Tuesday, January 13, 2009

At last, MMA comics

It's taken a while, but finally the two of the great concerns of this blog (and blogger) have come together: MMA and comics. Yes, there is that MMA manga you occasionally see posted on blogs or message boards, but that's not available in North America, plus it appears to be kind of outdated (been a long time since Mirko Cro Cop was a serious heavyweight threat) and maybe not-good. What I've really been wanting is fictional (or quasi-fictional) MMA comics. I got two of them in 2008.

The most MMA-centric of the two is the second issue of Jeffrey Brown's Sulk (preview here). Sulk is, as I understand it, sort of like Brown's catch-all title for his non-autobiographical work, or at least the stuff which is a bit more genre-ish. Top Shelf's website describes it as "a showcase for a variety of Jeffrey Brown's all-new experimental comics," but the first two issues aren't exactly what I picture when I think "avant garde comics." The first issue (preview) marks the return of Brown's Bighead character, a kind of gentle superhero parody. It's some of my favorite work by Brown to date, charming, funny, and surprisingly inventive. It's also a good showcase for Brown's sketchy line and rubbery figures, highlighting the silliness of superheroes like Cyclotopus and the Brit.

It's a very cute comic, which is not usually my thing, and I have to say that I've read enough superhero parodies for multiple lifetimes. But Brown is never cloyingly cute; the humor always comes first. More importantly, he's well-attuned to the conventions and rhythms of superhero comics, and thus better equipped to exploit them. His gags are frequently surprising and successful. Bighead encounters "The Author" in one story, much in same way that Animal Man met Grant Morrison. Rather than lecturing him on the nature of fiction and creation, however, the Author's instead torments Bighead by summoning an army of 7-year-olds to follow him around and ask him to save the world. In another story, Bighead fights a clone (?) of himself, summoned by the police angry with Bighead for breaking up an undercover operation to arrest drug addicts (you know, rather than drug dealers). The fight ends with a caption declaring Bighead the winner, but not specifying which Bighead won.

Sulk #1 is a comic with potentially very wide appeal. It's certainly better than most superhero parodies, partly because Brown sends up the tropes of superhero comics/cartoons/etc. rather than specific characters or stories. In other words, there's no Batman analogue here. However, there is a story about Bighead's heroic death and subsequent resurrection. It's not absolutely essential stuff, but it's the sort of thing that many current and former superhero readers will enjoy.

I'm a little less certain what Brown's goals are in the second issue, devoted entirety to depicting a fight between two mixed martial artists. There are a lot of jokes that only mixed martial arts fans will get. Sulk #2 is loaded with thinly disguised references to real-life MMA personalities. "Jesse Rouge" seems like a pretty clear reference to UFC color commentator Joe Rogan. Even more obvious is his partner "Rass Buten," whose name inverts the consonants in Bas Rutten's name (and otherwise bears little resemblance to the Dutch fighter/broadcaster). One of the two fighters is named (Haruki) Rakasabu, an anagram for legendary Japanese fighter (Kazushi) Sakuraba. The other fighter, Eldark Garprub, is the hardest to place. I'm assuming Brown is nodding toward Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, based on the cadential and alphabetical similarities of the names (assuming you remove the "Quinton" and concentrate on "Rampage" and "Jackson").

The other tip-off of
Garprub's identity is his frequent invocations of God. The real-life Quinton Jackson underwent a spiritual rebirth a few years ago (one which may have contributed to his reckless driving arrest last year--he was fasting at the time). As for Raksabu, his feud with Garprub originates from a vicious KO of the latter's training partner. This could be an allusion to Tito Ortiz' feud with Ken Shamrock and the Lion's Den, but it's probably more like a reference to Sakuraba's string of victories against members of the Gracie family (earning him the nickname "The Gracie Hunter").

Can you enjoy Sulk #2 without getting these references? Absolutely. Besides, I think the names are less important as references to specific fighters and more important as signifiers of different approaches to MMA. Rakasabu seems to represent a more traditional MMA approach to fighting, relying on technique and determination rather than size and athleticism (Rakasabu is outweighed by about 20 pounds, a huge disadvantage in modern MMA). Eldark Garprub seems to represent the opposite approach.

Moreover, there are cultural associations with each approach that you could reductively assign to Japan and the United States, respectively. If you were to try to determine the essence of American MMA (not that I'd recommend such a thing, but just play along for a moment), you'd probably look towards amateur wrestling. Technique is obviously important in wrestling, but raw athleticism is also crucial, and can easily overwhelm experience and skills. What's more, amateur wrestlers tend to cut weight in order to press size advantages. (For those unfamiliar with weight cutting, it goes something like this: (1) dehydrate in a sauna or rubber suit, possibly while exercising; (2) sweat off a few pounds; (3) weigh in; (4) rehydrate and gain back the weight over the next day or two; (5) come in to fight up to 20 pounds heavier than you were at the weigh-in.) Japanese fighters have a reputation for being reluctant to cut weight or even diet down to a more advantageous weight class. As a result, they have tended to be a fair bit smaller than opponents from other countries, particularly the United States. Sakuraba, for instance, basically ruined his career by fighting and losing badly to men much larger than him. Not that it was entirely his idea, but that's another story.

The size differential question also has a historical component. In the earliest MMA competitions, there were no weight classes; Royce Gracie frequently fought men who substantially outweighed him. Again, this is tied into the idea of traditional martial arts, which stipulates that a fighter with superior skill should be able to beat a less skilled, bigger man. In Sulk #2, Rakasabu has almost twice as many fights as Garprub, and he's nine years older. So in addition to a cultural clash, Brown seems to be establishing a generational clash.

Unlike the references to the specific careers of Quinton Jackson and Kazushi Sakuraba, you probably do need to figure out at least some of this stuff. Fortunately, Brown makes this easy enough that anyone can make out the broad strokes. The weight difference is one clue. The tale of the tape provides another: among his "likes," Rakasabu lists "mind games" and "subtlety." Garprub cites "power (and displays of power)." It's pretty clear that the story of the fight will be wily old technician vs. young powerhouse.

Having said that, Brown complicates this story in his depiction of the actual fight. Brown takes us inside the head of each fighter, revealing their thought process as they plan their actions. Rather than blindly rushing in, hoping to overwhelm Rakasabu with his power, Garprub considers the situation and looks for openings. He's as strategic a fighter as Rakasabu, who, for his part, has to rely on both power and strategy in order to survive against his much larger opponent.

In a sense, then, Brown is offering an alternative to the rather tired trope of the brainless big lug vs. the crafty, smaller man. That makes the comic more realistic, certainly, and it also does quite a bit to promote the sport of mixed martial arts as more than mere brutality. Which is good, but something I kind of take for granted as a fan of MMA; I know that elite fighters have to be able to make lightning quick decisions, and that one misstep can end a fight suddenly. I know that the mythical "cage fighter" (who looks a lot like this) can't come in swinging wildly and expect to last more than a minute against a skilled opponent. I know these aren't bar fights. But other people don't know this, and Sulk #2 might educate them on these points.

I do appreciate the subtle way that Brown undermines the brains vs. brawn argument. And the art is very nice, marked by dynamic compositions and moody shading. I do think it falls a bit short of epic, though; one doesn't feel that Rakasabu is in danger of anything more than losing the fight. Compare this to an extended fight scene from your favorite boys' manga. Or hell, not even necessarily a fight scene--any competition will do, whether it involves cooking or chess or whatever. Brown never really establishes a "oh, shit, what next?" factor. To be fair, he probably would have needed double the pages to do that. Brown does build up tension and releases it with depictions of violence, but he doesn't do it on a scale which would make this fight truly memorable.

This is not to say that such an approach is the only way to portray a fight, but Brown doesn't leave himself a lot of alternatives. He shows us almost nothing about these characters other than their fighting styles, so it's not like we have any emotional investment in who wins or loses the fight. It's a good, realistic (definitely photo referenced, and I mean that as a compliment), depiction of MMA, probably not any less dramatic than a real-life fight. But as a work of fiction, Brown seems to be working in almost a minor key.

Sulk #2 is a good book, certainly entertaining and worthy of your time. It's probably best for those interested in MMA, but not especially well-versed in its intricacies. I know some hardcore fans of both MMA and comics who would be delighted in seeing their favorite sport translated to comics, and others who would question its value when real fights with real people are easily available. I'm not sure how those with no interest in MMA would judge Sulk #2. It doesn't really succeed as a snapshot of a foreign world, because its scope is limited to the fight itself. Aside from a very brief epilogue, it's exactly like watching a fight on TV, right down to the segment where fighters talk trash at each other. You can almost hear the operatic gladiator music.

In a totally different style is Yusaku Hanakuma's Tokyo Zombie, which begins with factory employees grappling at work. Mitsuo is instructing protagonist Fujio on how to break a body triangle when a co-worker intrudes into their makeshift ring without taking his shoes off. Then he suggests that rolling around on the floor together might indicate something about the pair's sexual orientation (an insinuation MMA fans have heard time and time again, even from some fighters). Fujio responds by killing the naysayer with a baseball bat to the back of the head. The pair then drive to Dark Fuji, a mountain made of garbage where quite a few corpses have been dumped. Having done their work ("Our code says we gotta bury him with his toupee on"), they drive away, unaware that all the corpses have mysteriously returned to life. Fujio's old gym teacher, on hand to bury a student who he punished too vigorously, finds out the hard way (PUN INTENDED!) not to accept oral sex from zombies.

As they become aware that zombies have overwhelmed the town, Fujio and Mitsuo try to escape. Mitsuo seemingly dies in the process, his final words an instruction to Fujio to seek out further training in Russia (presumably with Fedor Emilianenko--Yusaka Hanuakuma is clearly a serious MMA fan). Believe it or not, it's only at this point where I feel comfortable saying "now the book gets weird." We jump five years into the future, where wealthy survivors have created a walled city to protect themselves from the zombies. The poor work as slaves; dissidents are forced outside the walls to fend for themselves. The pastime of choice for the wealthy is watching fights between humans and zombies. Fujio, as you may have guessed, has taken up work as a professional zombie fighter.

Okay, so far so good; the in-jokes about MMA aside, this is the sort of thing anyone can enjoy. But at this point, Hanakuma turns Tokyo Zombie into a commentary upon the Japanese fight industry. Seriously, you will not fully appreciate everything which happens from this point forward if you don't have some knowledge of Japanese MMA--not just MMA in general, but MMA as it is in Japan. Fujio is shocked to learn that the most popular fighter of zombies (Gaira) only fights in works, not shoots; in other words, he's more pro wrestler than mixed martial artist. The pits regular humans dress as zombies against Gaira, who, assured of victory, seeks to entertain rather than survive. When Fujio expresses dismay at this, the promoter chides him: "You need to stop and think about what the goddamn point of zombie fight really is."

The crowd loves Gaira because he's a charismatic entertainer, and they hate Fujio because he's a no-nonsense technician. (BTW, this kind of underscores Mitsuo's "go to Russia" comment. The average Japanese fan is not especially interested in Fedor Emilianenko; they prefer cartoonish characters like Bob Sapp (or at least they did, back when MMA was at the peak of its popularity in Japan). Mitsuo, however, knows what's really up and tells Fujio to seek out the best training possible.) HOWEVER, pure professional wrestling is not enough: the crowd demands bloody spectacle as well. The promoter mixes in real fights with the fake, sending actual zombies in to square off against occasionally unsuspecting human fighters.

What you may not realize is that, in Japan, professional wrestling and MMA are inextricable. Remember Sakuraba from the discussion of Sulk #2 above? His background is not in judo, muay thai, or any traditional martial art; he's a pro wrestler by training. In Japan, professional wrestlers were taught legitimate holds, making them tough enough to survive (and often win) fights against experts in more traditional disciplines. The most accomplished of these pro wrestlers was Kazushi Sakuraba, who almost single-handedly built the Japanese MMA industry by beating all those Gracie brothers (and the occasional cousin) in the early 00s.

Unfortunately for Japanese professional wrestling promotions, the public now wanted all pro wrestlers to prove their toughness against "real" fighters. The results were disastrous, the worst probably being the destruction of pro wrestler Yuji Nagata by Croatian kickboxer Mirko Cro Cop. On the other hand, legitimate mixed martial artists like Kaz Fujita were promoted heavily, in hopes of adding (restoring?) legitimacy to their promotions.* In other cases, pro wrestlers like Yoshihiro Takayama advanced their career by participating in fights of dubious legitimacy in MMA. Most confusing of all was Naoya Ogawa, a legitimate judo gold medalist who parlayed his success into pro wrestling work, which he backed up with fake MMA fights. Yeah, it's all kind of confusing.

Hanakuma seems to hold pro wrestling in some degree of contempt. Gaira, a pudgy dude with long hair, meets a grisly end (both as human and zombie). And when the promoter unveils the most dangerous zombie of all time, the crowd unleashes a maelstrom of boos, denouncing the fight as fake. (There might be a subtle class inversion thing going on here--pro wrestling crowds are traditionally working class, and the stereotype is that they can't tell real from fake. Here it's the wealthy who can't tell the difference. But then again, I'm not sure if these stereotypes apply to Japan, so take my theory with a grain of salt.) Resolution comes in the form of an army of real fighters. And, uh, pigs.

It's that second thing--an army of pigs!--and things like it which makes Tokyo Zombie appealing for reasons beyond its commentary on Japanese fighting. Don't get me wrong: I really loved all the MMA stuff. For everyone else: this is not a typical zombie comic. I mean, the climactic scene involves an audience of wealthy slave owners booing a fight between a martial artist and his zombified instructor because it's too technical. And then the pigs.

I know this sounds like the WACKY SHIT kind of comic which we all should strive to avoid, but it's actually funny. It's not like Hanakuma wrote a bunch of words like "ninjas," "robots," "surfing," "grocery store," and "roller coaster" on slips of paper, put them in a hat, drew at random, and came up with Tokyo Zombie. And it's not like it's carefully calculated to merge the zombie demographic with the MMA and pig army demographics either. This is actually a pretty sophisticated satire--rather than facing the horrible reality of the zombie apocalypse, the wealthy turn to fake fights between pro wrestlers and mute slaves disguised as zombies. Or rather, mute slaves disguised as zombies wearing animal masks.

That's what separates Tokyo Zombie from the pack: it doesn't really pull any punches. There is violence and cruelty. The fake zombies are legitimately disturbing. The walled city is both ridiculous and appalling. Hanakuma's rather primitive cartooning adds to this effect, by forcing the reader to remain in the moment. Rather than allowing the reader to escape into beautifully drawn panels, the simple figures and austere backgrounds keep the event at the forefront. So when you see the pig army charging into the arena, it's not like the gorgeous mayhem of the Great Cow Race; it's ugly little pigs chasing ugly little people. It's hilarious and horrifying at the same time.

Honestly, I was initially so distracted by all the MMA stuff that I wasn't sure if Tokyo Zombie was actually as good as it seemed, or if it appealed to me in a special, particular way. Upon re-reading it, I'm confident that this is a very good comic, one which I would enthusiastically recommend.

* Yes, I know Cro Cop KOed Fujita before he fought Nagata; I also know that this is what catapulted Cro Cop to fame in Japan. I just don't want to get too bogged down in the history of all that here. Partly because I don't want to have to research it.


Jog said...

I dunno, Dick - I barely know a thing about Japanese MMA, but I thought Tokyo Zombie was pretty easy to appreciate on the basic level of someone struggling to maintain their mastery of something that observers often can't appreciate as much as a practitioner... I think that broad theme emerges pretty well.

Actually, I wondered if at was as much 'about' drawing in a primitive style -- the 'heta-uma' approach requiring one to be 'good' (ie technically skilled) before you can be 'good-bad' -- as it is about martial arts... but that kind of reading is just as specialized as yours, granted...

Ryan S said...

Hey Dick-
Thanks for the nuanced and interesting read on Tokyo Zombie. I translated/edited the book for Last Gasp... My background isn't related to MMA, but I tried to do my research to get those asides right. I also definitely remember Bob Sapp and the spike in K1 popularity when I was living there.

I think you and Jog both hit the nail on the head... the metaphor works both on Hanakuma's art style (and a magazine/scene like AX in general, where the story started running in their debut issue) AND related to Hanakuma's specific background in martial arts. I haven't read it, but he has a book of illustrated essays about martial arts that might be of interest to you eventually.

Glad to hear thoughts on this book from readers like you guys :)

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

Oh, I didn't mean to say that knowledge of Japanese MMA is required to understand or appreciate Tokyo Zombie--just that you need that background to appreciate some of the nuances. After my initial reading, I really thought that I enjoyed it primarily because of these satirical elements, but re-reading it for this review made it clear that there is much to appreciate beyond that commentary.

I don't know enough about Hanakuma's career or AX to appreciate any commentary on artistic development. But since Top Shelf will be releasing that AX collection later this year, maybe I'll be able to fill in some of those gaps in my knowledge.

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

And I should thank you, Ryan, for bringing Tokyo Zombie to the English language. Hope to see a lot more from you and your collaborators in the years to come.

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