Fence: An Interview With C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad
Coming in November from BOOM! Studios’ BOOM! Box imprint is Fence, a new comic book series aimed at the growing audience for sporting boys’ love stories. This teen soap opera set in the world of competitive fencing is the first comic from both writer C.S. Pacat (the Captive Prince novel series) and artist Johanna the Mad. Says Pacat,
“Fence follows the rise of sixteen-year-old outsider Nicholas in the world of competitive fencing, as he joins the team at an elite boys school. Readers will experience the world of fencing, its elegance and danger, and the high stakes of a combat sport. But most of all, Fence is about the characters — with intense rivalries, lifelong friendships, and the thrill of romance between teammates — a diverse cast, and a story that is exuberantly queer. Johanna’s artwork captures everything that is hot, dangerous, and exciting about fencing.”
BOOM! made it possible for me to ask the creators the following questions.
What inspired this story?
C.S. PACAT: I fenced épée all through high school and fell in love with the sport. It has such a rich history, and it’s a solo combat sport that is intensely strategic and psychological.
I also got really into sports comics in Japan, where I lived for about five years. I love the intense rivalries, the striving, the way you can take characters to their breaking point. Haikyuu!! and Hikaru no Go are easily some of my favorite comics of all time. I was also really inspired by Ngozi Ukazu’s fantastic LGBT hockey web comic Check, Please! and the recent Japanese animation Yuri!!! on Ice. I started to wonder, what happens when those energies come out in a combat sport, when you add in the danger and stakes of fencing?
What makes this story particularly well-suited to comics? Why did you choose this format?
CSP: Fencing is a sport famous for its striking visuals, its silhouettes, and its arresting lines. There’s also something about the way that, in fencing, a single moment determines whether you win or lose. That hit that lands. That moment you hesitated. It resonated to me with the way comic panels capture and freeze frame individual moments in time.
I also think you can do things in comics that you can’t do easily in books, because seeing is believing. There’s a reason that superheroes, with their spandex costumes and all their potential absurdities, sprang from comics. We believe it when we see it on the page.
What’s your background with comics? How did you learn the unique aspects of writing for that medium?
CSP: Fence is my first time writing a comic (my background is as a novelist), but the first comic I ever read was a collected edition of the first Wonder Woman comics, the original William Moulton Marston run. I was six. I stayed a DC reader throughout my childhood. I remember, for example, I went to a pretty rough primary school, and all us kids used to pool whatever money we scrounged up to buy the Batman comics, which we passed around communally.
In my teens, I switched out of comics into manga. I liked the different approach of manga, the way they seemed less visually literal than comics. I think even the fact that manga is often drawn in black and white means that the picture is much more of a signifier than a literal representation. A sort of visual playfulness springs from there. If a character has flowers floating around their head, the flowers aren’t really there, it just signifies the character is attractive. If a wavy ghost emerges from a character, they haven’t literally become possessed, it signifies they are mortified, or depressed. I liked that language of visual signs and symbols, and the way it was used to create beats and heighten emotion.
To prepare for Fence, I re-immersed myself in all my favorite comics and watched a lot of action in film and television too, looking particularly at which images and shots were chosen to represent a scene, and how reaction shots were interspersed with action. As a novelist, I think what surprised me the most was how economical a comic script must be. There’s nowhere to hide in a comic. There are places to hide in a novel. I suddenly understood, for example, the potential value of archetypes, which are a kind of shorthand in a medium where space is at a premium.
Johanna, how have you prepared for this kind of storytelling?
JOHANNA THE MAD: I’ve been reading comics and manga for almost 10 years now and, though at first I was nervous of starting a project like this, I realized that was one of the best ways to prepare myself for this awesome job.
Another thing that helped me a lot was meeting Steve Lieber and Ron Randall, two amazing comic artists who were kind enough to give me a giant list of different tips and reference to look up when working in comics. I’m not joking when I say I can’t thank them enough for their awesome advice.
Who are your influences for this story? What affected your designs for the characters?
JTM: My biggest influences for Fence are Yuri!!! on Ice, Free!, and Haikyuu!! These three are such great stories with so many fun characters; I’m really hoping to leave an impact on our audience the way the three of them did on me.
For the design of the characters, it was definitely Cat. Her writing has this special thing (I’m not sure how to describe it) that just clicks with me. When I read her description of a character, it is quite easy for me to translate it into a picture; there are these certain details she gives to characters, like their fashion style or their personality, that light up new ideas I add to the design.
How did you come to work together?
JTM: I fell in love with Cat’s work and became a fan of her trilogy, Captive Prince. She came across my art on the internet, and suddenly we were following each other on social media. At the beginning of this year, I was contacted by BOOM! Studios editor Dafna Pleban, who told me about the project and that Cat would be the writer of the story.
CSP: I’ve been a huge fan of Johanna’s artwork ever since I saw a modern-day Mulan fanart she drew a few years back. When I pitched Fence to Dafna Pleban at BOOM! Studios, we started talking about artists, and Johanna immediately came up as someone I loved and would be thrilled to work with. She draws such diverse and expressive characters filled with life and personality.
Dafna had also been following Johanna’s work, but we had no idea if Johanna was available, or interested, or keen on drawing comics. We tested a few (amazing!) artists, then to my delight Johanna was interested, and as soon as I saw Johanna’s test pages I let out this squeal of joy. Her work is incredible.
What is your working style? How do you coordinate?
CSP: We’re in different countries and time zones and coordinate mostly through email. I’m easily distracted (especially by the internet), so I write at a cafe without internet access, and I no longer own a mobile phone (extreme measures!). Once I’m done with the scripts, they go to Johanna, and she transforms them into wonderfulness — she has this ability to capture iconic moments and find amazing angles and ways of looking at things. We back-and-forth, and the comic also goes to our épée choreographer for a final “fencing check”, to make sure the fencing is accurate. (He usually has some kind of brilliant obscure nitpick.) My favorite parts of working on the comic are the moments when it feels most collaborative, when I can riff ideas off Johanna’s amazing artwork.
JTM: Regarding my working style, I am a night person (which would make it impossible for me to handle if I had to go to an office), but thanks to Skype and the internet, we can work however fits us best.
What do you know about fencing? How have you researched the sport?
CSP: I fenced épée in high school and went back to training recently to prepare for writing the comic. I also work with fencing coach and choreographer Pieter Leeuwenburgh to construct the fight scenes, as well as to develop the fencing strengths and weaknesses for each of the characters. Pieter’s one of Australia’s foremost épée coaches. We usually fence the choreography ourselves and then film it from multiple angles to provide a reference for Johanna.
I’ve also done a lot of research, everything from reading the classic fencing and coaching books, to hanging out on forums, to talking with high school fencing coaches in the U.S., as well as a couple of former U.S. national top 10 fencers. It was really important to me that the fencing in the comic felt authentic. I think part of the fun of a sports comic is the feeling of immersing yourself in a new world with all its specifics and internal rules.
JTM: I didn’t know much about it before but I’ve always liked it; fencing seemed so elegant and interesting to me. Because of this, when starting this project, I had to do my research from the very basics: how the sports works, the uniform, rules, etc. Plus, many, many notes and facts from Cat, who already practiced fencing before, and a lot of Olympics fencing videos.
Cat, you’re in Australia; Johanna, you’re in Mexico; and you’re making a comic for the US market with one of the lead characters being Japanese. How does this international perspective affect your work and relate to today’s world?
CSP: Ha ha, yes, and I’m Italian by nationality, too, as well as Australian (a dual citizen)! On a personal level, being from an immigrant family influences all my writing, which often has themes of displacement, adaptation to new environments, and either rejecting or yearning for acceptance. In Fence, a lot of that plays out through the main character, Nicholas, who is driven to win but who is an outsider on a fencing scholarship at an elite school he could not otherwise afford.
In a broader sense, I think we’re at this exciting time in which traditional media is starting to open up to new perspectives and celebrate diversity. Fencing is such an international sport that it gave us the opportunity to reflect that in our comic. I remember watching the Rio Olympics and seeing how the diversity and success of the U.S. fencing teams became so inspiring to so many people. I wanted the characters in Fence to reflect the diversity of the sport and of the outside world.
Since our cast is made of many characters with different nationalities, it is always our goal to keep their cultural backgrounds as true as possible without falling into stereotypes.
JTM: I believe this is an awesome opportunity. The multicultural approach to this project has enriched and brought new ideas to the table. Also, the fact that we are coming from many different places and influences ourselves helps turn this into a great piece.
From the description available so far, this sounds very manga — two guys, competing but falling in love at an elite school — so what are your favorite manga?
JTM: I really dig sports manga. I’ve been reading it since I was a teen, so I’m very fond of it, and it has always been a recurring theme in my art. Also, the influence of all the fandoms on this genre that helped turn it into “gay sports” is just amazing to me; it made me love sports manga even more.
My favorite sports mangas are Eyeshield 21, Kuroko no Basket, and Slam Dunk.
CSP: I love manga, and sports manga is a favorite genre. As I mentioned, Hikaru no Go and Haikyuu!! are easily some of my favorite comics of all time. I love how seriously those comics treat their sport, and how enthralling the sports become to the reader. Fence is like my love letter to the genre.
As well as sports manga, I gravitate toward shounen with slightly darker themes, with favorites like Death Note, Berserk, and Attack on Titan. I also love to read manga with LGBT characters or themes. CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon and Card Captor Sakura were really important to me growing up as a queer kid, as they were the first comics I ever read with queer characters. Equally important was the gender queerness in manga like Ouran Host Club. I recently had the incredible privilege of Skyping with mangaka Yoneda Kou, whose manga Twittering Birds Never Fly is one of my favorite BL serials at the moment.
I intentionally wanted to draw on my favorite elements of manga, from the exuberant queerness, to the complex structural techniques of Haikyuu!!, which has a huge cast yet manages clear, engaging arcs for each character. I wanted to enrich my own storytelling with some of those different techniques and perspectives. And of course, because Fence draws on Japanese storytelling, it felt important that one of the main characters be Japanese.
My thanks to Cat, Johanna, and BOOM! for their time. Fence can be preordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code SEP17 1282 (for the Johanna the Mad cover) or SEP17 1283 (for the Kevin Wada cover). It’s $3.99 and due out November 15.