Making the move from monthly titles to Original Graphic Novels, Fence returns for a fourth volume later this year (expected 30 June 2020). Published under BOOM! Studios Boom! Box imprint, Fence continues the adventures of a college fencing team and the relationships that emerge during the training.
The first 12 issues of Fence were witty and entertaining with a wonderful cast and found a loyal audience among young adults and the LGBTQ+ community. The questions are, has the shift to the graphic novel format affected the story and is the longer wait between chapters worth it?
Volume 4 picks up directly from where Chapter 12 ended with Seiji face to face with his nemesis Jesse. Something happened between the two world class fencers that forced Seiji to join the Kings Row private school and it’s underdog fencing team. What that was and how it affects Seiji’s relationships with his new teammates forms the backbone of this volume.
The first thing you will notice is that virtually nothing has changed. The Graphic Novel is split into chapters continuing with number 13. If you were only reading the trade collections of Fence you wouldn’t even realise that anything was different. I suspect that one of the reasons for dropping the monthlies is that the collected volumes were selling considerably more. Passed Fence arcs have proven to work better in bulk so it is no surprise that BOOM! Studios would move to an annual release instead of monthly ones.
The first chapter of the novel is given over to illustrating the rivalry between Seiji and Jesse but writer C.S. Pacat makes sure that the focus isn’t entirely on these two characters. The reactions of the rest of the team are as important as the demonstration match that the two are putting on. Most importantly is how the main character, Nicholas, is affected by seeing the two rivals fencers. It makes him realise that he lacks so much skill and that the passion he has might not be enough to beat his own rivals.
The title of Volume 4 is Rivals for a very good reason. The story revolves around characters who are at odds with each other. However, this also allows Pacat to grow the relationships between friends as well as enemies. Most notable, and evident from the first chapter, is how the dynamic between Nicholas and Seiji changes. By giving them the same goal to fight towards, it brings them together in a new and exciting way. Their friendship is allowed to evolve beyond the initial rivalry that brought them together.
Pacat doesn’t forget about the rest of the cast and still allows everyone to play a part. She focuses on the strengths of the characters and weaves a number of different story-lines around the central narrative. This means that no matter who your favourite character is, they don’t get left behind.
By the time you get to the fourth volume you should know what to expect from the artwork. Johanna The Mad hasn’t changed the style of presentation from issue one to now. There is a certain Manga influence to the work that is clear almost from the beginning but this is part of Fence’s appeal. The audience this comic is aimed at are more likely to be reading manga serials than DC Superhero comics.
The straightforward character design has always been a high point in Fence and continues to be here. Johanna The Mad appears to be using more and more cartoonish renderings throughout the story to emphasise the humour and the child like nature of the characters. Johanna The Mad is able to do this because the reader has become accustomed to the drawing style and the design of the characters. There is no confusion caused in the reading because of these sudden shifts. In fact, they enhance the storytelling because they reveal so much about the characters depicted.
The coloring is the easiest element of this comic to overlook. Joana Lafuente has to deal with so much white because of the fencers uniforms that she has to create emotional backgrounds instead of realistic renderings. Lafuente favours block coloring with very little shade or shadowing but this suits Johanna The Mad’s thin inked lines. The characteristics and emotional outbursts become clearer because of the alternating colors behind the characters. Especially during bout scenes where most of the fencer is covered in a white protective suit; the backgrounds act as the emotional outlet for the character.
Jim Campbell and Taylor Esposito have a lot of work to do with the lettering. A large part of Fence’s style comes from the way that the characters interact and how certain ideas are presented on the page. In a lot of cases this falls to the lettering to create that specific look.
The interaction with speech is important, with the placement of the speech balloons providing the tempo for the conversations. However, it’s not just placement that makes these interactions so energised, Campbell and Esposisto use a range of balloon shapes and tweak the text to indicate inflections and whispers. They have created rich and varied voices for the characters, producing personality and individualism.
This is before you even begin to look at the none speech element of the lettering. So much of the Fence world relies on visual design and Campbell/Esposito have given 100% to make the comic look and flow effortlessly.
Fence has already got a dedicated fan base who will love this new addition. It has been nearly a year since Volume 3 was released but the moment you start reading all of the previous story comes flooding back. It feels as if there has been no gap at all.
This new chapters encapsulates everything that made the first 12 issues popular while substantially moving the narration forward. There is a greater sense of importance on the fencing matches as the Kings Row team move out into the world. In response, the creative team have pushed the design and storytelling to greater heights, improving on previous arcs.
From a story point of view, this will appeal to anyone who enjoyed previous chapters. From a comics view Fence will appeal to people interested in the storytelling craft, especially lettering. Everything is laid out with such care and attention that it is difficult not to become enamoured with the world of Fence.