For the past few years, Blair Butler has become one of the most well-known comic reviewers thanks to her “Fresh Ink” segment on G4’s Attack Of the Show!, and now she’s parlaying that into her first comics with the Image miniseries Heart debuting November 2. Described as a collision between Mixed Martial Arts and comics, Heart centers on unassuming office clerk named Oren who changes his life when he sets out to follow his brother into the no-holds-barred world of professional MMA.
“Heart is packed full of flying knees, battered faces, “Hail Mary” submissions, and dudes mercilessly punching each other in the grill,” explains Butler. “Good times for everybody!”
The four issue series charts the evolution of Oren “Rooster” Redmond from an office drone to a professional MMA fighter, but according to the writer it’ll appeal to more than MMA enthusiasts.
“I don’t want to spill too much about the plot, but I will say that while Heart is set in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, I think the theme is something even folks who have never seen MMA can get into,” the writer reveals. “So I really hope readers will give our little black & white book about guys pummeling each other for glory a chance.”Oren goes into the cage for glory but also because his brother paved the way.
”Oren’s brother Jimmy is an established guy on our fictional, Kansas City MMA scene,” Butler says. “Jimmy’s the gateway drug – the guy Oren follows into training – and into the cage. It’s…I’m trying to think of how to phrase this – but sometimes, we don’t know that we can do certain things – or take certain risks -- until we see someone we know do it first, if that makes any sense? Someone else has to give you a blueprint. In Oren’s world, that’s his brother Jimmy.”
Helping pave the way for this long-time comics fan into the world of professional comics writing is Heart’s artist Kevin Mellon. The Joe Kubert School graduate just finished up work on Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.: Infinity, and found out about Heart through that series’ writer Jonathan Hickman, despite not actively looking for new work.“That's the thing. I wasn't looking for a new project to take on, I have a ton of my own [work] waiting to get worked on.” Mellon explains. “But Hickman forwarded me the script, I read it and immediately thought ‘This is completely out of my wheel-house. I might have to do this,’” I let it sit for a week, but ultimately I found that I didn't want to see anyone else do the book. Blair had so perfectly captured that mid-to-late 20's vibe of being shiftless and purposeless that I really related to. There was a clear "voice" to her writing, and I just felt the story was completely in line with the kinds of stories I want to see more of in comics. Personal, affecting stories.”
In order to provide a realistic and accurate representation of the sport, both Mellon and Butler spent a lot of time and money getting up to speed.“I had actually started watching MMA/UFC a year previous, mostly as a way to hang out with a group of friends that I'd never see otherwise,” says the artist. “So, going to their houses for PPV, or meeting up at bars and watching these fights was something I was already doing when this came about. I'm not an expert, I wouldn't be able to pass any sort of test by any means, but I do the research. Blair is phenomenal about sending me youtube clips or jpgs (she even sent me a huge book and a video game for research). I have never had a writer who's so thoroughly versed in the subject they're writing about. It's pretty awesome. So yeah. Basically I have Blair and Google.”
Butler describes herself as a “rabid” fan of the sport, and that her own personal connection to MMA encouraged her in the development of Heart.
“I will say that one of the most influential things was going to see my friend Derek in his first amateur MMA. Fight,” she explains. “It was – I can’t explain the sensation seeing of someone you know getting shut into a cage – and then defeating a guy by TKO. He’s been a huge help. I can’t thank him enough.”And while shows like Ultimate Fighter might have schooled people on what to expect for prospective MMA fighters training, Butler’s quick to show that not all training is created equal.
“The gym Oren trains at is definitely not a top-of-the-line M.M.A. facility,” says Butler. “They do a lot of things ass-backwards – which really fit the story. This isn’t supposed to be a cutting-edge training camp. It’s a run-down, bare-bones gym, with duct tape on the heavy bags – and a “sink or swim” mentality toward the new guys.”
Much like Oren’s induction to the world of MMA, Butler’s entrance into actual comics creating after spending years on the sidelines wasn’t easy.
“[It’s been] hugely intimidating,” she admits. “This is a story I really wanted to tell, but it’s a little terrifying to put yourself out there. Look, if you talk critically about other folks’ comics, you really live in fear that the one you write will be a total suckfest. It helps that amazing people like Gail Simone and Matt Fraction have made that leap – they’re both hugely inspirational. Not that I’m even remotely near their league – I’m not even on the same planet as their league.”
In line with the collaborative nature of comics (especially independent comics), Blair attributes the work of the book’s entire tea with making this idea a reality.
“Honestly, I got really lucky because Kevin Mellon took a huge leap of faith committing to doing four issues of a seriously uncommercial black and white book with someone who had A). Never written a comic before and B). was destined to make a ton of rookie mistakes,” states Butler. “But Kevin and the fine folks at Image have been so wonderful and patient when I do something bone-headed or ask 1000 stupid noob questions. Also, I have to give Crank! – who did letters and logos for the book -- a huge shout-out. I went and wrote all these complicated “Fighter Stats” – and he somehow made all that ponderous text of mine work seamlessly with Kevin’s gorgeous pages. This entire process has been an education – and I can say that I will never look at comics the same way again. I mean, “seeing how the sausages get made,” has gotten me even more fascinated with the art form.”