Fence: Rivals returns to the tense environment of the students at Kings Row; with Nicholas starting to realize just how much work he has to catch up not only to Seiji, but to Jesse. This is the first time the Kings Row boys will compete in a team competition and their lack of teamwork is very apparent. Seiji may finally have to admit that fencing isn’t just a solo sport, and learn to trust his team.
Since Rivals is a continuation from the first three volumes, there’s a lot of backstory that will be missing if a reader picks this volume up first, especially because Fence doesn’t fall into the problem many mainstream comics do of re-explaining things at the start of each issue, which gets incredibly repetitive once the issues are collected into a volume. This does mean however it’s also hard to talk about the plot of Rivals without running into spoiler territory.
That being said, the story does still move pretty slowly. At least in Rivals, we don’t spend the entire graphic novel covering just one event, so compared to the previous volumes the story is starting to pick up. A primary issue is that often, the story stops to explain basic fencing concepts using Nicholas as the in-story reason to do so. This is understandable, to a certain degree, because fencing isn’t as common a sport in most groups as say soccer or football, so the creators can’t assume readers have a base understanding of the sport’s rules. It does make Nicholas look, now in the fourth volume of this series, like he never actually learned to fence and just was incredibly lucky to have stumbled into a fencing uniform, across the piste, and somehow won matches.
The art has always been very clean and simple, and this volume is no exception. It does seem like the manga influences are getting more apparent, with use of screentones and gestures common to manga as well as making characters small and cute (a state referred to as chibi, a Japanese word for short) in certain situations. Something I’ve found kind of amusing with Fence’s art style is how it tries to make fencing uniforms look cool. Unfortunately, fencing uniforms are just not cool, and often look a little silly. Johanna the Mad does her best though, I’ll give her that. The one problem I have with the art’s simplicity is how often there are no background details in panels, at best a wash of color and maybe some action lines or generic people shapes. It really solidifies that this is a story about the people, not the setting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can be frustrating for a reader that likes background details.
As an American series, Fence is pretty unusual for covering fencing, but because of the themes of teamwork, rivalry, and hints of romance it’s the perfect comic for fans of manga like Haikyuu! and Kuroko’s Basketball, or novels like Foxhole Court. I know, I know this is a comic review but C.S. Pacat is better known for her Captive Prince trilogy and Foxhole Court feels like the novel version of Fence.
A final note, in case readers are confused: The series was changed from an ongoing one, released in numbered volumes, to original graphic novels, which means going forward each volume will have a subtitle, like this one. So there are volumes 1-3 of Fence, and now Fence: Rivals. There is also a novel coming out in the fall, written by Sarah Rees Brennan. No word yet on subsequent graphic novels.
By C.S. Pacat
Art by Johanna the Mad
Boom! Box, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: teen
Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/213127-fence (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian, White, , Gay