Boom! Studios started publishing sports comic titles last year with the Roller Derby related comic Slam!, followed up earlier this year by the WWE tie in titles. This week sees the release of another sports title, although in a somewhat different vain. Fence by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad is a coming of age, fight against circumstance, story set in the competitive world of junior fencing.
What's it about?
Entering his first competition, Nicholas Cox doesn’t let the changing room banter phase him. His is young and a little bit cocky but he knows that he can fence so isn’t intimidated by the spoilt rich boys.
Unfortunately for Nicholas his first elimination round is against Seiji Katayama, an experienced fencer who is only in the early rounds because of a tournament formality. The day doesn’t look good for Nicholas.
As the day unfolds Nicholas dwells on his past with flashes of his childhood and his introduction to the sport. With all to play for, will Nicholas be able to overcome his working class anxieties and prove his worth on the piste?
Fence is a teenage sporting melodrama. The central character has struggled through life, mixing work and school but at the same time finding time to train. Nothing is handed to him on a plate, unlike some of the other fencers featured in this first issue. Nicholas has to work for every single moment of fencing time. Even entering the competition forces him to sacrifice his savings.
C.S. Pacat’s sole purpose in this initial issue is to lay bare Nicholas' life struggles so that the reader instantly sides with him. This is a sporting narrative trope that can be seen in almost all famous sporting tales; support for the underdog. From early on in the comic Pacat starts to draw comparisons between Nicholas and those around him. The second page introduces the character with not one, but three awkward moments in quick succession; firstly, the registration lady can’t find his name on the entry list; secondly, his coach is not with him; thirdly, he does not know who his opponent is, despite the fact that Seiji Katayama turns out to be one of the most famous fencers in his age group. The registration lady’s shock is emphasised in visual terms but also in the script with a sarcastic comment: “You like short tournament’s?”
Pacat tells you everything you need to know about the central character within this opening encounter which then helps the story unfold in a more dramatic way. The underdog has been highlighted early so that every passing comment or flippant remark that is thrown towards him reinforces that Cox is an outsider. The artwork helps to relay this idea using a contrasting colour for his clothes. Cox is all in black pre-match whereas every other fencer is already in their whites.
Once the contest gets underway, Pacat uses Cox’s reaction to his opponent as a way of telling the young fencers history. For the reader the story covers a long period of time however for Cox himself it is like a flash of imagery before his eyes, over in a brief moment. Each memory seems to relate to a point lost in the match. Every important event leading Cox down the fencing path is laid out for the reader, again reinforcing the idea that Cox is an outcast.
By the end of this first issue the reader is completely behind Cox and routing for him all the way which makes what happens in this issue quite a gut punch, as inevitable as it might seem. But this is where Pacat’s character building really pays off because in essence what she has done with this first issue is re-tell the first Rocky film but with a fencing slant. All of the elements are there.
The style of the story telling and the art in particular are inspired heavily by Manga comics and even some of the panel transitions have an Eastern feel to them. There a number of cuts that require the reader to piece together what has happened and leap with Cox’s memory jumps. The narrative is a success because it is fairly simple and focuses mainly on one central character. The modern day action, the fencing match itself, is an extension of Cox’s life: the struggle against the upper classes and the feeling that he is out there, on his own, comes across in both parallel story lines.
Johanna The Mad has a wonderfully lyrical art style which draws on Manga inspirations. So much of the story is told simply through the straight forward figure composition in the panels, it’s almost as if the setting becomes irrelevant. This in turn makes it more noticeable when there is a detailed background, for example the quick cut away panel to Joe, the Epee Coach. Suddenly the background becomes more important and frames Joe in a setting reflective of his character. That single panel tells the reader everything you need to know about Joe.
The colours in the background by Joana Lafuente evoke the mood of each scene almost negating the need for details. The cold blues of the locker room help to set up the confrontation between Cox and the other fencers. It makes the scene uncomfortable for the reader who in turn relates it to the atmosphere between the rivals in the room. In contrast, the later training sessions where Cox learns how to fence, are drawn over lilac and purple backdrops which are more nurturing and welcoming. The training centre is a safe place.
Occasionally, some of the panels standout, designed to highlight a part of the narrative, or in the case already mentioned with Joe, to emphasis a particular character trait. For the most part this works well however there are moments where it becomes too obvious and the narrative is almost forcing a point down the reader’s throat. In the long run though this helps Pacat to move the story on at the pace required to get to this issues end point. It is an introduction to the main event and some awkward groundwork has to be laid beforehand and we can forgive the writer a little.
Over all Fence is an enjoyable read, if a somewhat simple and familiar narrative. This first issue has a very solid focus on the central character which allows the reader to get emotionally involved very quickly. The art is also simple, clean lines with large blocks of flat colour but this works in its favour, helping to build barriers between rivals. This is a strong opening issue.
Fence #1 is published by Boom! Studios. It is written by C S Pacat, illustrated by Johanna the Man and coloured by Joana Lafuente.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.