C S Pacat, writer
Johanna The Mad, artist
Joana LaFuente, colorist
Jim Campbell & Taylor Esposito, letterers
For those of you new to Fence, this link provides enough information about the plot and characters so far that you can jump right in with the new volume.
If anyone was worried that Fence would feel any different after switching from monthly single issues to graphic novels, I assure you nothing is lost in the format change. Fence Volume Four Rivals, available at you LCS January 15th, delivers on some promises made in the first 3 volumes and pushes the Fencing team of King’s Row closer as a team.
While the series so far has focused on the rivalry Nicholas has formed in his head with Seiji, Rivals begins with the introduction of Seiji’s ranked rival from Exton, Jesse Coste. C. S. Pacat gives us a really good sense of scale with the skill level of these athletes and Nicholas finally accepts his short comings compared to Seiji but resolves to overcome them.
The majority of this volume focuses on the team’s first practice team match against their traditional rivals at MLC. This team is led by Harvard and Aiden’s elementary school friend Arune who uses his knowledge of the King’s Row’s captain to form a crushing strategy. Even though KR has great individual fencers like Seiji, they do not know how to work as a team.
At this point, I feel like I should disclose that I’ve never fenced in my entire life nor have I even watched fencing in the Olympics. It’s a testament to Pacat’s writing that I have become so invested in these boys’ relationships to each other and the sport. Johanna the Mad allows room for Pacat to explain detailed rules and complex ideas the reader needs to know to understand each match, but she also has perfected the pacing and focus in her visual storytelling to immerse the reader in the fight. And yes, she did learn how to fence to pull this off.
One of my favorite things about this volume is that the side characters are not forgotten. I was worried that a lot of the freshmen we had come to know during tryouts would disappear from the book after that didn’t make the team. Bobby even gets the tiniest bit of character development as he sees that one of the greatest fencers from MLC is even shorter than he is and doesn’t let his height be his greatest weakness as a fencer.
The most refreshing bit about this series isn’t necessarily the gay representation. After all the main story isn’t about romance or sexuality, it’s about each character’s relationship to fencing and each other as competition and teammates. No, the most refreshing thing is the lack of heterosexual representation. Aiden is the most overtly gay character in the series, not because he is a stereotype, but because he explicitly sleeps around and goes on dates with guys. He even has fan boys at rival schools who think he is the best fencer, not because he actually is, but because he is such a heartthrob. Most of the other characters express their romantic interests with hints or expressions but none of their stories have anything to do with the struggles of coming out or being conflicted about their sexuality at all. It’s no small feat for a comic series that is essentially a sports anime to exist in a completely lgbt-normalized world.
Conni Johnson (they/she) works at Rick’s Comic City in Nashville, TN where you can see their chalk art on a semi-weekly basis. They also write and draw under the name NE1 Comics. You can keep up with their art on Instagram @ne1comics if they ever remember to update it.