Written by Frankee White
Art by Kat Baumann
Lettering by DC Hopkins
Variant cover by Kira Okamoto
20 Fists, like White’s previous book Broken Bear, has an old-school feel to it. The premise and atmosphere are redolent of classics like The Warriors and The Outsiders. This graphic novel is a call-back to films and stories focused around a softer form of fictional gang clashes, combat where fist fights are the norm and both gangs are governed by strict rules of engagement.
The book’s underlying theme is one of community. In it, the unconventional form gangs as a means of coping with an uncaring world. And like any good gang yarn, 20 Fists centres around a pair of star-crossed lovers. Chel and Billie share a palpable chemistry which draws the reader in even as you suspect that a happy ending is unlikely.
The Warriors and The Outsiders were stories of brotherhood in the gutter. 20 Fists features a more diverse cast, both racially and in terms of gender identities. I admit that I am old-fashioned when it comes to the depiction of violence towards women but the 20 Fists creative team handles it very well. Since the rumbles are mostly restricted to unarmed combat, the audience is spared excessive gore. Most of the characters get off with bruised cheeks and egos. More intense injuries are hinted at with abstract blood splatters.
That’s not to dismiss the story’s stakes. Right from the beginning, you suspect that there’s more at risk than the honor of each gang or crew, as they called in the book. The various characters and couples care deeply about each other; they fear their loved ones being hurt more than they fear personal injury.
Bauman’s art shines. The deft use of negative space and high-contrast graphics help create a world at once accessible and yet retro. Each character is distinct in terms of facial cast and build and their body-type factors into how they move during the crew rumbles. Bauman’s background in animation is clear; her artwork has the simplicity and appeal of a cartoon. It’s easy to follow and fairly crackles with dynamic energy. Okamoto’s variant cover deserves a special mention. Lushly painted, it summons up a happier, more care-free time in Chel and Billie’s relationship.
White’s writing is streamlined, navigating the present and flashbacks with ease. Each character’s motivation and personality are clearly defined with a minimum of dialogue. What’s most impressive is the utilization of such a large cast; all of the characters, even the minor ones, feel alive. It’s easy to invest in their interactions and struggles. The heart of the story is Chel and Billie’s break-up. Credit goes to White for forging a love story that feels doomed yet relatable without falling into cliché.
When you strip away the gang colors, 20 Fists is not about violence. It’s about love and how sometimes love is not enough.
20 Fists had a limited KS print run. One can obtain a print copy or a PDF by making a $15+ donation to either a Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ org and then showing the receipt to Frankee White via Twitter.