Reading Resolution: “Fence, Vol. 1” by C. S. Pacat, illustrated by Johanna the Mad

17. A graphic novel: Fence, Vol. 1 by C. S. Pacat, illustrated by Johanna the Mad

List Progress: 3/30

School sports stories are a classic for a reason. They’re relatable to audiences who are in or have been in high school and feel like the things they are doing are the be-all and end-all of their lives. Competitions, tournaments and seasons give stakes and structure, while social life at the school balances it with levity. And audiences do not need to be keyed into the intense and often toxic worlds of professional sports, as the professional world exists largely as a distant goal. Many works have codified these tropes, especially in the world of sports anime and manga, and fans of Free! and Haikyuu! will find a lot to appreciate in the first volume of Fence, a Western comic written by C.S. Pacat and illustrated by Johanna the Mad. But aside from the choice of the less-popular sport of fencing, Fence doesn’t bring much new to the table, at least in this opening volume. 

Fence follows Nicholas Cox, an aspiring epee fencer trying to make a name for himself. He is the illegitimate son of a former fencing Olympian, and while he has had no privileges or serious training in his life, he does have some innate talent. But in a very technical sport like fencing, that can only take you a very small way, and he is humiliated in his first tournament by the aloof and superior Seiji Katayama. Six months later, they cross paths again, when he has gotten a scholarship to the Kings Row Boys School and Seiji has surprisingly gone to Kings instead of the far more prestigious Exton. They are immediately thrust into one another’s lives as roommates, and tryouts for the school team only exacerbate their anger towards each other. The rest of the team is made up of colorful characters who mostly serve as background in the first volume, but you can see where they have room to grow.

Fence has a lot of queer characters right off the bat, which is a definite plus compared to many school sports stories that contain a lot of gay subtext without having any concretely queer characters. But it is almost so accepting that it seems to take place in a different world. One of the boys on the team, Bobby, has long hair and wears skirts, and it would be refreshing to see a casually gender-non-conforming boy in a comic…except that he is drawn exactly like a girl in a manga, all big eyes and pixie chin, just without breasts. It is a way to have GNC characters that seems oddly uncomfortable with actual gender-nonconforming people. The team lothario, Aiden, runs into a similar conundrum; he sleeps his way through the all-male team, but his love interests are written with a very feminine sort of twitterpation. The comic clearly has all the best intentions, but feels like it was trying so hard to be accepting of all genders and sexualities, that it circles back around to being off put. 

For a teenage audience, Fence could be a lot of fun. But in a big world full of other school sports stories and comics, this doesn’t feel like an essential addition. If you read one Western sports comic about an outsider with physical capabilities but a lack of comfort with a core fundamental of the sport, featuring the son of a sports legend trying to live up to his father’s legacy and several queer characters, Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu is right there. But if you read two, give Fence a try.

Would I Recommend It: Soft yes. A good comic to grab from a library.

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