REVIEW: Heart #2

With its second issue, Heart – the MMA comic from writer Blair Butler and artist Kevin Mellon – continues to simmer along nicely.  The focus here is continuing to get deeper into the mindset of our main character, Oren “Rooster” Redmond.  Blair Butler does a commendable job into exploring what makes somebody want to fight: the adrenaline, the respect of others, the raw feeling of power and triumph that comes with a win that Oren wants to keep chasing.  It’s almost presented as a kind of addiction.  For Oren in particular, it seems a big part of wanting to be an MMA fighter is changing who he is, becoming a person he is more proud of being, and that change is reflected physically.  In the first issue, this came in the form of him losing weight and getting into shape.  Here, it’s more dramatic, with him first proudly walking around the office at his dayjob with a face covered in cuts and bruises, and later getting a mohawk and tattoos.  It’s about burning the bridges to his old, unsatisfying life, and setting course for a new one.

Beyond Rooster, the wider ensemble of the team at the gym is developed further in this issue.  It’s an interesting bunch, ranging across the archetypes you might find in an MMA story.  There’s the obnoxious, boorish jock obsessed with his own highlight reel.  There’s the part-timer who’s content with the occasional amateur bout while pursuing a successful career outside the cage.  But perhaps most potent is the aging scrub who’s never been any good, and getting worse all the time, but who carries on getting his ass kicked because he’s got nothing else to do in his life.  It’s a stereotype, sure, but that’s because it works so well.  One particularly powerful moment has the rest of the group watching a PPV on TV at the local bar and mocking an over-the-hill fighter who doesn’t know when to quit, while our battered veteran just sits quietly, his head down.

If I have a complaint to make about Heart #2, it would be that it doesn’t really make any concessions to the serialised format of monthly comics.  We pick up roughly where we left off last issue (which in itself wasn’t really a cliffhanger), carry on for 24 pages, then just stop.  When this is all collected as a graphic novel, I’m sure this won’t be a problem, but right now, it feels like Blair Butler is doing very little to hook readers and make them eager to come back and find out what is going to happen in the next chapter.  We’re already halfway through this story now, and at this point no clear plot demanding a resolution has emerged.  It just seems like we’re stopping in on the life of Oren Redmond for a little while, and seeing what it’s like living as an MMA fighter and how he got there, rather than following him as he actually works towards any particular narrative-driven goal.  Of course, if the characterisation continues to be as rich as it has been thus far, this shouldn’t detract from the quality of Heart too much.

Kevin Mellon’s rough, scratchy style continues to work pretty well.  One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that, once we get into the fights themselves, Mellon starts to drift away from conventional grid-like panel layouts, making these battles feel more frenzied and energetic, and also thematically complimenting the sense of freedom Oren feels while in a fight.  At certain key points in these fights – such as a knockout – Mellon seems to abandon panels altogether, setting the climactic strike against a plain white background.  This clever use of empty space on the page actually put me in mind of some of the more experimental work Joe Kubert has tinkered with in recent years.  And that’s definitely a good comparison for your work to bring to mind!

Heart #2 is not an action-packed comic, and while some of the characters follow well-worn archetypes, the narrative doesn’t really fall in line with the sport movie cliches you might expect.  The drama here is largely internal, and as a character study, this comic is a compelling read.

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