When Boom! Box first solicited Fence in the fall of 2017, they billed it as a fusion of Yuri! On Ice (an anime about figure skating) and Check, Please (an amazing web comic about college hockey and baking). This was a great marketing move, because I immediately added it to my pull list, and I am more than thrilled to review the first volume.

Fence, Vol. 1 collects issues one through four, and follows Nicholas Cox, a scrappy guy from the wrong side of the tracks who dreams of becoming a world-class fencer. Lacking the funds to pay for formal training, he cleans up a fencing studio in exchange for lessons, and enters a regional fencing tournament. He’s confident bordering on cocky, and the bottom seed, so of course he’s eliminated in the first round by the enigmatic Seiji Katayama, a fencing prodigy. Seiji disdains Nicholas, and he has a lot to learn about sportsmanship, but still beats Nicholas 15-0. Nicholas vows to beat Seiji one day, no matter how hard he has to work.

Despite his disastrous loss, Nicholas is recruited by the head fencing coach of Kings Row, an all-boys boarding school with a middling fencing program. Nicholas accepts the offer of a shot at a fencing scholarship, thinking he’ll get another chance to beat Seiji, who’s being recruited by Exton, the top fencing school in the country. However, once Nicholas arrives at Kings Row, he discovers that Seiji, for some reason, decided to come to Kings Row instead of Exton, that Seiji is also his new roommate, and that they’re both competing for one of the coveted three spots on the varsity fencing team. Now, not only is Nicholas’ honor on the line, but also his scholarship—if he doesn’t win a spot on the team, he’ll lose it, and won’t be able to afford the tuition at Kings Row.

Overall, Fence is a joy to read and experience. The dialogue and story, by C.S. Pacat, is sharp and funny, and she easily integrates explanations and background information about fencing techniques and rules into the story. This makes the story and technicalities easy to follow, with the added bonus of looping the reader in without making you feel like an idiot. Fencing novices will have no trouble following the story, and near novices like me (thank you, one semester of fencing class) will definitely learn something new.

What makes this comic really stand out, though, is the art. Pencils are done by Johanna the Mad, a popular web artist who makes her comic debut with Fence. She excels at dramatic framing, and I paused many times while reading this book to admire just how well she captures movement and emotions, whether it’s the swagger of Seiji Katayama leaving defeated opponents in his wake, how cavernous and intimidating the salle (a room used for fencing) feels on the first day of tryouts, and Nicholas’ anguish in defeat.

With the uber-dramatic framing, sometimes Fence feels less like a graphic novel and more like Japanese anime. The flow of the panels and the story feel an awful lot like anime cuts, and the plot is a classic sports anime storyline. Although not a huge fan of anime myself (Yuri! On Ice is one of two shows I’ve seen in their entirety), I’ve been to enough Otakons and listened to my otaku friends talk about sports anime enough to recognize it when I see it. The tropes are all there, including the scrappy underdog, the characters who go from being rivals to friends to maybe more (hopefully—Seiji and Nicholas are still firmly in the “rivals” stage of that evolution), and even the odd-couple friendships. There’s even one panel where one character is so in awe of Seiji that a wreath of red roses appears around the aloof prodigy’s head.

You would think that this would make Fence tropey and predictable, but somehow it really, really works. All the elements—the dialogue, the pencils, the inks—come together to create a loving homage to sports anime in comic form, with enough twists to make the story original and exciting. You can really tell that Pacat and Johanna the Mad are in sync for the vision of this comic, and the result is an entertaining, fun book that would be a great addition to any library.

On top of all of its merits, Fence also features an incredibly diverse cast. You would think that the upper echelons of prep-school fencing would be overwhelmingly hormonal white boys, but the fencing team at Kings Row is made up of hormonal boys of all races, cultures, sexual orientations, and gender identities. It’s fantastic to see that kind of representation in this comic, and I hope other creators in the industry follow suit.

Fence, vol. 1
by C.S. Pacat
Art by Johanna The Mad
ISBN: 9781684151929
Boom!Box, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: (13+)

  • India

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! India is a recent MLIS graduate. She works at a university library, where she helps purchase books for the graphic novel collection. Her love of comics began when she picked up an issue of Uncanny X-Men in high school, and she’s been a die-hard Marvel fan ever since. She’ll read anything from superheroes to small press, and she’s always looking for a new webcomic. When she’s not working or studying, she likes to cook, hike, brunch, and spout long-winded historiography rants.

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