Nobody's more shocked than me to be reading a comic book about MMA, a sport I do not follow because I associate it with douchebags that inhabit bars that I wouldn't be caught dead in. However, I can appreciate the fandom behind a sport centered around dudes fighting, as an extremely casual fan of pro wrestling. But, hey, I dug the David Mamet movie Redbelt and I love martial arts flicks, so I can't totally disparage a sport that offers spectacular moments like this:
It's easy to imagine regular comic fans dismissing Blair Butler and Kevin Mellon's Heart, but Butler anticipates dudes like me who automatically judge people who wear Affliction tees by making her protagonist, Oren, a regular dude who could just as easily be a comic book reader — a directionless office drone in his 20s with little direction who himself judges dudes with over-designed metallic T-shirts.
Oren sees his brother fight another dude in a hexagonal cage and realizes, hey, this is something I can get into. Then comes the training, the muscles, the ugly T-shirts and, later, the mohawk, tattoos and fangs (!) that comprise Oren "The Rooster" Redmond's look, as seen in the opening before the story flashes back two years for the origin story. That transformation, which Butler and Mellon track over the pages of the first issue, weirds me out; as someone who can easily identify with Oren, I find it hard to accept a story where the guy with the mohawk is the good guy (except O.M.A.C.) on a primal level.
However, using my mind-grapes, I can work it out. I don't have to be an aspiring mixed martial artist (I assure you I'm not) to appreciate the book. Heart isn't just about being a successful MMA fighter. It's about being a successful anything, and that version of Oren we see at the beginning is an idealized form, surrounded by what appears to be glowing energy under Kevin Mellon's linework. That could just as easily be a rock star on stage, author behind a table at a Barnes & Noble (certainly not a Borders) or an architect at… some really nice building, unfurling a roll of blueprints. I don't know much about architecture. It's all about being in your 20s, getting off your ass and realizing what you want to do. And then, y'know, doing it.
Blair Butler's script is solid, delivering a decent amount of MMA action to go along with the requisite training scenes. There are two matches (and the beginning of the third), for people who want their first issues to actually deliver what's promised on the cover. This alone puts Blair Butler (best known as a television personality on G4) ahead of many other comic book writers. A noted MMA fan, Butler writes a comic about the sport that feels all-inclusive — not just for the die-hards, but also casual readers who just want to check out a comic book about something that isn't superheroes or zombies.
Butler's seemingly naturalistic, sport-focused scripting combined with Mellon's accessible layouts and expressive, shady linework bring to mind Japanese manga, which is a great touchstone to discuss Heart. Y'see, while in America our perception of manga is reduced to a series of tropes (Robots! Schoolgirls! Androgyny! Tentacle rape!), in reality manga encompasses pretty much any genre you can think of, including all sorts of sports. Some mangaka can extract drama from tabletop affairs like go and collectable card games, so MMA, with its physical danger and action-oriented drama, is ripe for comic treatment.
Which — again — I say as a non-fan, someone for whom the sport is not a built-in passion, opening up Heart #1. Butler and Mellon make the sport compelling enough for me to want to continue for the remaining three issues of story. My one hope in the storytelling is that Heart ends up more than a rote underdog tale following an athlete's road to victory, because a good book focused on a incredibly popular, nationally televised sport could just give comics an extra bit of exposure. And Science forbid comics get a touch less insular.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.