Valiant Comics: It's All About the New

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Perhaps the biggest commercial splash made in the comics industry over the last year has been the re-emergence of Valiant Comics as a force to be reckoned with. The revival of the much-beloved Valiant Heroes line has proven to be both a financial and critical success, earning the company the much-coveted Diamond Gem Award for Comic Book Publisher of the Year – Under 4%.

As is usually the case, Valiant was an overnight success many years in the making. We had the privilege of interviewing Fred Pierce and Warren Simons of Valiant in July of 2011, a full year before the new Valiant reached comic shops, and already at that distant point in time, the team was hard at work creating the intellectual properties and stories that fans have come to know and love once again.

CEO Dinesh Shamdasani and his team have been involved in the comics industry for decades – Pierce was a cofounder of Wizard and one of the original partners on Valiant back when Jim Shooter and Bob Layton helped make the line a comet that blazed brightly across comic shops in the early 1990s. That experience has taught the team to take the long view but to also grasp the future with real enthusiasm. The current revival of Valiant has had the ability to please both fans of the classic Valiant era and the new Valiant era equally, an extremely difficult task for any company.

I had the pleasure of sitting down at March's Emerald City Comicon with Fred Pierce, the Publisher of the Valiant line, and Dinesh Shamdasani, the CEO and Chief Creative Officer at Valiant, to discuss the line of books and their thoughts on the future of it. What follows is an edited transcript from the two company officers that I think will give you an interesting perspective on this wonderful line of comics.

 

Making Classic Characters Contemporary

Fred Pierce: Dinesh [Shamdasani] has been working on Valiant for seven or eight years now and is very very much interested in making sure he can put up the best comics he can. He was a Valiant fan in the day. Now we have to create comics for tomorrow.

Dinesh Shamdasani: When I heard that there may be an opportunity to get involved with Valiant, to be able to raise the capital and bring back the assets back, I knew the potential. I saw it firsthand. I jumped on the opportunity and got very, very lucky.

Actually there was a bankruptcy auction, and we were not the lead bidder. We came in second. There was a whole trademark issue. The lead bidder left. We came in and negotiated a price. We got the assets. We cleaned up the trademarks. We spent a number of years building the plan, building the team.

This is why I say I feel like we have one of the strongest teams, both on the books and behind the scenes.

Pierce: Valiant Comics today is really about tomorrow. We don't care, on some level – and we don't believe that readers care – that Valiant used to exist. What you readers care about is that we're making great comics today. You care that you can read our comics without ever knowing there was a Valiant Comics in the 1990s. The Valiant reader is a very, very critical reader. The guys who read Valiant back in the day are not shy about telling us what they think about the comics.

Those readers have been great ambassadors for us. A very heavy percentage of retailers in the industry have been Valiant fans, which is one of the reasons we've been so successful. But really we're very careful about staying away from using the term "rebirth" or anything like that. It's all about the new. The products are there. When you read a comic, you don't care.

Shamdasani: Very, very rarely do we get people who don't like our books. It's a huge compliment. It's just about how we convince people that they don't have to read 18 Batman titles, or 18 X-Men comics. They read all the X-Men titles and they're not particularly happy with 17 or them. Marvel and DC do great work, but not across the board. And then they read us, and they feel that we're a breath of fresh air.

We're very conscious of the need to tell full stories. If you look at our books, about 40% of our books are actually more than 22 pages. Like X-O Manowar #5, we looked around and thought we really, really need a quiet moment to really accentuate the idea that this man is out of time. He's in outer space. He misses his wife. He doesn't have closure. So we have this very quiet scene where he goes into the lake, and shaves, and he has a flashback to his wife shaving him. And that made the whole book come together. It's revealing of him.
All of our choices are for the long term. We're lucky to have the resources to give it a good five years, we're lucky enough to have a team that understands and takes the long view. We're lucky to have IP that can succeed because we've seen it succeed the first time. We're also lucky to have the Board say "You know what? You guys are killing it." Luckily, we have time which is virtually unheard-of in terms of investors.

Pierce: Warren Simons, our Executive Editor, spent a long time breaking down the characters to their basics. What's their basic part of X-O? What's the basic part of Harbinger? What's the basic part of all of these characters? And he found great writers like Robert Venditti and Joshua Dysart to bring the characters to life.

I, as Publisher, have little to do with Editorial. We have three great editors: Warren Simons has done a great job, Jody LeHeup has done a great job, and Josh Johns has done a great job. They have put great creative teams together who love what they're doing. Robert Venditti, Fred Van Lente, Duane Swierczynski, Justin Jordan – these guys have put their heart and souls in these things.

Shamdasani: Warren Simons is our Executive Editor, and he says there's a weird voodoo to casting comic books. He's one of the best in the industry, I think, at doing it. We're very conscious about casting.

For instance, casting Robert Venditti on X-O Manowar. People looked at that and said, "Okay, I know the Surrogates. I know of the Surrogates anyway. That's interesting. X-O Manowar, that's a brand I may know of. Cary Nord, he's a brand."

The mix isn't necessarily a mix you see in reboots all the time. You see a few names always thrown about in reboots, so we took the approach on that of how can we get people to ping. How can we get people interested? How do we get people to go "Hmm... I need to take a second look at this? This is something different." We did that with our casting.

With the creators that we'd talk to, we tell them that we can't promise you the highest rates. We can't promise you the highest sales. We can promise you that it will be good. We'll do everything to make good books, and we'll do everything we can to get them out there. And we just love it. Everybody in the industry just loves comics, and especially the experienced guys. They just love comics. They've drawn Spider-Man, and they've drawn the X-Men. They just want to make good comics. Hopefully they feel like they can do that with us.

Pierce: The editors work with the writers to decide: here's the basic character and it's always a balance that creators want to take the characters into certain directions. Once you have the meeting of the minds, people really can take the characters in the right direction.

Harbinger is very much an analysis of what's going on in the world around us today. X-O is successful because you can recognize that Robert is very good about getting in a specific battle and the specific date that it came from, and saying "This is what it would be to be a Visigoth; this is what it was to be a gladiator. This is a leader put in these extreme circumstances."

Bloodshot is really very much contemporary. When we wrote about nanites in the original comics, they weren't even around us. Now there's a lot you can do about them. We see it in science all the time. Archer & Armstrong is really a commentary about today, too. When you read it, what you see going on in the newspapers is going on in our comics.

Shamdasani: Great storytelling is subverting expectations. I think a great way to do that is to modernize the characters but keep the core elements to evolve things and keep them working for you. We have a great team. The creators are great. Robert Venditti is so smart with that. Josh Dysart is smart with that. Warren Simons is good at that. He's done it so many times they know the tricks. They know the conventions. They know the iconography. We have a stellar team. It's very exciting to see.

 

The Excitement of Unpredictability

Pierce: Right now we're about to launch the "Planet Death" storyline to X-O. In X-O's first big story we were hinting at the fact that the aliens were going to come and take over Earth. We didn't want to tell that story. So Warren and Robert figured out that "you know what? X-O's pissed. He's going to go take over their planet!" So that's "Planet Death" in a nutshell. It hasn't been done before as far as we know.

You thought the Earth was going to be invaded – but no! And then in the middle of the story you'll see there's a great twist at the end of that also. You'll all go "Really?" and that'll work. We're having our first crossover in April with Harbinger Wars. Harbinger Wars will be a mini-series with crossovers in individual series. We're very excited about this arrangement. It will cross over into Bloodshot and Harbinger.

With the Valiant Universe you can read every book individually, and even in the middle of Harbinger Wars you'll be able to read every book individually. Now you'll have a slice. Like someone who likes to read about World War II, what happened in France, happened in France, what happened in Germany, happened in Germany. If you read them all together you'll have the whole picture. But you can just study just one.

In the Valiant Universe, the different storylines do take place in the universe and at some point in time it made sense that Bloodshot and Harbinger would butt heads. And that's what happened in Harbinger Wars. The people who have been reading Valiant since the beginning have seen the seeds of all of this.

Again, if you read Harbinger Wars #1 you'll be fine. If you read Harbinger #11 and Bloodshot #10 in the beginnings of that story with those characters you'll be fine too.

Shamdasani: As part of that accessibility, we price our trades at ten bucks. That's an easier price point. We have dollar books coming out in May. Free Comic Book Day is a huge event for us. We really put a lot of emphasis on that because it's a way for us to get to an audience. Last year blew our minds. We're so happy about it because we're not a children's publisher. In a way Free Comic Book Day really wasn't built for us. Retailers are finding that Valiant really has been surprising them in terms of sales, and maybe this is a way that they can get some of their other customers involved.

We're trying to take a look at how we can help people jump in without a huge expense. So we're releasing four titles in the Summer of Valiant, not twenty. Not interconnected, not an event. We'll release one more title in November. We'll do a lot of messaging about that title and how it's self-contained. This year you'll see a very slow and steady rollout.

You'll see "Planet of Death," which is an event within X-O Manowar. There is “Harbinger Wars,” which is a four-month crossover between two of our titles. But it only includes a four issue mini-series that you don't have to read. You can read just Harbinger Wars #1-4 just Harbinger #11-14, or just Bloodshot #10-13. You'll see us announcing some new titles in the next 30-60 days. We're not going to go crazy and say "Hey, we've succeeded. Here's five new titles." We're trying to do it right.
Pierce: They'll be titles that you may know that may not have been part of the original Valiant Universe. Whenever we go to shows like this people clamor for those titles. Whenever we speak to anybody, people say "I want to see THIS title" that's one of our biggest ones, and then a lot of the titles that you would expect to be relaunched.

We also invent a lot of new characters. The Bleeding Monk is a new character. Mr. Twist is a new character. It's not easy creating characters that people will care about. The characters that strike the empathetic chords to are the characters that we launch into their own books. But remember that the Valiant Universe is such a vast universe. Is there a character that is going to be better than Ninjak? Maybe, I don't know, but it would have to be. Is there going to be a character better than Eternal Warrior? You're really running with what's the next best thing. Is the next best thing Mr. Twist out of Shadowman? I don't know.

 

The Importance of Launching Slowly

Pierce: When we launched, we launched differently than anybody else had ever launched. We launched with one title per month. It gave everyone a chance to absorb. You know? “Here's X-O. It's our signature character. Great character. Read it.” His first story is 29 pages, and it reads as well as every other story out there. It has a great story and great artwork.

And a month later now you've bought one book. If you invest in one Valiant book, you can easily invest in two Valiant books. And then a month later it's two books. Alright, you think, so I can do two books. And then we hope we have you hooked at some point in time, so now you have to do all of Valiant, which a lot of people do, or you'll start picking and choosing.

But you need time to absorb. The writer needs time to absorb. The reader needs to absorb. We haven't been a part of people's lives in such a long time. It takes a while. You're sitting here and you're talking to me as if we've been around for a long time. The highest number, what you would have been able to buy is either X-O 9 or X-O 10. We haven't been around hardly at all.

XO Issue 13

I'll tell you what's funny. We just came back from ComicsPRO, which is a great organization. It's for comic retailers. They basically said to us "Last February you told us a lot of great things that you would do." and basically what they were saying was "Yeah sure, sure, sure, you'll do it." but in the end they said "We know that you can do it."

We were very honored to be nominated to be Publisher of the Year Under Four Percent. It's amazing to us that we actually won, and it's wonderful. The whole team has done so much. The fact that we know about Valiant is because the Marketing teams has been so great. The fact that the retailers have voted for us is because the Sales team is so great. The backing of the Board has been phenomenal.

Shamdasani: Someone did an analysis. We have the third best average sales per title of all the publishers. That's Marvel, DC, a bit of a gap, then us, then a massive gap, then everyone else. But, I have to preference, I have to qualify by saying that we only publish five titles. Marvel publishes eighty? I don't know how many they publish but certainly more than five titles. Dark Horse publishes thirty. It's much easier to have the sales that we do with five times because we can promote. Our challenge now is that have to find a way to grow, expand the adults, expand the reader, and keep the quality at all times. That's definitely one of the most important issues.

 

Valiant Comics Changed My Life

Shamdasani: Valiant determined who I am today.

The reason that Valiant has lived for so long in the hearts of so many fans is because the stories aren't just superhero stories. They aren't just well-told superhero stories. They're well-told superhero stories that tap into a universal truth about the human condition.

So for instance, Harbinger raises questions about morality. It raises questions about how you want to live your life. Do you want to live a life that's very, very straight and narrow? And how tough is that? Pete Stanchek will not kill anybody, in the original Harbinger. He walks a very straight and narrow life and how hard that is for him to not kill. Harada, on the other hand says "You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet." But does he go too far? Where do you draw that line?

We have this book in the office, 101 Philosophical Questions, and one of the questions in there has three parts, it says "Would you kill one person to save a thousand? Would you kill one guilty person to save ten thousand innocents? Would you kill one innocent person to save ten thousand guilty people? Harada has to deal with that constantly.

When you're 12 and you're reading those books and you come across questions like that, in a very entertaining way it really gets into your psyche. And you start at a young age thinking about things that normally you wouldn't think about until college, I think all the books have that.

Rai was very much about what it means to be an individual. We're really all alone. We only perceive the world through our bodies, and how much of our bodies are really us? Are we aware of the spectrum of our eyes? The fact that we have these things that we view the world with?

X-O Manowar is a book about, what do you do when life changes? Life is constant change. If you are holding onto what happened in the past, are you really trudging on? As humans I think there is a natural inclination for us to find the state of happiness, build it, and then hold onto it.

But that's a fallacy. You can't. Life is change. You die, you change. Cities change. You go away from a city you grow up in and twenty years later it's different. Does that mean it's a bad thing? It teaches you that you shouldn't hold on to something. You shouldn't be working to build the perfect life and try to hold onto it. It's zero sum game. You lose.

You have to be OK with the fact that this house may not be there for you the rest of your life. And that's OK. There will be positives and negatives about wherever I live next. Remember that at some point your parents do die, and then you'll have to be okay with that. It's just about the things that are intrinsic to you, and the things that are very much important to you, and how can you maintain that. How can you live in a world that's constantly changing. And I think that the Valiant books tap into that to a certain extent, which is why they read so well.

Solar is a great example. The powers of a god and the mind of a man. He struggled with what that means for the human condition; the book accentuated what we all deal with. It allowed us to magnify what it meant to be human. I think one of the reasons Valiant really caught on is because the Valiant characters always struggle with nobility. Pete Stanchek knows what to do, but he can't bring himself to do it because he's greedy, lazy, or stupid or sometimes he just wants the girl. 

Whereas Peter Parker - reading those books he never really struggled the way that I feel I struggled when I was a kid with wanting to stay home and take care of my mother. I would always be torn. She's sick, but I really want to go to the party. And sometimes I made the wrong choice and I went to the party, and now I don't know that I regret it, but I also don't know that I would have made a different choice. The party was enticing, you are a child. Peter Stancheck and our characters have that, and that's the evolution. It's nice to embrace that evolution.

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