What Fence! Didn’t Learn from Sports Manga

cropped cover of Fence! Volume 1.

So, Fence!.

This limited series about high school fencing, written by CS Pacat, drawn by Johanna the Mad, and published by Boom! Studios is getting a prose novel tie-in by Sarah Rees Brennan in September 2020, bringing new life to a series that ended in November 2018. But why aren’t more critics talking about it?

Fence! started off promisingly, with an intriguing first issue and rave reviews, but failed to deliver as it went on. The trades sold poorly in the comics market. A well-known author, an artist popular on Tumblr for drawing sports anime fanart. What happened?

One of the biggest problems with Fence! as a whole is its pacing, especially considered across the twelve issues of its run. CS Pacat is primarily a novelist; Fence! is the first comic series she’s written, and the pacing makes this particularly clear. A lot of characters are introduced in a limited amount of time, the stakes of their competition feel implausible and unrealistic (especially to me, reading this as a former high school fencer), and the main rivalry between the two leads is left underdeveloped and uncompelling due to the need to introduce all of the major players as quickly as possible. The story manages to feel simultaneously rushed and slow, spending ten out of twelve issues on team tryouts.

In an interview, Pacat cited sports anime and manga as her inspirations for writing Fence!. That inspiration is the biggest cause of the pacing issue throughout the comic. Serial manga is published in chapters of 18-22 pages on a weekly basis, or around 40 pages per month if it’s a monthly magazine. Sports manga especially tend to run for a long time, such as Haikyū!! which celebrated its 8th anniversary of serialization on February 20th. Fence! had twelve issues of 28 pages each per month, and not even every month. This means a lot fewer pages and less time to introduce and develop new ideas. In a sports manga, it’s common to spend upwards of 30 chapters, or more than half a year, on one game. Fence! did not have that kind of time.

The inspiration from Haikyū!! and Kuroko no Basuke also lead to the second major issue: the stakes and team dynamics feel unrealistic, from someone who has experienced competitive high school fencing in America. That’s because volleyball and basketball are team sports, in which every member of the team has to work together and rely on each other to score any points. Fencing is played individually, but fencing teams still practice and train together and teach each other how to improve. Many high school fencers also practice at fencing clubs outside of school to gain more experience and go to individual tournaments to rise in the rankings unrelated to their school participation.

This is why I believe Fence! would have done well to take inspiration from Chihayafuru by Suetsugu Yuki, the josei manga turned anime about the traditional Japanese card game karuta. Chihayafuru, which just finished its third season, is about a high school girl who wants to be the best karuta player in Japan. Karuta, like fencing, is a game played one-on-one, but high school karuta clubs compete as teams and practice and train together. Also like fencing, karuta players train at karuta societies outside of school and go to individual tournaments to rise in the national rankings. The rankings in karuta even go from E to A, just like in US fencing. Karuta players have multiple matches in a day, although a karuta match is much longer than a single fencing bout, and in each match analyze and tackle their opponent’s individual quirks. Chihayafuru spends several episodes on each major competition, highlighting one or two key matchups that show the growth of the main characters. The structure of Chihayafuru fits Fence! much more naturally than the endless volleyball and basketball games of Haikyū!! and Kuroko no Basuke.

In an interview, CS Pacat mentions that she fenced epée in high school. However, Pacat grew up in Australia, which I’m sure has a very different competitive fencing structure to American high schools, and Fence! is set at a boarding school in Connecticut. The characters never mention USFA rankings or nationals qualifiers, invitationals or freshmen-sophomore tournaments. The comic opens at a “Connecticut regional circuit tournament,” which just doesn’t exist. The story, in general, feels under-researched. What little specifics there are and the general ideas presented in this comic made me think the creators mostly know of Connecticut, boarding schools, and competitive high school fencing through movies and TV. To be fair, I also mostly know of Connecticut and boarding schools through movies and TV. But I do know high school fencing, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

The central conflict of the twelve published issues of Fence! is which three fencers of their epée-only fencing team, out of approximately forty hopefuls, (which is also very strange, I’ve never heard of a school that only fenced one weapon before. Also if their coach thinks saber is better why doesn’t she just coach saber. Anyway.) would make the starting line-up. Which makes no sense because it’s standard practice at a high school fencing meet to have three starting fencers and three alternates per weapon. In a tournament, or if the team has secured a win early in a meet, those alternates will get switched in to experience fencing in an official bout, and if they don’t, there will sometimes be a “junior varsity” strip set up for alternates from both competing schools to practice fencing each other. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a tournament. People get sick or injured, people have to skip competition for emergencies, people have Academic Decathlon state championships the same weekend as fencing districts (just… for example), so having at least three alternates on standby is important. Having one reserve fencer as standard and adding a second reserve as the surprise last-issue plot twist is kind of ridiculous.

In Chihayafuru, the main characters’ mentor, Dr. Harada, says, “a team match is an individual match and an individual match is a team match.” Although team fencing matches are consecutive instead of simultaneous, the same applies to fencing. Every member on a fencing team supports and helps their teammates win their individual bouts. I wish Fence! had explored that during its run instead of pitting every member on the same team against each other in an unnecessarily high-stakes and vicious tryout process.

Chihaya from Chihayafuru realizing individual matches are the real team matches.
Screencap from the anime adaptation of Chihayafuru, produced by Madhouse. Chihaya understands.

The art, too, is an example of where the sports anime influence led to mediocre execution. Johanna the Mad has a large following on social media for her art, including her sports anime fanart. You see the swoop of Aiden’s hair and Know: this artist has drawn Oikawa Tōru from Haikyū!! more than once. But that’s the problem: while Johanna’s illustrations and cover art are superb, Fence! is her first major comics project, and it shows. The clean lines and bright, cel-shaded colors are once again reminiscent of a sports anime, and once again don’t quite work because of it. What works in animated motion can look flat and static in a comic.

Johanna is quick to draw simple, cartoony emoji-like facial expressions instead of pushing and exaggerating the character’s expressions and motions for more visual comedy. The backgrounds are simple, and the actual fencing is generic and nonspecific as well. The King’s Row Boy’s School team doesn’t have team patches or socks that would identify their members at competitions. No one has their name stenciled on the back of their jacket (a requirement for high-level competitions, and something I would expect to see on Seiji, Harvard, and Aiden at least). While in the first issue Nicholas’s dingy gear is used to show his working-class background, past that, no one’s gear shows any signs of wear and tear, and by the last issue, everyone and their clothes are perfectly clean and smooth and lacking in personality.

Panel from Fence!#12, by Johanna the Mad and C. S. Pacat. Originally published by Boom! Studios. Somehow less dramatic than a comic about volleyball.

An aspect of sports anime and manga Fence! should have borrowed, but failed to do so, is the use of visual symbolism and metaphor to add visual interest and dramatic impact to a narrative. These images are iconic and memorable, and take advantage of the fact that comics allow the creators to depict things that aren’t perfectly realistic to show what makes the sport they’re depicting so exciting and fun. Chihayafuru uses visual representations of the cards used in the game, as well as water and floral imagery to represent certain characters’ abilities and playing styles. Haikyū!! uses recurring animal motifs for each volleyball team, as well as images of weapons and shields to show how the characters attack and defend their positions in games. Fence! just… has people fencing. Which gets boring and repetitive to look at without any other imagery to break it up.

Panel from Haikyu!! featuring teenage volleyball players with knives
Panel from Haikyu!! Chapter 322 by Haruichi Furudate, originally appearing in Weekly Shonen Jump. If Fence! had a single panel half as iconic and memorable as this, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

The last thing I want to address is the issue of representation. A major selling point of the series was the inclusion of queer characters, and the marketing for the series implied that the central rivalry between Nicholas and Seiji, the protagonist and his roommate, was building to romantic tension. In the twelve issues of the series, their rivalry is barely developed due to the need to introduce and give personalities to the side characters as well, and the tension between them does not have romantic undertones. Several of the side characters are explicitly queer, but none of them have full character arcs or resolutions due to not having enough time or space to develop them. The queer romance promised in the marketing and press releases was not at the forefront of the narrative. Though it’s implied in the last few issues that Aiden and Harvard have feelings for each other, this isn’t explicitly resolved or discussed for longer than a few panels due to the need to cover other ground. Other reviewers have also criticized the comic for having the only named East Asian character be cold and perfectionistic, which reflects common stereotypes.

I have hope that Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel will be able to better convey the story where the comic couldn’t manage it. I want it to be good. I want to read good comics and books and stories about queer romance in fencing because it’s important to me on a personal level, which is why the mediocrity of Fence! felt so disappointing. I wanted it to be better.