I’ve never been so excited to read a comic just from the cover alone. Instead of the typical cover art business, FENCE #1 focuses in on one character. His design is simple. There are just three colors: the white of the uniform, the fleshy hue of skin — and a jet-black stare. It’s an intense, challenging gaze. Not fierce, but calm. Certainly, artist Johanna the Mad is on-point for the cover.

Image Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

But who is the character behind the stare? Writer C.S. Pact’s script provides the details. The cover depicts Seiji Katayama, the finalist fencer at the Junior European Champions competition. They say he spent his last year in France and came back to the US to re-qualify. With a scholarship from Exton, the state’s top fencing high school, Seiji’s a champ. His matches are always 15-0. No one has ever touched him. And he knows it.

Inspired by sports manga and anime, FENCE #1 introduces us to the competitive world of high school fencing. Plus, like sports anime, this comic delivers an intense, though somewhat predictable, the story of a hero-from-nothing meeting his rival. Our protagonist, unknown underdog Nicholas Cox, doesn’t care about Seiji’s reputation. All he cares about is fencing. Nothing will keep him from touching Seiji. Touching him in a 100%, definitely platonic manner between two athletes, of course.

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Nicholas Cox Is an Underdog, Despite His Lineage

Every competitor, judge, and spectator at the regional tournament knows Seiji Katayama. Meanwhile, not a soul knows the local club member paired against the famed fencer in the first bracket. As the youth duels Seiji, a spectator seems to recognize his style. For Nicholas Cox, this is no coincidence.

Although he grew up with a single mom, Nicholas Cox knows that his father is Robert Coste. In the story’s universe, Coste won Olympic gold in fencing back in 1984. Before him, no American fencer had done so well at the Olympics since 1904. Though we don’t know how Coste came to father Nicholas, we do know he passed down his love for fencing. Though poor and living in squalor, Nicholas uses fencing as a way to connect to his denied legacy.

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And that’s the joy of this comic — seeing Nicholas’s passionate pursuit of the sport. In other aspects of his life, there isn’t much happiness. School means detention, and work involves custodial duties. It’s fencing that seems to give him meaning. His determination to win at regionals has nothing to do with Seiji. It’s his personal quest to be the best he can be. Is that a cliched goal? Maybe. Still, it comes naturally from the story and how C.S. Pacat wrote Nicholas. Crossing swords are of secondary importance to what the swordplay means.

Nicholas remains focused in the face of his competition. Image Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

The Manga-Inspired Art Brings the Emotional Intensity to Life

A great deal of FENCE #1’s emotional intensity comes from Johanna the Mad’s artwork and Joana Lafuente’s colors. Although there are a few odd figure angles, “the Mad” is superb at injecting emotion into the art. It’s not just in the scowls and fierce stares of the fencers, but in their body language as well. Just about every character speaks with both. In this same way, Lafuente’s work shouldn’t be ignored, either. Not only do the colors provide ways to keep uninformed fencers distinct, but they also provide a sense of speed. Blurry afterimages fringe the forms on paper, giving the static images motion.

Unused artwork of Seiji and Nicholas saluting on the piste. Image Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

In homage to the story’s inspiration from sports manga, Johanna the Mad also dabbles in manga forms. Especially at the competition, we see the exaggerated expressions of manga on display to heighten the emotion. The resulting effect feels unique — a cross between Western conventions and Eastern sensibilities. Because these emotional displays show up late in the comic, it came as a surprise to me. But I enjoyed it anyway.

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Final Thoughts on FENCE #1

In the end, FENCE #1 is ridiculously fun to read. Through the entire time I leafed through it, I had a massive grin on my face. FENCE #1 provides a good, simple story with enough surprises to make me eager for the second issue. Not to mention, the cover for FENCE #2 has already been released:

The cover art for FENCE #2. Image Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

In case you were wondering, that picture shows why I was being a little heavy-handed with double entendres. C.S. Pacat admitted, in an LA Times interview, that the series will explore romance between its male characters. Whether this will be merely implied or downright yaoi-esque is not yet known.

At least to my reading, FENCE #1 doesn’t drop too many hints, as it exists to establish the Nicholas-Seiji rivalry. Even so, LGBTQIA relationship stories of any kind are good for the comics industry. When these pairings come across as natural, it breaks the arguments of those who say they aren’t.

FENCE #1 comes out on November 15, 2017. Buy it directly from BOOM! Comics.

FENCE #1 by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad
FENCE #1 has a simple, no-frills plot that introduces the fencing rivalry between an intrepid underdog and a world-class finalist. We meet Nicholas Cox, a poor but passionate fencer, entering a regionals tournament for a chance to prove his mettle. His determination — and that of his opponents, too — is brought to life through the manga-inspired art of Johanna the Mad. In the end, C.S. Pact’s story of competitive fencing (and an implied touch of romance) sets up what is sure to be a fun and emotionally compelling series.
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