If you need a sign that mixed martial arts has gone mainstream, look no further than the sport's slow creep into popular media. Chuck Liddell broke the ice with his appearance in Entourage, and now there's a veritable slew of MMA content all over the tube, in the theater, and even in the comic book shop.
Blair Butler wasn't the first person to connect the dots between comic geeks and fight fans. After all, what are MMA fighters if not real life super heroes, replete with bulging biceps and a propensity to punch each other in the face?
Wizard Magazine founder Gareb Shamus saw the connection too; it's part of the reason he invested in International Fight League. That promotion, sadly, is no longer with us (though it did leave an astounding rap video in its wake). But Butler certainly is, and the Attack of the Show correspondent talked to Bleacher Report about her MMA fandom and her new MMA-themed comic book, Heart.
Bleacher Report: There is an obvious respect and affinity for MMA in this book. How long have you been a fan?
Butler: A pretty long time, but I should qualify that a bit. When I was fairly young, my friend's parents would rent a few of the early UFC fights on VHS—back when the Shamrocks were dominant.
But I lapsed a bit—until the first season of The Ultimate Fighter started airing—and I was hooked. I know that will probably bum out some MMA purists—I'm a bit of a "TUF noob." But I went back and started devouring everything MMA-related I could get my hands on—Pride, Dream, and more recently, Bellator.
Now, UFC Saturday PPV fights are like my version of football Sundays. I try to watch all the prelims, and I'm loving the smaller weight classes now that the WEC has been absorbed into the UFC. Can't wait for flyweights in the octagon. Can't wait.
As for my respect of the sport, I guess I feel like there's a bit of a cliché when TV and movies cover MMA. It's always two guys having a bare-knuckled, "underground" fight in some rich guy's drained, backyard pool—or a mysterious, abandoned warehouse.
I didn't want a rehash of that stuff. Even though the gym in our book is a little dingy and they occasionally do things ass-backward (like dropping a guy right into rolling and holding focus-mitts on day one), I wanted to show that the guys at Monster MMA are athletes. Professionals.
Sure, their gym is a bit of a shark tank—but I think that's part of the theme that hopefully emerges once you've read all four issues: You sink or swim on your own.
Bleacher Report: This was a pretty straight story. No super villains or crime drama. Will it continue to be kind of an ultra-violent version of Love and Rockets?
Butler: That's a great way to describe it. And the short answer is, "Yes." I'm sure there will be plenty of comics where an MMA guy turns out to be a werewolf or a superhero, or has to pull off a heist, but I just wanted this to be a violent little slice-of-life—something people who love and train in the sport could relate to.
It's funny, some comic book fans who aren't familiar with the sport have read our first page—where Oren (the protagonist) is wearing a "fanged" mouth guard—and think he's a vampire because they aren't familiar with the visual language of the sport. But once they get past that first page, they figure out that no one is going to turn into a bat.
The thing is, this is a love-note to Mixed Martial Arts, to all the people who follow the sports or train in the sport, and to all the guys who work their asses off and never even make it to the big show.
It's one man's journey through the highs and lows of a career in MMA. But it's also about that time in your life where you're trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your time on this earth. Also, it contains dudes punching each other in the face really hard.
Bleacher Report: Was it hard to sell an MMA book in today's comics marketplace?
Butler: The truth is, superhero comics will always dominate the market. But my hope is that MMA fans who are lapsed comic book readers—or who have never given comics a try—will pick up this book.
And for straight-up comic book fans, we hope that even if they aren't into the sport, they'll respond to the theme. Heart is about finding yourself, finding your strengths. And for our main character, Oren "Rooster" Redmond, MMA is his route to self-discovery.
The good news is that the first issue sold out completely from Diamond (the big comic book distribution company). I think there are still a few copies of issue No. 1 floating around at stores—and, of course, digital copies online at Comixology, Graphically and Comics Plus.
But it's pretty fantastic, and the critical reaction has been really positive. The amazing Nate Quarry even wrote us a short intro for the eventual collected edition, and I've had several guys training in MMA come up to me at signings and say how much they enjoyed the book—and that totally blew me away.
The first three issues are out in stores now, and the final issue should be out in late February.
Bleacher Report: Why black and white?
Butler: Kevin Mellon's art has an absolutely perfect scrappy vibe, and the black and white just looked incredible. If you look closely, you can see how he shades things with his own fingerprints—it's pretty awesome.
But one of the other reasons is that with creator-owned comics, neither the artist nor I got paid—and likely won't, unless the book sells really well.
So Kevin more-or-less sacrificed four months of paid work to kick all kinds of ass on our little labor-of-MMA-love. Honestly, for that reason, black and white was a good way to keep the costs—and Kevin's time commitment—down.
But if the book does well and people buy it, we want to tell more stories set in our fictional MMA world, and we'd love to do them in color. The marketplace will really dictate what we can and can't do.
Bleacher Report: I'm often struck by how unrealistic comic fight scenes are. Do you think there is room for Superman using an armbar to disable a giant robot, or Batman using the soft art of judo against a stronger foe?
Butler: Of course. And in the case of Batman, hell yes. I mean, guys like Batman and the Punisher—if they were actually "regular" dudes fighting street-level crime—they'd be training MMA. I suppose if I ever write a superhero comic, elements of MMA will be threaded through all the fight scenes. I'd like to see the Hulk armbar the Abomination.
Bleacher Report: Some of the situations and characters seem familiar. The opening flying knee falling short and being met by a punch—straight from a 10-year-old B.J. Penn fight. The trainer seems an homage to Don Frye. Will we see other familiar characters from the real world of MMA?
Butler: Ha, yeah, the Caol Uno fight, right? That fight is fantastic. But truthfully, I just wanted to show the other side of the highlight reel.
For every time someone like Jose Aldo lands a flying knee KO and makes it look effortless, there's somebody who fails epically trying to do the same thing. And Oren's trainer is really a homage to the guys from the very early Pride days—that's why we put some old-school facial hair on him.
So there are probably familiar elements, but none of it is based specifically on one fighter—or one fight.
Bleacher Report: What can fans expect going forward?
Butler: You'll see Oren rise through the ranks, chase a belt, and go through some major changes as he evolves as a fighter and as a man. Plus, power-bombs, Superman punches, armbars, head-kicks, flash KOs, and submissions—all rendered by the glorious hand of artist Kevin Mellon.
I'm really lucky that I get to work with that guy. And I hope people will give our little comic a chance. Thanks.