Fence is a manga-inspired comic about the fencing team of a high school boarding school. The story includes sexual and ethnic diversity, a secret half-brother, class division, and passionate rivalry between two teammates who loathe each other and are therefore, inevitably, randomly chosen to be roommates. The authors have promised romance, and while so far none has been forthcoming, if the roommates do not become lovers in the very near future I will be amazed. This review is of Volume 1, which collects issues 1-5.
Nicholas Cox was raised by a single mom without much money. His father was an Olympic fencer and Nicholas gets fencing lessons by cleaning and repairing the local fencing school. He enters his first tournament and is roundly trounced by Seiji Katayama, who has an arrogant attitude and a reputation as the best fencer around. However, Nicholas shows enough potential to win a scholarship to Kings Row Boys School – where he’s promptly stuck with Seiji for a roommate. The boys hate each other so much that drawing a line down the middle of the room isn’t enough. They hang a shower curtain along the divide to split the one room into two. Since the shower curtain is blue and is patterned with rubber duckies it fails to lend the boys the aura of “deadly serious rivalry” that they were probably shooting for. The shower curtain and the duckies becomes a running visual joke and I adore it.
The plot is soapy with a lot of fun supporting characters. Bobby Rodriguez wears skirts and a ponytail, uses he/him pronouns, has a crush on Seiji, and helps orient Nicholas to the school. Bobby’s attire is neither played for laughs nor is it bully fodder – no one comments on it one way or the other. Jesse Coste is one of the best fencers and might be Nicholas’ half-brother. Aidan is the school’s heartbreaker and is shown passionately kissing another boy and promptly forgetting said boy’s name. The phrase “Aidan dumped me” is another running joke. Eugene Labao is a competitive prankster. Other characters will presumably get more development as the series goes on.
The art, by Johanna The Mad, is manga-inspired and vibrant and fun, with visual jokes, action, and clean lines. The comic as a whole is inspired by sports manga, including Yuri!!! On Ice. Like Japanese sports manga, the art is quite kind to the female heterosexual gaze – a running joke involves how many times a day Nicholas has to change clothes to meet the school routine and dress code.
I like the way this comic includes LGBT characters and characters of color completely matter-of-factly. I also like the classic trope of the scruffy underdog with great talent but bad technique versus the highly trained aristocratic type. It’s especially enjoyable because the comic takes the time to explain proper technique, and to illustrate (literally) Nicholas’s specific challenges in that regard.
Frankly I don’t know that fencing, worldwide, has the kind of following that, say, soccer has, but to these kids fencing is EVERYTHING. It shapes their daily routines. It defines their status. For Nicholas, it offers a chance to measure up to family legend and to thrive in a material sense – with little income, a fencing scholarship means a way out of poverty. It’s also a great sport for a character and relationship-based comic book because everyone ends up in a match against every other person at least once, which allows character traits to shine.
This promises to be a fun series. I look forward to Vol. 2, which is due to come out in January 2019. Meanwhile, several more individual issues are available if you like reading them one at a time (as of this writing, Issues #1-7 are available).
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