On 2/18/2016, I had the opportunity to settle in for a chat with Ian Parker, co-founder of the Cage Hero licensing brand, and creator of Cage Hero, the comic series. For anyone who might be interested, but has yet to check it out, Cage Hero is about a band of young martial artists, each a champion in their respective art, brought together by fate to unleash the “hero within”. Together, they form the Cage Hero team, learning from each other to expand their martial arts knowledge, becoming “mixed martial artists” and carrying on the battle against the evil forces of Dark Sanctum.
Ian and I had a pretty good talk. He came across as someone very determined to make his mark, focused on taking Cage Hero into as many different directions and markets as he can manage. Given what he’s accomplished so far, I have every confidence that he isn’t done just yet.
From the publisher:
From the minds of Kevin Eastman (co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Ian Parker (MMA expert and former UFC Manager), and Mark Mastrandrea (MMA personality), comes Cage Hero! A middle school student and wrestling star, raised by his strict grandfather, finds himself on an epic journey to meet his true destiny when he is recruited to lead a super-powered team of mixed martial artists known as the Cage Heroes! Thirteen year-old Ryder Stone must meet the challenge to lead a group of young talented MMA fighters from across the globe, and still maintain his grade point average. Trained in their own unique martial art discipline, all connected by a secret past, this new team will have to dig deep with themselves to protect the world from an evil network known as the Shadow Empire.
@CageHero on Twitter
Ian Parker- I’m ready to rock
PullBox- You are my very first interview, so congratulations.
IP- Thank you (laugh)
PB- I did the reviews for your comic series, Cage Hero, very entertaining comic, had a lot of fun reading it and writing about it. Also, a big fan of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), so I got the honor of setting the interview up and getting it going.
PB- Okay, we’ll see if you still think so after the interview.
IP- That’s fair.
PB- On to your comic… Reading Cage Hero, I saw that each character starts out as a more traditional martial artist, in their individual styles. You had karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, and wrestling represented. Was that a deliberate decision on your part, valuing the traditional styles as a starting point for MMA?
IP- It was one hundred percent deliberate, so you’re spot on. In this day and age, kids should not be necessarily “training” in MMA. They’re too young, and need to develop their skills. As the sport (MMA) has evolved over the years, you can see that the fighters who are the most well-rounded and more disciplined, those are the most dominant champions. What I wanted to do was to have each kid, all from different parts of the world, to have their own respective martial art, their own discipline. So when they came together as a team, each one through teamwork can train each other, cross train to become well-rounded as a team.
A wrestler’s not use to going to his back in a match, they’re taught that when they get taken down to go to their stomach. In jiu-jitsu, the coaches tell you to go to your back instead. So with boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, I just thought it was the best way to incorporate teamwork, and show that you may be great as an individual, but you can be even stronger and better as a complete team.
I also wanted kids who read this, who compete in these sports, to understand that I’m not promoting children’s MMA. I’ve seen videos on line, with kids in the cage, I’m totally not okay with that. It’s one thing to train and practice, but these kids don’t need to spar and if you notice they didn’t really do that in the comic. I purposefully had each of them being at the top of their class, in their respective country, competing in their sport. Then they come together as a team and become better as a whole.
So, another thing that really came across while I was reading Cage Hero was that someone involved in the creative process had a pretty solid knowledge of martial arts, overall. I read in other interviews you’ve done that you’ve not only trained in MMA, but also that you have a wrestling background. Are there any other traditional styles that you’ve trained in?
IP- Well, yeah, I actually was an amateur MMA fighter, I was a wrestler in my childhood and my teenage years. After college I started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and Muay Thai. As I started training, and learning more, I actually started Cage Hero as a clothing line.
I was sponsoring fighters who were wearing our stuff out in the cage. Chuck Lidell, Cung Lee, Daniel Cormier who is the light heavyweight champion right now, Chris Weidman… Then I started managing fighters. I managed Chris Weidman before he became the champion, a bunch of other top contenders currently in the UFC, some in Strikeforce.
So my knowledge of the sport (MMA) comes from being a fighter, being a wrestler, being a manager and endorser, just my love of the sport. I’ve done a lot of interviews and podcasts, MMA shows, and my love of the sport has really increased my educational level in martial arts. So when I did this comic, I wanted to stay as true as I could, especially with the artwork, when they were doing certain moves. You saw the wrestler executing double leg takedowns, a reverse suplex, there was Greco Roman wrestling, judo with the armbars. I tried to stay as true to each sport as possible, and without that overall knowledge, I couldn’t have done that.
My artist, I would give him the name, the type of submission, the strikes, I would send him an exact picture of it so he could reference it and research it. That was how, you get that realism, (chuckle) if you want to use that word for the comic.
PB- Yeah, I thought the artwork was really a high point in the comic for me.
Next thing, I just want to point out that I’m up there in age where I can remember buying comic books for 35 cents each, and there were a few titles launched back then that were tied to sports. There was a superhero football player… not just a superhero who was a football player. When I was reading Cage Hero, there really was sort of a throwback feel to it. Was that something you were looking for with the book?
IP- You know what, it’s funny you say that, because at first, I wanted it to be as modern as possible. I was looking at what kids’ properties were like these days. But then I thought to myself, I just turned thirty, so maybe my feelings of nostalgia are a little bit different, but I wanted that old school feel, placed in the modern era.
As the four comics go on, you’ll see how the art work and the old school feel becomes modernized. Through the four issues, you’ll see the action increased, the dynamics stepped up as the story goes on. I purposely built that up, and I guess you could say that I do have a love for the old school look so I did everything I could to pay respects to that. That’s what the comics always felt like to me.
PB- I thought it worked, so kudos.
You’ve mentioned a few times that your goal was for Cage Hero to be aimed at a younger audience, and that is awesome. One problem with some books that are keyed toward a younger audience is that they can have a tendency to lose something for older readers. How hard was it to find that balance between the young readers you’re targeting and the older folks who might want to take a look at the book?
IP- That’s a great question. It was definitely a challenge. As you said, you’ve got to keep the language, the complexity, you’ve got to keep that happy medium. So that any kid who’s age 10 to 13 will like it, and then the thirty or forty year olds who are comic book fans, and might have an appreciation for MMA, can get into it.
While it’s not really an MMA based book, I just happened to choose my characters to have their martial arts background. Just like the Ninja Turtles had their ninjitsu, the Power Rangers had gymnastics and karate, I just chose the fastest growing sport in the world, MMA, as the background. I think the way I was able to keep that balance was by following the blueprint set up by the Ninja Turtles, how they had to overcome the obstacle of hard core violence and still get a message across. I tried to minimize the corniness of it, give a sense of humor to my characters that was for the younger audience but that an older audience could still appreciate. Again, that was also why I wanted the mix of old school/modern artwork that could play to both crowds.
I feel like I did a decent job of finding that balance, because the feedback I’ve been getting from such a mixed age group has been absolutely, better than I could have imagined. We were able to accomplish that, as we kept developing the characters and what we were looking for in our vision for them, it made things easier to accomplish the balance.
And our knowledge of the sport, like you said you’re an MMA fan and you were happy with the way we kept true to the sport, that was something else that could help pull in an older audience. Using the real moves, maybe with a little embellishment behind them because of the super powers, might help a more mature reader appreciate it, while a younger reader who might not care what kind of move it was but just thought it was cool to have a superhero to look up to.
PB- I thought it was pretty cool too… And a nice tip of the hat to you guys for not dumbing the content down, or talking down to your younger readers.
IP- That’s a big thing for me too. I didn’t want to make kids feel as though I was talking down to them in the comic, in order to accomplish the goal. I wanted to give kids the same level of respect as I did to the older audience, because you don’t need to dumb things down. Just explain the terms so everyone understands the sport, keep it age appropriate, let the artwork speak for itself. Use correct character development. I’m glad that came across, that you were able to identify with that. Thank you.
PB- No problem, I thought it came out great.
Now, the next question… In other interviews I’ve read, you’ve talked about how great it was working with Kevin Eastman. How did the two of you get together for this collaboration?
IP- I grew up on the Ninja Turtles. Surge Licensing was the original licensing team for the Turtles, Mark Freeman who was a producer on the Ninja Turtle movies, and Kevin Eastman who was one of the creators. The things that I wanted, and what they saw in this project were similar to the Ninja Turtles. What I wanted was someone who could help take that blueprint, to overcome the same obstacles as the Turtles, which was keeping the violence in the correct frame of reference.
Throughout the process of putting this series together, how closely was everyone working together? With the plotting, outlining, scripting, and artwork, was it all taken step by step, or was it a constant working back and forth, bouncing ideas from start to finish?
IP- You know, the Cage Hero situation was probably very different from most. I think it was one of the only properties that Dynamite brought on board that wasn’t created essentially in house, for the most part. In our situation, I already had a full treatment done. It was more about getting the script, which was Rik Hoskin, which… Rik is amazing, okay? Whenever he need me, or vice versa, it was just an email or a phone call away, and he was in England. We were able to hammer everything out very quickly. Rik took my treatment and just formatted it, made it comic book ready. Same thing with Renato Rei, the artist.
Everything was pretty much back and forth between us. We had the actual story done, there was very little changing from the concept I had. Rik came in to pen it the way that I saw it. Everything was run through me, I had to approve everything, and I will tell you that there was very little that I had to make edits on, unless it was something that just didn’t match things on the artwork from Renato. Everyone worked so well as a team, it was all hands on deck. We got this put together very quickly. There was no clash of egos, we all wanted the same thing which was to make this the best project it could be. We had a vision, so we said, “let’s all do it.” I know it sounds ridiculous, how easy it was, but it really was amazing to work with those guys, and we all got along that well.
This four issue run is wrapped. I read all four issues, really got a kick out of. That can’t be it, you have to have something else in the works. Maybe a series of short runs like this one, an ongoing monthly, something.
IP- Well, first thing we’re gonna be doing is working on a graphic novel. That’s next. Let’s put it this way… the plan for the future, and this might leave you with a question mark but you can take this in many different directions, but I’ve always believed from day one that Cage Hero was definitely an animation. Maybe a series of movies in the future, I would love that. But the immediate future is the graphic novel, that’s the next play.
The four-part series, that was just the start. The treatment I had, the script, we put it all into that, but I’ve been writing, I’ve been ready to rock. It’s just what kind of response we get from the series, and what kind of response we get to the graphic novel.
PB- That would be cool…
Now, the last official question that I have, and this is the big one…
PB- Out of all the professional MMA fighters, past and present, who do you think would make the best Cage Hero, and why?
IP- Oh man, (laugh) Wow, that’s a tough one. There are so many fighters out there that really get what we’re all about. Picking one is really, really challenging. So many greats that have come and gone throughout the years, that totally represent the sport and are great role models for kids.
I personally am biased toward some of the guys I’ve worked with. Guys like Weidman, Matt Sera… who is a great role model for kids… George St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Daniel Cormier, Cung Lee, Chuck Lidell, Randy Couture, Royce Gracie. I don’t know that I could pick just one. I will tell you that when I was sponsoring guys, what I was truly looking for was guys who represented what our brand stands for, “the hero comes from within”. I was looking for guys who were fighting with their heart, who were fighting for the right reasons and were good role models for the kids.
I’ll tell you what, this guy, Connor MacGregor… This guy talks a lot of you-know-what, he really acts it up, but at the end of the day he’s one of the hardest working athletes in professional sports. He knows how to market himself, you know? If ever I were to make an Irish character for my book, I couldn’t base it directly on him, but the things he can do… I don’t necessarily agree with some of the bashing, but at the same time it is a business, and it’s an entertainment, and he sells himself extremely well.
It’s a tough question, picking just one fighter out of all of them that are out there. I don’t know if I can answer that question and one shot it. I will say that there have been a few who have been popped for steroids, other drugs, maybe been arrested, I’m not picking you. It’s not because I don’t like you, but it has to be about the hard work and the dedication, keeping the sport in the good light and be a true spokesperson for the brand. If you have all those qualities, we (Cage Hero) want you. That’s how we roll.
PB- Okay, that’s just about all the questions I had ready for you, so shameless plug time. Was there anything else you had that you wanted to put out there?
IP- The only thing I wanted to put out there is for all the comic book fans who might give Cage Hero a glance and just say “oh, it’s just another fight thing.” I can assure you, we are a lot more than that. Don’t just pick up one issue, pick up all four parts of the story and read them all the way through. Just one issue, I had to leave it open, leave it hanging for the next one. Get the whole story, the way we built it, see how the action increases, the story builds. If you give it a chance, I can promise you will like it. If you’re an MMA fan, you’ll love it.
If you’re a comic book fan, I think you can really appreciate the direction I went with it. This isn’t Superman, or Batman. I’m not gonna sit here and try to compete with the Avengers or X-Men First Class, or anything of that nature. I’m trying to build my own genre, to be in my own space, and I really think we have something here. Hopefully people give it a shot, and I promise we won’t disappoint.
PB- I think I can say that being a comic book reader for a good long time, you’re off to a pretty good start.
IP- I appreciate that.
PB- I appreciate your time today, now I think you said something about having a birthday dinner to get to?
IP- Yeah, it’s my Dad’s birthday! That is one thing I have to tell you, my Dad has been a huge comic book fan forever, and he was a huge help with me. Anything I did in regards to storyline, I always checked in with him. Anything he disapproved, I did my best to fix it. I trust his judgement that much. Him and my little brother both, if they said it was no good, I worked on it. They said it was good, I thought that was a victory in itself.
When you do something of this nature… you know, not everybody gets a comic book deal with a company like Dynamite. You’ve really gotta go big or go home. I didn’t want to rush this, I wanted to make Cage Hero everything I hoped it would be, and I think we really did accomplish that.