The Little Comic Book Company That Could
Created from the ashes of Acclaim, Valiant Entertainment has been one of the success stories of the past two years. Stephen Jewell visited its New York offices to talk about bringing back X-O Manowar and Quantum & Woody, and launching bestselling team bo
I’d be careful, Valiant fans are so rabid.” Comic Heroes has just admitted to Valiant’s veteran publisher Fred Pierce that we might not actually have read every single issue that the fledgling company has released since X-O Manowar #1 landed in May 2012. But if the return of much-loved characters such as Harbinger, Bloodshot and Archer & Armstrong had initially taken some elements of the industry by surprise, there’s no escaping them now.
Along with recruiting top talents such as Peter Milligan to helm series like Shadowman, Valiant’s first team book Unity became 2013’s undisputed breakout hit, November’s #1 selling a reported 68,500 copies, a record for a non-premiere publisher. It’s no wonder, then, that Pierce sounds so upbeat and optimistic when we meet him, CEO Dinesh Shamdasani, executive editor Warren Simons and marketing director Hunter Gorinson at Valiant’s Hell’s Kitchen offices. Located just a couple of blocks from the Javits Center – home of the mighty New York Comic Con – it’s hard not to be awestruck by the vintage Barry Windsor-Smith Eternal Warrior artwork that adorns the wall behind me or the assorted paraphernalia (such as the bottle of Armstrong Ale that really does look too good to open!) that surrounds us.
“The idea is to keep Valiant at the level it’s now at,” says Pierce. “We’ve done everything we can to grow slow and steady. We started out by launching a book a month for four
There’s the Marvel religion, there’s the DC religion, but there’s also the Valiant religion
Kothari, purchased its assets. Determined to breathe new life into the beleaguered line, the pair wasted no time in persuading Pierce to come back home.
“Whenever I used to do a convention, no one would ever ask me about my time at Wizard, they would only ask about my time at Valiant,” recalls Pierce. “That’s how excited our fans are. I discuss the comic book industry like it’s a religion. There’s the Marvel religion and there’s the DC religion, but there’s also the Valiant religion. We’re one of the few other companies that has got that kind of fanatical support and the beauty of it is that a lot of today’s comic book retailers were Valiant fans back in the day, which is a good part of what we owe our success to today.”
Indeed what makes Valiant’s performance even more impressive is that it’s had to do it without the old Gold Key stalwarts. “One of the original discussions we had is that we thought the Valiant Universe stood much better with just the Valiant characters,” reasons Pierce. “If the Gold Key characters were available at the time, maybe we’d have looked at them but I honestly love the Valiant characters more. They were very much like 20 years ahead of their time when they first came out and now I believe we’re a good part of the way there.”
The Gold Key license has recently been acquired by Dynamite Entertainment, which has, ironically, hired Valiant scribes Greg Pak ( Eternal Warrior) and Fred Van Lente ( Archer & Armstrong) to tackle Turok and Magnus respectively. “That was obviously one of the first things we talked about when we got here,” adds Simons. “We all love Solar and Doctor Spektor and think that they’re great, fun characters but we definitely don’t need them. Having them is not a contingent for the universe to work. We’ve got a super-deep bench up here with X-O Manowar, Bloodshot, Harbinger and Shadowman. And then there are the guys that we haven’t even been able to get to yet, such as Doctor Mirage. Plus we’re doing stuff like our team book Unity, which wasn’t even in the original incarnation.
“It’s really testament to the extraordinary creators that we had in the ’90s as they helped build all of this stuff. One of the early advantages that I had was that we weren’t creating an all-new universe from scratch. We had an incredible template to work with, that we could update and modernise, and we also have some amazing fans, who were waiting for this stuff to come back.”
key ch aracters
Simons was an editor at Marvel from 2002 to 2007, responsible for numerous titles including Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron
and J Michael Straczynski’s run on Thor. “I’ve always had an affinity for working on a whole range of different characters,” he says. “I launched Ares with Michael Avon Oeming and Travel Foreman, and I did Immortal Iron Fist with Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja. What we were doing in both those cases was taking the key elements that we loved about those particular characters and updating them. That was something that we also wanted to do when I came here – to take a look at these amazing characters, like Bloodshot and X-O Manowar, and understand why people fell in love with them in the first place.”
With such a rich plethora of characters to choose from, selecting the right properties
to head up the line was a crucial decision. “X-O is one of our most beloved characters, as is Harbinger, so they were the two that we really wanted to do the most,” explains Simons.
“We wanted to offer something for everyone, so X-O served as a big sci-fi epic, Harbinger is a teen drama to a certain extent, Bloodshot is an action movie and Archer & Armstrong is a comedy. We didn’t want to replicate archetypes when we first came back, so we didn’t want to publish X-O and Eternal Warrior back to back. We just wanted to be patient – and Fred was very wise in not rolling out nine titles at once and flooding the marketplace.”
“It let us brand this stuff as well,” continues Shamdasani. “So we could just go, ‘Here’s one title and let’s make it the best that we can.’ We did that for four months in a row and people were saying, ‘This is an interesting new universe, they’re doing quality work.’ The fun that we were having in the office came through in the books and in the way we’d tease things and involve the fans. It became more than just buying and reading comics; it became part of a new growing chapter in the Valiant history.”
With Marvel feeding off the phenomenal success of its cinematic endeavours and DC initiatives such as the 3D covers for last September’s Villains Month also paying lucrative if short-term dividends, the comic book marketplace is seemingly becoming increasingly crowded, meaning that smaller operations such as Valiant have to constantly maximise their efforts just to stay in the game. Pierce maintains that the competition is healthy, though. “The expectations of the fans has become higher but they’re also spending more money,” he says. “People forget that if the product is better, people will invest more time and energy into it because our competition is not Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse, it’s television, videogames and all the other things that take up your time.”
The characters were 20 years ahead
of their time
In fact, the unexpectedly high returns of 2012’s “Summer Of Valiant” launch is partly down to the enormous sales figures of the New 52 seven months earlier. “The retailers did so well out of it that they felt a little bit flush with cash so they invested a little bit more in us,” says Pierce, who smartly positioned Valiant as the next big, exciting thing. “We’d still have done well but we wouldn’t have done so well. The retailers could afford to take a chance and then when they made money
with us, they could afford to take a chance with other people.”
While Unity is currently tearing up the comic shop shelves, Pierce is already looking to the future. “We have 30 properties and almost 200 characters,” he says. “Basically, we go through the characters to see what fits and the creatives and editorial pick out what strikes a chord with them. If we continue to launch things slow and steady, we have enough old characters to bring back for the next few years – and we’ll also create new characters. Unity was a new idea, as there’s never really been a team book like this in the Valiant Universe, so things like that will continue to happen.”
Indeed this month sees the re-emergence of the 4001 AD future-verse in Eternal Warrior #5, which will apparently herald the muchanticipated revival of Rai and the Future Force. “Unlike something like Marvel’s 2099 books or Legion Of Superheroes, the ramifications are much clearer, so events that happen in the core Valiant line will immediately be seen in the 4001 timeline and vice versa, which is a very Jim Shooter idea that he’d pioneered at Valiant,” reveals Gorinson, who insists that the far-flung scenario doesn’t rely on its erstwhile Gold Key inhabitants such as Doctor Solar. “It doesn’t need those characters as it’s just a
Priest is one of the legendary comics creators
great opportunity to modernise the universe and reimagine it in a more creative way.”
Valiant will unashamedly hark back to its past later this year, though, with the announcement that Quantum & Woody creators Christopher Priest and Mark Bright are returning to their beloved cult creations for a special five-issue miniseries. “It’s set in the original’s continuity, but 20 years on,” says Gorinson. “That’s big on so many levels for us. Christopher Priest is one of the legendary comics creators of the past 20 years, but he’s been out of the industry for six/seven years.”
“You don’t often see it,” continues Shamdasani. “Creators who have left the fold but have come back to work on their characters again, and are doing a great job. The Quantum & Woody fans are freakin’ insane! They’ve been on our backs since day one, screaming, ‘Bring back Quantum & Woody… and the goat!’”
“We’re big fans of the goat!” laughs Simons. “It’s great to have the guys back. We’re superexcited to have them working on the book. It’s pure Priest and Bright. It’s like they’ve never stopped working on it.”