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Wed, 21 Mar ’12

Comic Book Day: Tapping Out with G4’s Blair Butler [Full]

The “Heart” scribe gets passionate about comics and MMA

Blair Butler may not look like she can beat you up, but chances are she knows how to deploy a perfectly executed triangle choke. The host of G4’s Fresh Ink on Attack of the Show is a rabid mixed martial arts fan and nowhere is that passion evidenced more clearly than in her fantastic comic debut, Image’s Heart. With gorgeous art from Kevin Mellon, the black-and-white MMA comic packs a serious punch – both emotionally and visually. We caught up with the multitalented Ms. Butler at WonderCon this weekend in the Interview Octagon (note: no one actually calls it that, but cut us some slack).

Nerdist News: If Heart is any indication, you’re a serious fan of mixed martial arts. How long have you been a fan of MMA?

Blair Butler:
I’ve been into mixed martial arts since around 2005-2006. It’s funny because a lot of MMA purists would sort of be disheartened to learn that, although I had watched some MMA – the original Royce Gracie stuff, back when Ken Shamrock was really active – I didn’t really get into MMA until the advent of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, which was really a gateway drug for a whole new generation of MMA fans. A lot of purists frown on that being your entry point, but I found the show to be really compelling, so I started watching everything: Pride Fights, Bellator, any MMA I could get my hands on. 

I was drawn to the athleticism and the fact that it’s a young sport. There are so many sports, like football and baseball, that have these long, rich histories that it’s almost impossible for someone to be really conversant in those sports. Whereas, with MMA, I feel that I can talk pretty effectively about the sport and I don’t necessarily have to research fifty years of history.

NN: Who are some of your favorite fighters that are active today? 

You have to admire George St-Pierre. Good ol’ GSP. Even though he hasn’t finished a lot of fights recently, he’s such a compelling champion and a great ambassador to the sport. On the flip-side of the coin, Anderson Silva is so erratic, but so fascinating. He’ll either knock a guy out or toy with him for five rounds until the crowd is booing wildly. He’ll dance during a fight and then he’ll come into a fight against a guy like Forrest Griffin and just destroy him instantly. [Silva’s] fight against Chael Sonnen is truly one of the most compelling fights I’ve ever seen; I saw it in a bar with a bunch of friends and I was standing on my feet all five rounds because I could not believe what I was seeing. This was the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the history of mixed martial arts repeatedly taken down and dominated by Chael Sonnen, who everybody knew could talk, but nobody knew he had this ability to smother a guy like Anderson Silva. 

And then, the Hail Mary Triangle – that fight’s amazing. John “Bones” Jones has physical gifts that are incredible and shocking, but you know, there’s certain guys that, if they’re fighting, I just get excited. Some of the new guys from Showtime, like Lavar Johnson and Ron Jordan who are coming into UFC, their fights are so exciting! Ian McCall, Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall, one of the first flyweights in the UFC – if there’s an Ian McCall fight on your Pay-Per-View card, I will buy it because that guy is electric. Everyone loves the heavyweights, and I’m no exception, but the little guys bring fights that have a pace and an explosiveness and almost an ability to defy gravity that’s mindblowing to me.

NN: Did you see last year’s MMA-focused feature Warrior? How do you think it was as a representation of MMA culture?

BB: I saw Warrior – the narrative was a little conventional and its got a lot of sports cliches, but that being said, I thought the performance and the direction were fantastic. It was nice to see submissions really accurately depicted. As a sidenote, I saw a TV show a little while ago where they had a fight between a boxer and an MMA guy and I started yelling very annoyingly at my TV screen because the guy was applying an armbar incorrectly. And this guy was, ostensibly, this MMA world champion fighting a boxer, but he was trying to rear naked choke him without getting the hooks in. It was ridiculous – I got really angry, saying “This is not correct! This is technically flawed! There’s no way you could persuade me, even a casual MMA fan, that this is a pro fighter.” I’m impossible to watch those movies with but Warrior did have great submissions, great technical stuff, so from that standpoint and both an acting and directorial standpoint, it was really effectively communicated.

NN: Well, you’re clearly very passionate about the sport.

I am, sorry! I went on way too long, didn’t I?

NN: Not at all. Your excitement really comes through. What sort of challenges did you face bringing a nontraditional comic like this from conception to reality? We’re not use to seeing sports-centric comics, so what obstacles did you face in bringing Heart to life?

The good news is that the challenges from a creative standpoint didn’t feel challenging; it felt exciting. I was really excited to write this story because the story of Heart is definitely not full of sports cliches. It’s the story of this guy who really thinks he’s going to be a world-beater, a world champion and his career trajectory doesn’t go the way he thinks it’s going to go. He does have this rise where, at a lower level of of competition, he’s great, he can knock everybody out with one punch and then, when he starts to swim with the big dogs, he has some real problems. And really it’s a love note to all the guys who fight in MMA and not only never get a belt but maybe never even make it to the big show in the UFC. Those guys who go out there and fight for fifty bucks or fight an amateur level and get beaten up for zero dollars, but they want to put themselves on the line and test themselves – that’s what I found really compelling. 

But, I will tell you, if you’re gonna write a black-and-white comic book, doing a comic that is set in a genre that recently had a movie that flopped…not the most commercial thing in the world, I’ll be totally honest. The good news is that it kind of doesn’t matter because this was a story that I was dying to tell and I’m so excited that I got to tell it. I got to work with Kevin Mellon, who’s this incredible artist out of Kansas City. His stuff is amazing and his next book is with Steve Niles, the guy who did 30 Days of Night. I got to work with an incredible letterer, this guy named Chris Crank, whose next book is one of the Rob Liefield relaunches – he’s doing Bloodstrike. He did these great fight stat captions for our book. It was a total blast.

One of the easter eggs in the comic is, if you read all four issues, Oren’s entrance music, if you string all of them together, it kind of charts the trajectory of his career and, if you listen to it, you can really see where he’s at mentally. As I was looking for music, I was thinking, “what would I fight to?” There’s a lot of songs that I’ve never heard anyone come out to, but I thought would be great! There’s this Bloc Party song, “The Prayer,” that’s incredible – it’s almost like the lyrics were written for a guy who’s going out and fighting in a cage. Social Distortion’s “Reach for the Sky,” which is the first song in the book, if you listen to that, it charts the trajectory of our main character. And there’s a Lupe Fiasco song, “Beautiful Lasers,” and the chorus is “There’s only two ways out of here / One’s through the door, the other’s through me.” It’s a really fun song for fighting.

NN: Kevin Mellon’s art is really effective in communicating both the frenetic pace of the combat sequences and the quieter, more introspective moments. You two seem to work very well together. How did you wind up working with Kevin?

Well, I was looking for an artist for this project and I’d found someone – this project originally came up in 2009 – but unfortunately because of a bunch of factors out of everyone’s control, it fell through. On New Year’s Day of 2011, I went to Jonathan Hickman – he’s a great writer, he does Fantastic Four for Marvel – I said, “Jonathan, I got this MMA project and I’m dying to do it. I just want to find an artist, but I’ve been having a really tough time.” He said, “you know, there’s a guy I worked with on S.H.I.E.L.D. at Marvel, you should take a look at his page,” so I checked it out and I was blown away. 

I basically auditioned for Kevin: I sent him the first issue script, a breakdown of what the whole series would be. So, he read the whole first issue script and knew what the series was gonna be and where it was gonna go and got back to me and said “I’m onboard.” I was so thrilled, just over the moon. The stuff that he sends me is so good that I keep preemptively buying pages off of him before he can sell them to people. I have the final splash page of issue #1 on my wall, the flying knee splash page of issue #1, page 4 and a couple pieces from the final issue that I can’t describe to you, but they’re pretty great. We tried to do something – it’s not really a spoiler – but we did something from the first issue to the last, sort of a visual framing device that, if you notice it, you may go, “oh, wait a minute!” Kevin did a really amazing job on that.

NN: Heart is a four issue series. That being said, do you have plans of revisiting these characters in a later series or doing a follow-up of any kind? What sort of series would you like to work on next?

The short answer is that Heart is completely self-contained, it’s one story. However, some of the peripheral characters we introduced in issue #2, I would love to explore their stories. Perhaps down the line, Kevin and I will be able to do that. I definitely want to work with Kevin again and there’s something else that we really want to work on. Thankfully, he has an embarrassment of riches on his plate right now; he has a book with Steve Niles and he has some other cool projects that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about right now. That’s going to be a little ways off, but the short answer is I definitely want to write more comics and the genre will not be MMA. If the market supports it, I’d love to do more MMA comics, but I want to do some other stuff. The next thing you see from me probably won’t be in the world of Heart. I can’t announce anything now, but I’m really psyched about some stuff – I’m hopeful.

NN: What challenges did you face as a first-time comic writer? 

Well, I’ll say the one challenge that I didn’t face was getting in contact with people at Image. If you’d like to write a comic book, I’d highly suggest that you appear on a TV show. It helps [laughs] But, truthfully, Image would not have published the book if they didn’t like what they saw; they read the first issue and liked it, so I got incredibly lucky there. The challenge is, if you’ve never written a comic book before, that pacing, the page structure, to put panels on even-numbered pages, your splash pages, surprise pages – that’s something you have to find a rhythm for. First-time writers sometimes will really clog up this gorgeous artwork with big, boxy captions and a lot of dialogue. As much as possible, I tried to stay away from that because I’ve seen some stuff where you’ll have a phenomenal artist and you’ll just have these huge chunks of text…it’s distracting. I learn more every time. I think I made a lot of mistakes on the marketing side right off the get go, there are more things I could have done to contact retailers, to get people in stores aware of this book. On the flip-side, the lack of awareness resulted in it selling out everywhere, which is good in the sense that it sold out, but bad in the sense that I constantly have people asking me, “where can I get it?” We have a trade coming out in July though, so they’ll at least be able to get it then. I wish I could have gotten it into more shops for people to have because I know there’s been a lot of interest.

NN: Has anyone from the MMA world read the book or gotten back to you about it?

I’ve been really lucky: Nate “Rock” Quarry, a former UFC middleweight and host of MMA Uncensored Live on Spike, read it and really enjoyed it. He wrote a nice quote for the book. I’ve had fighters come up to me at signings, which is really awesome, and there have been several people at the UFC internal – I don’t know if I’m allowed to say who they are – who have read the book and people in the MMA press have been really supportive. [Sites like] Bloody Elbow, MMA Weekly, Middle Easy, Cage Potato – they’ve all covered it and been really supportive, it’s been great. We think when it comes out on trade, it’ll be a lot more accessible to guys who fight, but don’t necessarily have a local shop.

NN: Which has been a greater challenge, producing segments for live television or writing a comic book?

You know, it’s a trick question, but honestly, producing segments for live TV is really, really challenging. It’s a constant grind, an amazing grind to have, but it’s a lot of work, a lot of pulling things together at the last minute, a lot of running around, but I get to cover a lot of amazing things. I got to cover the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opening at the Cannes Film Festival, which was crazy. Like, the red carpet – it was nuts! So nuts! I was on the French Riviera talking to Harrison Ford. He’s a very nice gentleman. I got to cover the Star Wars Celebration in Tokyo for the show. I got to fight a Japanese Darth Vader, who sounds exactly like James Earl Jones, but Japanese, which is amazing. Stuff like that is incredible. Writing the comic actually didn’t feel like a challenge; it just felt like this amazing freedom. I didn’t have an editor on the book; Image just lets you do what you want. So, if it sucks, it’s my fault, it’s all me and Kevin. And if it sucks, it’s my fault, it’s not Kevin’s fault at all, Kevin’s work is amazing. That’s been really great. Making TV is an amazing challenge, but every day surprises you. One day you’re interviewing someone really interesting who’s in a movie and the next day there’s a llama on a surfboard that you’re filming, so it’s always different.

NN: You started as a stand-up comedian. Do you ever plan to return to stand-up? Can we expect a Blair Butler comedy album in the future?

I’ll give you the definitive soundbite on me doing stand-up: I did Comedy Central’s Premium Blend and I love doing stand-up. However, having a full-time job and doing stand-up, I’ve discovered, are mutually exclusive propositions because for me to be even remotely functional on camera – which I’m barely, barely functional on camera now – I need to sleep, at least a little bit, and comedy is kind of an all-night proposition. So, if the status of my business changes, then I’ll be doing a heck of a lot of stand-up, for sure.

NN: You must be buried in all manner of comics. What are you reading and enjoying right now?

I have so many comics on my desk at work that it looks like a garbage scow. It looks like when the droids, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo fall into the garbage compactor. It looks like that except the tentacle monster would have died of papercuts a long time ago because it’s all comics. Right now, I’m reading, at DC, Scott Snyder’s Batman, which is amazing with Greg Capullo’s art. Batwoman from J.H. Williams III, they just got a new artist, I think Amy Reeder’s on it for three issues, but I love that book.

At Marvel, Greg Rucka on The Punisher is awesome. If you ever read Gotham Central at DC, which was Batman from the eyes of the cops, that’s kind of what he’s doing with Punisher and it’s amazing. He’ll sort of do a couple issues that set up these peripheral characters operating in the Punisher’s world. The Punisher’s like Jaws, this silent killing machine that comes in, then he’ll cap each arc off with an insane fight. In the first volume, it’s The Punisher versus the Vulture and, in the second volume, it’s The Punisher versus a group of assassins locked in a room with a gun-dampening system and it’s insane. Also, Mark Waid’s Daredevil at Marvel is so innovative. You know, Bendis and Brubaker did basically everything that’s dark and brooding that you can do with that character and did it so well that there was no way anyone could top it, so Mark Waid said, “all right, let’s go back to a lighter, more airy Daredevil.” The way that he and Marcos Martin work together – and some of the other fill-in artists – is just incredible. I think that book is gorgeous. 

At IDW, Locke & Key is just amazing. The artist’s editions over there are just great. At Image, Fatale is awesome, anything Jonathan Hickman is writing is great. And Prophet! Who knew that a relaunch of something from the Extreme line would be so incredible. Brandon Graham is doing some crazy sci-fi. To me, it’s almost like John Carter of Mars with sex aliens. I love it, it’s a great book. There are probably forty titles I’m forgetting; obviously, The Walking Dead is a personal favorite. I’m praying that DC resurrects The Secret Six with Gail Simone writing because that was my favorite book before the reboot. Hands down, I loved that comic and I really hope it comes back. All those are really great. I feel like we’re living in a golden age of comics. Right now, having a book out at Image is incredible. I feel like with Brian K. Vaughan, Brubaker and Kirkman, and Grant Morrison is coming to Image – it feels like there’s a real renaissance of creator-owned work. And then, you know, you have Brian Wood with The Massive at Dark Horse, which I cannot wait to read. Brian Wood, one of my favorite writers of all time. I’m so excited that he’s got such a Brian Wood-y comic in the vein of DMZ that’s coming out. It looks really awesome.

NN: One last question, in a perfect world, what character or title would you love to tackle? 

God, there’s so many great comics. I wish I’d come up with X-23, she’s a great character, just fantastic. I mean, let’s say the angels came down, like “Blair, you can write anything you want,” I’d write a Poison Ivy one-shot for DC, a back-up story for the character Karma from Marvel and I’d love to write Batwoman. Oh man, that’d be awesome. But, that book is already handled so well – you can’t improve on perfection, so it’s tough.

Heart #4 is available today at your local retailer. You can also catch Blair on Fresh Ink on G4’s Attack of the Show. Are you an MMA fan? What do you think of Heart? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter!