Pound for Pound Is an MMA Comic that Doesn’t Pull its Punches

Dani's opponent punches her mouth guard out

TV writer and producer Natalie Chaidez joins Southern Cross artist Andy Belanger for her first comics offering. Pound for Pound explores the seedy world of underground MMA, the effects of past traumas, and manages to include more than one horrifying cult. The book tries to meld fast, violent action with emotional struggle whilst taking a pretty clear stance on the issues of migration that surround the US/Mexico border.

Pound for Pound

Andy Belanger (artist), Natalie Chaidez (writer), Serge LaPointe (letterer), Daniela Miwa (colour artist)
TKO Studios
November 12, 2019

Pound for Pound cover: a bright pink luchador mask with only eyes and lipsticked lips floats above two crossed machetes and roses

Dani Libra is an underground MMA fighter, a fearsome fighter sometimes aided by PTSD induced blackouts. In the spiral into these blackouts, the reader gets snippets of a mysterious bloody incident that happened whilst crossing into the USA from Mexico when she was ten. We are able to gather that Dani and her sister barely escaped, but their parents did not. One of her blackouts causes Dani to forget to throw the fight, and a crime boss claims his lost winnings by kidnapping her sister. So begins Dani’s gruelling mission to track her down. While she inevitably uses her fighting skills, the journey also forces Dani to revisit her past demons.

Throughout the book artist Belanger, continues to show his talents in inventive layouts, emotive faces, across the board, and beautifully violent action sequences. The movements are fluid, the impacts are felt and he makes chaos read in the exact way he intends it to be. He maintains the sense of being overwhelmed whilst guiding the reader’s eye naturally through it, which is a tricky balance.

MMA fight scene

The emotion that comes through the strongest from beginning to end is Dani’s raw anger. It is embedded into her, through past trauma and years of desperately providing for and protecting her sister. It is usually tightly contained, which speaks to her repressed trauma and her frustrations at an unfair world. But you can see it on the page, ever-present in the way she holds herself, keeping her taut. However, Dani’s anger bursts forth, via Belanger’s art, when she fights, with punches and kicks that impact so strongly that you can almost hear the bones cracking.

[Spoiler Warning]

On the flip side, we see Dani’s naivete shine through at times, when she so quickly and easily looks for the best in her father, after the reunion, overlooking warning signs, just so glad to have him back that she doesn’t see his betrayal coming. This unquestioning opening of her arms to him reminds the reader Dani has been her sister’s protector since she was far too young and she yearns for her lost youth.

The colouring by Daniela Miwa is very impactful; she uses monochromatic colour palettes which change between locations, helping to delineate them as well as emphasising mood shifts, plot twists, or action sequences with contrasting colour changes.

Moody turquoise is used across the whole page except for a panel of orange/red for emphasis

The story is well-paced, with reveals and action plotted out to keep the reader hooked, no doubt a talent of Chaidez from her television days – she is currently the showrunner for narconovela Queen of the South. The narration, however, is a bit contrived; meant to be Dani’s inner monologue, it instead is used too much like a 3rd person providing exposition. The narration sometimes feels like it is telling the reader when they should be feeling emotional and with what emotion. The worst example of this happens at the end of Chapter (issue) 3 where, after her father-figure Sal has revealed he secretly adopted Dani and Espie ~10 years ago, Dani’s inner monologue ends with, “All the while I couldn’t stop thinking about how in searching for my sister…I found my father along the way”. In being as subtle as a brick, Chaidez undoes all of the good work done setting up the story and characters. Doing so fails to trust that the reader will be engaged in the story enough to feel the emotions organically.

The lettering, outside of sound effects, does not stand out in this book, There are no lettering differences between characters and although bolding is used for emphasis, it is not distinguishable from the non-bolded words to make the intended impact. It is a solid job but does little to increase my enjoyment of the story or understanding of the character’s emotions.

After years of resistance, it takes a huge event to make Dani realise accepting help from Sal, her pseudo adoptive dad, is allowed. She and Espie don’t have to be self-reliant. The book’s message seems to be that strength and independence are important but having a family, found or otherwise, is another weapon in your arsenal.

Overall I enjoyed the book, it is gory, violent and a little messed up, all with gorgeous art. As a first comic by Chaidez, it shows that she has interesting stories to tell. Like most writers making the switch to comics, however, she has some finessing to do to make the most of the medium and make those stories really sing.

Amy Garvey

Amy Garvey

Amy is a co-creator and writer on Comic Boom Classroom, a scripted podcast that summarises comic history chunk by chuck with jokes, sketches and original music. She can often be found under a blanket, reading by torchlight.