If you’ve spent any time watching the comics industry, you probably know the story of Valiant Comics. But in case you don’t: in 1988, a group of investors, including former Marvel EIC Jim Shooter tried to buy Marvel Comics. When that didn’t work out, they started their own company, Valiant... And five years later, they had sold nearly 50 million copies of their comics, with sales almost identical to - or sometimes beating - those over at DC Comics.
Then in 1994, Valiant was bought by Acclaim Entertainment, mined for (highly successful) video games, and imploded along with the rest of Acclaim in 2003. There were a few attempts throughout that time to reboot the comic publishing part of the company, but it wasn’t until Peter Cuneo invested in the dormant company in 2011. True to company’s history, he recruited a number of ex- and current Marvel staffers to head up the newly rejuvenated comics company, and a year later, here we are one year later, with four ongoing titles from some of the best and brightest in the industry, critical acclaim, and sales that - int he current climate - are nothing to sniff at.
It’s with all that in mind that I headed to Valiant’s offices in New York a few months ago to chat with the editorial staff, and find out what was going on with the new Valiant. First thing that struck me when I walked in was that this cramped office filled with comics boxes and old Valiant merchandise was a far cry from the company’s heyday, or even other NYC offices like Marvel and DC. “This isn’t Marvel or DC, is it?” asked a staffer as they ushered me into a conference room, confirming that what they lack for space, they make up in mind reading powers.
And no, it’s not. Though Valiant did basically move a small section of Marvel across town, the new Valiant doesn’t want to be Marvel or DC... They want to be Valiant, again. “Our Publisher Fred likes to say we’re the third most popular comic book universe that’s ever existed,” said Executive Editor Warren Simons, relaxing across from me in the comfy conference room. Elaborating, he stated that the main impetus from both his perspective, and the business side was that you have all these great characters - like Harbinger, Ninjak, Bloodshot, and more - just “sitting there,” and in a way, it would be a shame not to use them.
That’s not necessarily a change from where Valiant was two decades ago, but what Simons told me next was. Asking whether the idea was to set these up so that you can go right to TV, video games, or other properties, Simons strongly denies that was behind the relaunch. “I think you have guys who really love comic books,” said Simons. “I’m just interested in publishing comic books. Obviously in this space, in this day and age you want to pay attention to everything - just like everyone does. But I think it all derives from publishing... [The Publishers] just wanted to read comics about the characters that they loved growing up!”
So how did they start? Or re-start? With so much history, how do you tackle rebooting an entire universe? “We sat down and looked at the core properties, and figured out what made them work,” said Simons. “Who is X-O Manowar, what’s his story? How do we update him for 2012? At the core, what makes this character so interesting? We took a look at what would appeal to someone on the street, and make it compelling, rather than something that’s just navel gazing, and doesn’t address anything that’s going on outside. We tried to boil them down to their essence, and then build them back up.”
He added that rather than going “Poochie” with the characters, just putting them on a skateboard, or giving them facial tats, it was really about looking at the world outside. For someone like the main character of Harbinger, a series all about changing the world, the focus is going to be different now that it was in the 90s, because the world is different. “We’re in three wars,” said Simons. “Not to be political, but we’re trying to address where we are right now.”
Chiming in, Associate Editor Jody LeHeup added, “Aesthetics is one thing, but what we’re trying to get at is the timelessness of the characters. Not just what keeps them working now, but what will keep them working in the future.”
Now, you guys may not know this, but comic books aren’t spontaneously created out of an Editor’s brain, like Athena bursting from Zeus’ skull. It takes special people called “writers” and “artists,” and Valiant put together a doozy of a line-up for its first few titles. “I’m met with Robert [Venditti] immediately,” said Simons, referring to the writer of launch title X-O Manowar. From there, he called in favors, searched out writers he knew from working with them at Marvel, and even took a few recommendations: Duane Swierczynski, who’s writing Bloodshot, was passed on to Simons from writer Ed Brubaker.
Next up was artists, with the same process. He again called in favors, getting artists like David Aja to chip in on some of the character redesigns, before settling on a few for what he was looking for in order to successfully relaunch Valiant for a new century. “I just wanted to do something we all liked and thought was cool!” said Simons, laughing. “Simple answer, we wanted to modernize it. We did fifty passes of the X-O Manowar costume, I hope [the artist] doesn’t hate me! Certain periods of comics are characterized by certain things... You have the lots of pouches era, the mullet era, we wanted to try and make it timeless.”
So what about influence? Throughout the conversation, Simons brought up stories about Valiant, of course, but also liberally peppered things with references to Spider-Man, X-Men, and other Marvel Comics. Given that most of the staff comes from Marvel, is that the major influence on current Valiant? “Obviously the seven years I spent at Marvel had a major impact on me,” said Simons on that note. “But I don’t think we’re using anything out of their playbook to build this universe.”
That said, LeHeup did note that there is one item they are “stealing” from the House of Ideas. “They’re all flawed characters, which is one of the things that made the Marvel characters great. Harbinger is a good example... He makes a decision early on that isn’t a very likable decision. You’ll see him change, and that will make him all the better as a character.”
With the first few titles launched, the initial nerves seemed to be brushed away. Simons noted that they were extremely happy with the initial sales of the titles, and others mentioned getting tweeted by Valiant fans who hadn’t bought comics a decade returning to the stores to get new iterations of their former favorites.
And finally, what about crossovers? At the time we chatted, Valiant hadn’t revealed that Ninjak would be introduced in X-O Manowar, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more coming. “We want the first arcs to be standalone,” said Simons. “I would like to be able to hand this to my brother who doesn’t read comics, and have him understand what’s going on. In the first issue of Bloodshot, there’s an event that will have repercussions across the entire line a year from May. But Bloodshot itself stands by itself. It is a shared universe, but by the same token, we’re incredibly dedicated to making the books as successful as possible.”
And with that, we headed off. Valiant’s fourth title, “Archer & Armstrong,” has just hit comic book stands, and promise that some big news is in the offing soon. Given the level of quality they’ve been bringing to the books so far, we can’t wait.