BLOG Putting The Heart Into MMA – Blair Butler Interview
Blair Butler is a comedian, TV host and unashamed geek. She’s our people, and like all good geeks she’s passionate and articulate and welcoming about what she does and what she loves. She’s also, like me, a fight nerd. A huge Mixed Martial Arts fan, Blair’s first comic work, Heart, published by Image, was a four-issue look at an amateur fighter’s rise to, well…a destination that he thinks he wants. It’s an incredibly smart, at times very moving story about someone who’s as much of a geek as the rest of us, he just finds his passion in bloody nosed cage matches. I talked to Blair about Heart, MMA and what’s next for her in her comics career.
Heart is your first comics work. What led to you writing it?
“I’d always been a huge reader and consumer of comics – but never really thought about getting one published myself. Though, thinking back, as a child, I was constantly drawing my own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, zombie and Batman VS Wolverine comics. Spoiler: They were terrible.
“On the flip side, as a comic book fan with absolutely zero athletic talent, I’d never been drawn to any sport – until I started watching Mixed Martial Arts. The odd thing is, the athletes involved in combat sports are the closest analogs to superheroes we have. I suspect if Batman or The Punisher were real, they’d be training MMA. I secretly yearn for Captain America to use a triangle to submit the Red Skull.
“Anyway, the odd thing was, I kept waiting for someone to write an MMA comic – and no one ever did. So I finally decided to write the comic that I wanted to read. And I got incredibly lucky, because I was introduced to (artist) Kevin Mellon, and our letterer Crank, and a few months later, the first issue was out. It’s been one of the most creatively satisfying experiences of my life. Just… there really aren’t words. And we’ve been really fortunate with the positive critical response – but, succeed or fail — it’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment just to get that book out into the world.”
Which writers have influenced you?
“I’ve been most influenced by Ed Brubaker, Brian Wood and Jason Aaron. And most inspired by Gail Simone, Brian K Vaughan, and Jonathan Hickman. Those last three each blazed their own unique path into the industry – and Hickman’s manifesto on writing comics in the back of The Nightly News TPB is what made me step up to the plate and write Heart.”
How did the story evolve as you wrote it?
“I knew where I wanted the story to begin and end from the moment the idea crystallised in my head. But then I had to break those beats and moments over the course of four issues. Find a rhythm that fit the page and panel count. And as I worked with Kevin, it really evolved. He’s such an amazing collaborator – and steered me away from a few rookie mistakes — like the dreaded 9-panel page – dun dun dun. The funny bit is, that page actually made it in there – but as a wordless page. And, oddly, it’s one of my favorites in the book now – because of Kevin’s fantastic work. I have it framed on my wall.”
Heart does some very interesting things with the traditional Rocky tropes of fight-sport stories. Did you make a conscious choice to play with these or did they present themselves as the story continued?
“I think movies like Warrior and Rocky and The Fighter all focus on guys who win at the end – uplifting stories. Even though in Rocky’s case (and I’m embarrassed to say the only Rocky movie I’ve seen is Rocky IV – the one with Ivan Drago) it’s only a moral victory.
“But I wanted to write a love note to the guys who don’t win – and don’t even lose well. A love note to the “also-rans” – the guys who give everything to the sport and get nothing back but a beating. For every champion, there are a dozen guys who were stepping stones…and I’m fascinated by that. It’s a career trajectory I wanted to explore.
“I always knew how Rooster’s story would end from the first page – it would have been wrong to finish it any other way. And, honestly, for me, that storyline felt like a metaphor for writing comics. If you’ve read the whole thing, hopefully, that makes some sort of sense…”
What’s next for you? More comics work?
“Yes. Hopefully a great deal more. I’ve really fallen in love with writing comics. And, thankfully, I have a couple things coming up soon. The first is a short story with artist Enrique Rivera in Jim Zub’s Skullkickers #18 – the new “Tavern Tales” anthology issue – which is out 26 September. It also features work by Justin Jordan, Tradd Moore, John Layman, Rob Guillory, and Charles Soule – so I’m literally the weakest link in that issue. Those guys are just tremendous – I’m honored to even be included.
“After that, I have a short in the second issue of Womanthology: Space from IDW Publishing that I’m wildly excited about. I was able to collaborate with an incredible artist named Alicia Fernández, and I think people are going to be dazzled by her work. I’m really proud of it. It focuses on a chapter of aerospace history that even I wasn’t familiar with before I started researching it – so I really hope people check it out, especially in light of the recent passing of the great astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride.
“And finally, I also helped former UFC Middleweight Nate ‘Rock’ Quarry adapt his Zombie Cage Fighter story into a comic – and the great Crank (from Heart) did the letters there as well. You can get it online now at http://www.zombiecagefighter.com/. I actually just saw the cover by Michael Avon Oeming – and it’s awesome.”
Heart‘s fight scenes are beautifully constructed and very true to MMA. Was Rooster’s style based on anyone in particular?
“Honestly, that’s just Kevin Mellon doing what he does best. I sent him a few MMA books that show detailed submissions – and that helped – particularly with the ‘armbar’ page – which is one of my favorites from the whole book. But, to answer your question, Rooster wasn’t based on any existing fighter – although I have been at fights where I’ve seen people go for a flying knee and absolutely muck it up. And at the pro level, the Caol Uno fight against BJ Penn comes immediately to mind. I actually spent a lot of time with a friend of mine who’s an amateur MMA fighter – and just going to his fights and watching him cut weight was incredibly illuminating.
“But whether you care about MMA or not, please consider giving the book a try. At its core, Heart is a metaphor for something larger…something that I hope resonates with people, whether you want to make comics, or write, or simply punch people in the face for a living…”
Blair’s absolutely right: Heart is a very smart, very funny and incredibly sweet story about why sometimes doing what you love might not be enough. It’s one of my favorite comics of the last few years for all sorts of reasons and if you’re interested in character, humor, really great fight scenes or cheering for the underdog (and God knows we all love an underdog), this is the book for you.