When I had first heard about Heart, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Sure, I’d watch the occasional MMA bout at a bar with friends, but I certainly didn’t have enough knowledge of the sport to have anything but a cursory appreciation for it. Definitely not enough knowledge for me to dig into a book centered on it. I was going to buy it because author Blair Butler is a wonderful person (who graciously chatted us up last year at SDCC) and I wanted to support her first entry as a writer in the comic book world, so I kept an open mind when I picked up issue 1.
I am so glad I did.
Spoiler alert! I normally try to keep spoilers to a minimum in my reviews, but this one was surprisingly hard to write while withholding some key points. So, I just decided to go for it, in full spoiler mode. You’ve been warned!
Heart tells the five year story of the meteoric rise and just-as-meteoric fall of the MMA cagefighter Oren “Rooster” Redmond. Stuck in a go-nowhere temp position in bland office dregs, Oren, the 24-year-old community college dropout, led an unfulfilling, stagnating life, until the night he watched his brother Jimmy fight in the cage. Inspired by the fight, he leaves his job behind, looking to be the next king of the cage. He joins his brother’s gym and trains, confidently growing undefeated in an amateur circuit. As he moves to the pro circuit, he discovers that his dreams of being a world beater may be out of his reach. When all is said and done, life thrusts Oren in a direction he didn’t envision at the beginning, but he ultimately moves on, proud of what he has accomplished with his honor in tact.
Over four issues, Heart tells a compelling coming-of-age story, highlighting the full emotional arc of an MMA fighting career – desire, success, arrogance, failure, and humility. Interestingly, the entire series takes place almost exclusively in Oren’s internal monologue, letting the reader capture his innermost thoughts and allowing the reader to inject him/herself into Oren. It’s hard not to, after all: at the beginning of the story, Oren is suffering through the quarterlife crisis, looking for meaning in his tedious life, his “dare to be great” situation. Haven’t we all asked ourselves those questions at some point? As a reader (and a mid-twenties male who has also asked these questions), I became invested in Oren. I wanted him to succeed with his particular path to glory in the same way that I want to ultimately suceed with mine. In his initial “unbroken” rise, he felt truly alive, and I was excited for him. As Oren’s career fades in issue 4, I felt his doubt. Oren lets his previous losses dwell in his own head, as his opponent practically closes his career with the same flying knee from issue 1.
And that, I think, is the key to understanding just how well Butler wrote this story. Oren’s monologues that pervade majority of the series are so – for lack of a better word – real. They’re written as if you can hear them in your own head, experiencing the story yourself. From his opening submission win to the day he tosses his gloves in the dumpster, there is a raw, emotional connection with Oren because, from the very first frame, his thoughts are your thoughts. That’s a rarity in comic book stories these days.
The artwork covers that same “raw” feel, complementing the text to a T. Artist Kevin Mellon takes sketch-y approach to his inking, capturing the active nature of MMA fighting using hard, angular movement lines. His backgrounds are filled with a watercolor-like effect that adds depth to the black-and-white frames. Plus – and this is key for Heart – the guy knows how to draw a guy getting punched in the fu**ing face. At that last page turn in the first issue, you can’t help but go, “Holy hell! That guy just got nailed!”
For a freshman entry into the world of comic books, Blair Butler did an extremely admirable job with Heart. The story, while not flawless, was tightly written (although at a 4 issue run, it had to be) and crafted in such a way that begs for a personal connection throughout the journey. I admit, I would like to have learned a little more about Jimmy (there’s a lot of unstated brotherly competition in there that I wish were explored more), but I imagine that its limited length prompted the necessity to cut out any subplots. Still, it’s a great read and is a strong recommendation for those looking for a true underdog story.