C.S. Pacat, author of the widely acclaimed Captive Prince trilogy, which began as a web series before being acquired and published by Penguin. Mexican digital artist Johanna the Mad, for whom “Fence” is also the first comic series, is the book’s illustrator and co-creator. For Pacat, who fenced épée in high school and later developed an intense love for the sports manga while she lived in Japan for six years, the series is a natural fit that obviously comes from the heart. That said, Johanna the Mad’s incredibly vivid, clean, stylish artwork has already become synonymous with the series’ immediately identifiable, virtually iconic look. Rounding out the creative team, colors are by Joana Lafuente and letters are by Jim Campbell.
What’s It All About?
Pacat once described her gay fantasy epic, Captive Prince, as a slowly unfolding “enemies to lovers story.” Back when it first began, “Fence” seemed unequivocally destined to echo that same theme. In fact, the first 2-3 issues felt like they were designed simply to pit Nicholas Cox, the ostensible protagonist, against fencing prodigy Seiji Katayama in order to set the stage for a classic “winner take all” showdown that would inevitably end with the victor and vanquished making out and rolling around on the piste. Honestly, with such high quality writing and consistently outstanding artwork, that felt like enough. The creative execution was that good. As the series progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that the concept had legs, not to mention a zealous fan base. Accordingly, the secondary characters became increasingly important, engaging and nuanced.
Yes, the two main characters are still unmistakably headed toward an epic clash, but suddenly, the other individual battles all along the way (not to mention the attendant behind-the-scenes drama) feel equally important and vital. And nowhere is this rendered more clearly than in issue #5, the first installment of a new arc. This issue centers on Aiden Kane, a cocky, attractive rich kid who’s entirely full of himself. A background figure to this point, Aiden suddenly steps to the fore to challenge Seiji for the top spot after telling him to his face, “You’re better than me. And I’m still going to beat you.”
What Makes It So Great?
Like any outstanding comic, the art and writing work exceptionally well together. With it’s constrained color palette, bold illustrations and unadorned dialogue, there is an elegant simplicity to “Fence” that keeps the focus on the racing heart of the story, the often unspoken, innermost desires of the various characters. It’s not really about their wins and losses per se, it’s about their goals and aspirations, their inner demons and struggles – and who they want to get with.
Johanna the Mad’s artwork borrows from and references a lot of Manga techniques, but the most obvious of all is when character emotions boil over, particularly when they’re lovestruck. Suddenly, they get all cartoony and unable to contain themselves. Their mouths go all heart-shaped, their eyes become big, blank saucers and their hands turn to big round blobs as they helplessly fawn over the objects of their affection. And with a preponderance of svelte athletic male bodies, stone-chiseled jawlines, flawless skin and perfect hair on nearly every page, it never takes very long for the homoerotic tension to flare.
Much of the rest of the time, it’s all about competition, most of it psychological. Even in the quietest moments, there is a palpable tension as the characters fight for position, trying to make the cut or jostle for social standing in and amongst themselves. Every word, every gesture, no matter how subtle, feels highly purposeful, designed to strike or parry, attack or defend. Here, Johanna the Mad’s well-timed use of angular panels suggests the lightning fast, slashing motion of a sword to give seemingly innocuous conversations the intensity of a duel. Lafuente’s color palette, predictably heavy on whites given the subject matter, similarly ratchets up the tension by giving everything an air of repressed formality in which any emotion is necessarily perceived as weakness.Continued below
Underlying everything, however, is C.S. Pacat’s well crafted, wonderfully complicated cast of characters. Fencing, by definition, is an individual pursuit. Further complicate that fact with rankings, ratings, wins and losses and a state tournament roster that only offers three spots for twice that many athletes. Enemies, lovers, antagonists, friends, in a state of perpetual competition, the narrative possibilities are boundless and endlessly entertaining.
How Can You Read It?
Not coincidentally, this is the perfect week to get on board. “Fence” #5 hits stores today and Boom! Studios is releasing an exclusive “Discover Now” edition to local comic stores that collects the first four issues for only $9.99.