I’m not a big MMA fan. Of course, if it’s on, I’ll watch it, and more often than not I’ll enjoy it. But my cousin James is the hardcore MMA enthusiast in the family: I’m just a casual. What I am a big fan of, however, is comics. I read them, review them, and even attempt to write them from time to time. And so when I heard about Heart, the new Image comic written by Blair Butler of G4 fame and drawn by Kevin Mellon, I was immediately intrigued. A comic book about MMA. Could this be a story that could bridge the middle ground, and be something that does justice to both my love of comics and James’ love of MMA, while simultaneously winning one side over further to the virtues of the other?
Interestingly, the story of rising star Oren “Rooster” Redmond plays out quite a bit like a superhero origin tale. We are introduced to Redmond as a larger than life personality inside the eight-sided cage, complete with tattoos and mohawk, and then we go back to see how this transformation began, with him starting out as an out-of-shape office worker, an everyman. With this approach to the story, Blair takes one of the most enduring appeals of the superhero fantasy – what if regular folks like us had it in us to be something special, what if we could make ourselves strong and have people stand up and notice us? – and applies it to the much more grounded milleu of mixed martial arts. It might be a bit of a reach to say that Blair Butler is suggesting that MMA fighters are real-life superheroes, but Heart is a testament to how these story beats are diverse enough to slip into different genres. Oren’s relationship with his brother Jimmy even foreshadows the life-altering family tragedy that crops up in so many superhero origins.
The big strength of Heart is the characterisation of Oren Redmond. As presented in this first chapter, at least, he’s not a particularly great fighter. That in itself sets it apart from the old sports movie cliche of the great undiscovered talent who has what it takes to be the best if he can just overcome adversity and blah blah blah and such-and-such. When beginning his training, Oren is out-of-shape and outclassed by everyone else at his gym. And even after training and getting into shape, he still isn’t great. He’s better standing than he is on the ground. And even in his “triumphant” opening fight at the start of the issue, his victory comes more by fluke and capitalising on his opponent’s clumsy mistake than him genuinely being the best fighter. What Redmond does have, as you might guess from the comic’s title, is heart. By sheer force of will and self-belief, he hangs with the bigger, better fighters and slowly makes his way up the ranks.
It seems that Blair Butler is well versed in her MMA, or at least has done her research. It’s early days, of course, but right now the portrayal of a mixed martial arts fight feels more honest than, say, Warrior (a film I enjoyed immensely, but which made a lot of concessions to the “suspension of disbelief” school of movie magic). When Oren tries for the big flashy highlight reel finish move, he ends up getting a punch in the face for his troubles. And his initial victory feels more clumsy and grasping than dramatic. Little details like the trainers of each team barking instructions at their respective combatant are factored in nicely, and the way the fights are laid out captures that “anyone could win at any moment” excitement that the best MMA contests generate.
Speaking of how Heart is laid out, Kevin Mellon does some nice work here. His characters and locations are often stylised, quite rough and sketchy in their appearance, but Mellon has a real knack for generating a sense of movement, particularly during fights, creating a comic that feels vibrant and kinetic. I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere, but one particularly cool touch is the way even the covers feed into the narrative. The first panel on page 1 follws immediately on from the image on the front cover, and similarly, it seems like the cover of issue #2 will follow on immediately from this issue’s closing page. It’s nice seeing an artist experiment with making the cover work as more than a pinup.
Heart #1 was a quick read. If there was a downside, it was that I felt like I was just getting into the story when the issue was up, and this leisurely pacing might make it a more enticing prospect for trade-waiters. However, there is a lot to like in this comic, for fans of MMA and comics alike. I think this comic will give comic fans some insight into the workings of MMA, showing how it’s more than just people punching each other, but unfolds a lot like a physical chess game. Moreover, I think it might show MMA fans that comics have some pretty nifty narrative tricks of their own, and they can be about more than just superheroes.