Sports Romance Fence Leans into Tropes Both Enjoyable and Regrettable
C.S. Pacat & Johanna the Mad Pierce into BOOM's Latest SeriesArt by Johanna the Mad Comics Reviews C.S. Pacat
Writer: C.S. Pacat
Artist: Johanna the Mad
Publisher: BOOM! Studios
C.S. Pacat is the latest in a gaggle of novel writers turning their attention to comic books. Fans of Pacat’s prose work won’t be surprised to learn that Fence is a gay romance story: the writer is best known for her Captive Prince Trilogy, a romance fantasy series that some people affectionately dubbed “Gay of Thrones.” Fence falls in the center of a Venn diagram made up of sports manga, romantic fan fiction and ‘80s nostalgia magnets like The Karate Kid and The Cutting Edge. There’s a genuine and unapologetic enthusiasm in it, a sense of conviction that might look overwrought or contrived in other hands.
The story stars two young men, Nicholas Cox and Seiji Katayama, who have seemingly little in common beyond competitive fencing. Nicholas is poorly trained, but possesses natural skill and a drive that pushes him to succeed, while Seiji is a seasoned competitor with an unbeatable record. It’s a familiar trope, but that’s because it works. The contrast provides immediate tension and lays out a compelling plot with specific parameters.
BOOM! Studios’ BOOM!Box imprint is an ideal home for Fence, and Johanna the Mad a great artist for it. The publisher has steadily built a roster of all-ages and young adult books that are filled with diverse characters, especially LGBTQIA+ romances. Johanna is a fan artist with a large following of her own, and her crisp, clean style keeps Fence feeling fun and joyous. This is one of her first large sequential projects, though, and there are a few panels where the perspective feels off. With a sport as specific and complex as fencing, it can be easy to get lost in the details, and difficult to visually convey what’s happening to an audience that likely has little experience with it at all, but Johanna and colorist Joana Lafuente avoid that ably.
The title may invite comparisons to Ngozie Ukazu’s popular Check, Please! webcomic (comparisons invited by, among other things, the official solicitation text for Fence), and they may not be kind. Pacat’s previous work struggled with problematic stereotypes around race, and this first issue of Fence has similar troubles. As the title suggests, the Captive Prince Trilogy revolves around an enslaved royal and Pacat doesn’t deal gracefully with the dynamics of a dark-skinned man held in bondage by paler captors, particularly given that their particular type of enslavement involves sexual abuse. Pacat has claimed that this character’s fictional home is more heavily based on Greece than anywhere in Africa, but in the context of real-world race relations, her explanations fell flat with many readers.
In Fence, the apparent antagonist Seiji is distant, precise and cruel, falling into stereotypes about Asian over-achievement and emotionlessness that are as uncomfortable as they are unnecessary. It feels as though Pacat didn’t learn much from the criticism she received on her prose work. Fence also leans into the comedy of sports manga in a way that might be unfamiliar to Western readers. It’s overblown, and often accompanied by drastic art changes that can be jarring. But the plot in this first issue is solid, if standard, and Pacat trusts Johanna and her art to tell the story instead of packing every page with words. Fence is off to a potentially promising start and could quickly grow much stronger if Seiji is better developed. If Pacat and Johanna the Mad can address these issues, it will be heartening to see another diverse romance comic on the shelves.