Heart by Blair Butler(w) and Kevin Mellon (w)
Heart is a 4-part mini from Image Comics that tells the story of Oren Redmond, an office worker who is slogging away at making a name for himself as an MMA fighter. The writing credits belong to Blair Butler with art duties going to Kevin Mellon. In this debut effort of what is essentially a tale of trajectory as seen in many a sports story in recent years (with examples such as Bad News Bears, Dodgeball, The Blind Side, the list goes on) where a person whose life is going nowhere fast, with little to zero skill in a given sport, decides to throw in all their chips, train hard and finally their dedication takes them to ‘The Big Show’ where they eventually compete on a professional level, the outcome of which being an experience that the protagonist learns valuable lessons about themselves.
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Heart struggles to deliver this ‘by the numbers’ approach through four issues of mediocre artwork, clumsy narration, poor pacing and incredibly sparse dialogue, with most of the storytelling being done through one gigantic monologue from Oren. Every issue meanders through this man’s short but astoundingly action packed MMA career while he prattles on about every in and out that the sport has to offer. He experiences every set-back and meteoric rise that is available to any single sportsman, leaving him nothing more than an amalgamation of MMA headlines pulled from The Underground or Middleeasy or any of the larger MMA blog/news sites; He’s the know-nothing rookie who takes to fighting like the duck to water, he’s the submission expert, he’s got the big right hand, he realises he’s fighting in the wrong division and under-goes a ‘gruelling weight cut’, he under-estimates an opponent with catastrophic results, has to quit his job because it conflicts with his new found fighting life style - the list goes on and on and on. Through these trials and tribulations Oren just talks to the reader, explaining everything that we’re seeing in the panels. Which suggests that the art is mere superfluity. It reads as wasted potential, while Blair Butlers dialogue (of which there is little, almost none, between any two characters) delivers exposition, albeit sometimes clumsy, Kevin Mellon’s art only serves to reflect the descriptions in every panel. Which only makes the product on the page even less interesting to look at. It reads as “Here I am doing this, here’s me doing that” with no character development occurring at all through dialogue or character interactions.
What this book does have in spades is missed opportunities; Blair Butler has created what is potentially a great ensemble cast. With Oren as her Protagonist we also have his brother Jimmy, an MMA fighter himself already. Then a pit crew of training partners whom Butler takes the trouble to name and provide short but colourful backgrounds for. And we have the Gym owner, Monster, who oversees Oren’s obligatory but serviceable training montages. We see a lot of Oren’s training but still learn very little about the world that he inhabits and it’s these frustrating inconsistencies that ruin this series. Oren comes of as completely self-absorbed, incessantly talking about himself, guiding us through this world where we’ve been told just enough about the people around us to know why they’re taking up panel space but not enough to warrant any further exploration within the narrative. To have the main character’s brother involved in the story only to abandon any more connections him and Oren after the first issue was so utterly disappointing that it tarnished every following page. We’re to believe that there is no story in Oren’s interactions with the men that he trains with, at least nothing that extends past being pushed hard, as you’d expect. That and having a man’s groin in his face during Jiu Jitsu sparring making him uncomfortable. The gym environment should have been a great source of interactions and character development but instead nothing was delivered. The fact that panel space has been taken up by Oren talking about how awesome he looks in his MMA themed designer clothing when such important storytelling devices are being thrown under the bus is mystifying.
One of the themes that runs through the series like a creek under the threat of drought, meaning that claiming that this series successfully executes any kind of sub-plot is an incredibly long bow to draw, is that of the limitations of men. In particular the threat of age that all fighters must face as younger, stronger and more talented men move up to face them and introduce them to the decline in ability that the majority of pro-athletes encounter in their mid to late thirties. The subject is brought up and dropped almost immediately, with a fleeting chance that one of the older men on Oren’s fight team may become a focal point for a moment only to yet again deny the reader of the chance for any of the characters other than the lead to be fleshed out even the slightest bit. Even the thread that the book grasps to in it’s final chapter; that this sport isn’t for everybody and some will fail to reach the bright lights through sheer lack of talent, is so wafer thin and flimsy that when we see that Oren has learned more about life from fighting than he bargained for it almost feels forced on the reader in the final pages in a drastic attempt to inject some last minute depth. This gives the impression that this story needed one of two things; either stricter editing (an editor is not named in the book’s credits) or at least 28 more pages for Blair Butler to give these characters the three dimensional qualities that ‘Heart’ is clearly lacking.
Mellon’s artwork isn’t great, but forgivable for a debut effort. With all professionally published comic books it’s always a shame to see a sub-standard looking book, particularly when the artist’s style does not fit the subject matter particularly well. Mellon’s work could be extraordinary when applied to a subject that does not require as much energy, fluidity or dynamic displays of human movement. In this book something even a little more abstract would have been infinitely more interesting to look at as we’re forced to read Oren’s every thought. A style with more energy would have not only made the pages more alive but would have brought some much needed excitement to a book which held very few surprises.
To summarise, it would have been considered an easy review to judge this book on its portrayal of MMA. In fact, if this review was based solely of Blair Butler’s representation of the sport it wouldn’t score all that badly. It was disappointing to see Oren succumb to Jock culture but that just is what it is and much like the rest of the book it is done fleetingly, enough for it to be noticed and annoy, but rarely mentioned again and one thing Blair Butler has done well here is to not sensationalise the sport in the same way the mainstream media finds way too easy. Even the recent movies ‘Red Belt’ and ‘Warrior’ couldn’t help themselves from depicting Mixed Martial arts lazily as a spectacle that it certainly is not, and Butler should be held in good regard for aiming to create a very human representation of what is essentially just another sport and the highs and lows of the men who take part in it. But what she unfortunately failed on in this debut effort was weave any kind of dramatic padding around the lead to make us care about any of her characters to any significant degree. Sadly disappointing.