“Fence” #1 begins as a pretty straightforward take on the age-old sports narrative of the disadvantaged outsider trying to break into the big leagues. The debut issue is well crafted, but let’s face it, the real story is yet to come. (Warning: contains minor spoilers.)
Written by C.S. Pacat
Illustrated by Johanna The Mad
Colored by Joana Lafuente
Lettered by Jim Campbell
Sixteen-year-old Nicholas Cox is an outsider to the competitive fencing world. Filled with raw talent but lacking proper training, he signs up for a competition that puts him head-to-head with fencing prodigy Seiji Katayama…and on the road to the elite all-boys school Kings Row. A chance at a real team and a place to belong awaits him—if he can make the cut!
With its sleek white-on-white cover, angular panels, and unadorned dialogue, there is an elegant simplicity to “Fence” #1. To this point, in fact, it’s the incredibly straightforward story of Nicholas Cox, an under-privileged, upstart kid with plenty of natural talent, but a lack of financial resources and family support. Having been abandoned by his father (a famous fencer) at a young age, Nicholas is determined to land a scholarship (and better coaching) with an elite high school known for it fencing prowess. Structurally, there aren’t any bells and whistles, overly clever plot twists or genre-bending ideas – but in this case, that’s not a bad thing. In a world full of breathless solicits that tend to feature supposedly high concept ideas like and they’re actually a family of vampires (or robots or werewolves or – the list goes on and on), “Fence” separates itself from the pack precisely because it doesn’t go out of its way to impress us with its own ingenuity. It’s just a damn solid comic.
Working beautifully in concert together, acclaimed novelist C.S. Pacat’s script and Johanna The Mad’s illustrations efficiently set the stage for what promises to be a stylish and intriguing sports-manga-inspired series that just may turn some comic book fans into fencing aficionados and vice versa. Unfortunately, despite incredible production values and the emerging themes of overcoming the odds, intense rivalry, human relationships and passion, this is one of those debut issues that ends right as the story begins. In fact, well constructed as this installment may be, much of the time it reads more like an extended prologue (or even a #0 issue) than it does a first chapter, especially if you’re at all familiar with the pre-publication hype.
Needless to say, with queer Australian genre fiction icon C.S. Pacat at the helm, there must be much more to the story than is revealed in this premiere issue, we simply don’t get there yet. Pacat has described her out-of-the-blue smash hit trilogy, Captive Prince, as a slowly unfolding “enemies to lovers” story, infused with homoerotic tension. With a preponderance of svelte athletic male bodies, chiseled jawlines, flawless skin and perfect hair on nearly every page, it seems pretty clear where things are headed in this case, too. (Especially on the last page, where things really get interesting.)
Meanwhile, delight in Johanna The Mad’s fantastic pencils and acknowledge the fact that fencing’s incredibly striking, almost sculptural images are perfectly suited to visual storytelling. (Why did it take this long? Or have I totally missed it somehow?) With a deft combination of dramatic body positions, simple motion lines and appropriately blurry edges, the Mexican digital artist expertly captures and communicates the speed and grace of competitive fencing. The first words of the story compare a fencer’s blade to a marksman’s bullet, noting, “Watching from the sidelines, it’s just a blur.” Luckily for us, we have Johanna The Mad’s expert eye to capture these split-second moments and freeze them in time so that we might enjoy them at our leisure.
Joanna Lafuente’s colors maintain the same uncomplicated vibe as the rest of the book. Obviously, given the nature of competitive fencing equipment, there’s an awful lot of white. Wisely, Lafuente turns this limitation into a strength, using a wonderful assortment of accent colors when she can (especially violet, light purple and blue), while letting your eye naturally follow the figures dressed in white. Notably, for example, Nicholas only wears white while competing on the piste. The rest of the time he wears a generic, nameless gray. His arch-nemesis Seiji Katayama (who beats him 15-0), on the other hand, is only seen in white, never street clothes, a statuesque, god-like figure.Continued below
In the end, “Fence” #1 is a wonderfully crafted comic, if ultimately unfulfilling. Reaching the final page, you know the story is just beginning and that can’t help but be frustrating. There are hints of great things to come, but so far they’re only that.
Final verdict 7.0 – Three or four months from now we very well may be looking back at the start of a brilliant run. For now, we’re still on the starting line. Allez!