THE RESURRECTION OF VALIANT COMICS!A behind-the-scenes look at the return of Valiant Comics!
By Ryan “Irish Rican” McLelland
In 2003, fresh off a well-received retrospective on the Ultraverse, I decided to next take a look at my favorite comic company Valiant Comics. Titled 'Valiant Days, Valiant Nights - A Look Back At The Rise And Fall of Valiant' (archived here - http://www.valiantfan.com/valiant/valiantdays.asp) I recalled the Valiant legacy from its false start producing Nintendo and WWE comics, the launch of its superhero line which included X-O MANOWAR, HARBINGER, and ETERNAL WARRIOR, the reemergence of Marvel Comics legends Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, and Barry Windsor-Smith, straight through to the final years under the Acclaim Comics banner.
The end of the article postulated about any future for the Valiant Universe as I wondered 'Will..another company buy the rights to the characters and publish new adventures under their banner?'. Nearly nine years after writing those words the day of Valiant's resurrection is finally at hand. It took nearly five years of planning but the announcements were flying quickly as I travelled to Valiant Entertainment's offices in New York City. By the time the smoke cleared Valiant announced the relaunch of four books X-O MANOWAR, HARBINGER, BLOODSHOT, and ARCHER & ARMSTRONG along with the announcement that Sony Pictures (who will be bringing us THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN this summer) has acquired the rights to BLOODSHOT with producer Neal Moritz (Fast and the Furious franchise) attached to produce the film.
For a company that hasn't seen print in over a decade it seems that Valiant has suddenly hit the floor running. While the comic world has changed since Valiant last saw print, the return of a small, cohesive universe with actual consequences that mirror throughout each book will be a huge and refreshing change of pace from those that crank out the crossovers weekly and cancel books to relaunch them for bigger numbers the very next month. Even Valiant itself was once owned by a large video game company that ran both their publishing division and video game division right into bankruptcy. The relaunch under Acclaim Entertainment saw vastly different reworkings of Valiant's favorite characters under such famous writers as Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis. The results varied and the comics ultimately died a quick death.
The original incarnation of Valiant Comics came at a time when Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, and a few others were gaining massive fame with their artwork. Valiant countered the flashy artwork with an incredibly deep interconnected universe with characters that would quickly become beloved in a very short time. Twenty years later we have reached once again circled around to see that, more often then not, comic readers are faced with more flash than substance.
So what's different? How is this relaunch any different then what readers remember from the Acclaim Comics relaunch? For starters the characters were bought out of Acclaim's bankruptcy by two businessmen that doubled as huge Valiant Comic fans. Their planning and attention to detail seemed second to none as they worked over the past few years to reach this point of putting out new books. The characters that fans grew to love in the early Valiant Days like Aric of Dacia AKA X-O Manowar and Pete Stanchek of Harbinger were back but updated for today's times.
Valiant is a small company once again with a tightly knit group of comic professionals yearning to give the Valiant Universe the comeback it truly deserves. I sat down the management team of Valiant Entertainment which included Founder & CEO Jason Kothari, Founder & Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani, Fred Pierce (Publisher), Warren Simons (VP, Executive Editor), and Hunter Gorinson (Marketing & Communications Manager). The excitement of the announcements could certainly be felt among these five individuals as if they had found the keys to the candy store and were throwing chocolates onto the street for all to feast upon. I've interviewed hundreds upon hundreds of industry leaders and never felt the glow I had as I started talking to these gentlemen.
Comic readers have already seen the non-successful relaunch of Valiant through Acclaim so immediately starting out one has to think how will Valiant Entertainment successfully relaunch its line. It turns out that the strategy isn't far from what made Valiant Comics successful in the first place with a return to the classic characters that made the books famous.
"We're blessed to have eight or nine characters that really are "A-List" characters," states Warren Simons who will oversee the entire line of books as Executive Editor. "Characters like Bloodshot, X-O Manowar, and Harbinger. We really could continue to go down the list with Archer & Armstrong, Shadowman, Eternal Warrior, and Rai. We have all these great characters but the challenge we have is to make the new books accessible and get them into readers' hands."
Founder Jason Kothari, who along with founder Dinesh Shamdasani not only purchased these characters from bankruptcy but are admittedly two of Valiant's biggest fans, is quick to state, "We realize that we need this to appeal to both Valiant fans and new readers. What we're doing is similar to Marvel's Ultimate line with drawing into the original stories and origins but freshening up the art and makes it relevant to today's reader."
For most editors this task would be daunting but Marvel Comics readers will certainly be familiar with Warren Simons and his abilities. Having worked with Marvel's finest characters from Spider-Man to Daredevil, Simons helped characters like Iron Man and Thor rise back into comic prominence winning one of one of his eleven Eisner awards for Best New Series on Invincible Iron Man. Warren shrugs off the awards when it comes to his new task at hand as he boils down what is most important about the Valiant relaunch.
"Our goal is to make the comics as accessible as possible," says Simons. "That's what I tried to do at Marvel whether it was with Iron Fist, Iron Man, or Daredevil. Whether it was a 40 year old icon or a character that was brand new. With Valiant we have a bunch of amazing characters but we haven't published in a long time. The key concepts that made the characters so great in the first place, those core concepts, is what made them so great back in the nineties."
"Our plan isn't to jump into issue 72 of X-O but to show that the high concept driving X-O Manowar is so impressive that even though we haven't published in a bit we'll tap into those great elements. So the hardcore Valiant fans, when they open a book, it's not going to be a character called X-O Manowar but has nothing to do with the high concept of X-O. I think we'll be able to tap into the best of both worlds. We're going to make a great accessible story that taps into the characters that Valiant fans know and love but we can also give it to someone on the street and they'll be able to read and understand it. It's part of our mission statement to have comics that everyone can read and understand."
Kothari jumps right in to talk about the search process for their executive editor, "Dinesh Shamdasani and I worked through a really exhaustive process to find an editor to oversee this line. As you can imagine it is a very attractive position for a lot of editors, to relaunch an entire universe with such a great history. We went through hundreds of comic books..."
"Thousands," Shamdasani adds.
"...to see which books would we be happy with if the new Valiant content was of similar quality," Kothari continued. "You would be surprised how hard it was to find books that were like 'If the new X-O were like this we would be happy.' One of the only editors out there like that was Warren. Warren relaunched Thor, Iron Man, and Iron Fist really successfully. If you read those books they stand out more than anything in the past few years, at least to me they did."
Shamdasani, who as Chief Creative Officer helps shape the world of Valiant, knows exactly what Simons will be bringing to the table, "Warren is really great at taking characters with so much potential and being able to modernize them, find out what the core attributes of the work are and rebuild it."
Hunter Gorinson, another transplant from Marvel working Valiant's PR campaigns, adds, "Warren was able to make sense of the continuity of Thor who has one of the most convoluted, hardest-to-understand origins in the history of comics. As great of a character as Thor is, as much as we love him, making sense of it is one of Warren's strengths."
Warren sat at the table unfazed about what his fellow co-workers were saying about him, deciding to take the conversation away from himself and back to the characters, "I've been here for less than a year but the vision going forward is to make sure that the new readers first impression of X-O MANOWAR, as much as we love (Joe) Quesada's X-O, isn't an old one. That there is a new striking image like what Cary (Nord) is doing on the book - the awesome, badass cover to X-O #1 that is seared right into your brain. So everywhere you look for the next year will be new, modern takes on X-O and the other Valiant characters."
The original Valiant certainly had covers and innovative ideas that made them different from other companies; ideas that helped drive the small company to become the third largest publisher. Ideas like zero issues, chromium covers, free comic books, and trading cards (that could also be sent in for free comic books) became fashionable because of Valiant and the new staff is well aware of this legacy. Born from such bold ideas is a variant they call the QR cover.
It's a simple idea: you read a QR code with a QR reader on your iPhone. You then place your iPhone down on the designated spot on the cover or poster of X-O MANOWAR #1. Thanks to animation work done by Neal Adams Continuity Studios and voice-acting by Chad Jennings, what the reader sees is that your phone lines up directly with X-O's mouth. The effect is mind-boggling as you look down and it is as if the cover is directly talking to you. For the first time you and your paper comic are truly interacting with one another. Before even relaunching their books Valiant has come up with the newest trendsetting innovation.
"We didn't start thinking about the QR Variant or what it could be until we looked at the book and thought this is something that's really special," says Shamdasani. "We thought 'We have to bang the drum hard so what can we do to do that?'"
Gorinson states, "We wanted to make this a fully new experience that comic fans can get excited about and say, "That is a great idea." You don't often get the chance to do something first in comics these days. Anytime you get that chance it is always something worth doing."
"It's part of Valiant's heritage," Kothari adds. "It's a combination of great storytelling and innovative marketing."
The day I arrived at Valiant was the day they announced the second of four titles coming this summer: HARBINGER #1. The original HARBINGER told the story of Peter Stanchek, a young yet overtly powerful Omega Harbinger at odds with his former mentor Toyo Harada. Harada, who runs the Harbinger Corporation (the 'superheroes' of the universe are known as Harbingers and Harada has also taken the name for this corporate entity) and perhaps the world's most powerful Harbinger, strives to stop Stanchek and his crew of powered teenagers while Stanchek and his friends strike out against the corporation. It was a cat-and-mouse tale taken to the highest degree and the intricate story made Harbinger one of Valiant's most innovative books.
The new Harbinger continues the tradition of anti-establishment with its pitch line alone: The generation that has nothing comes face-to-face with the man who has everything. The world outside also plays heavily into the comic book as much as changed in the twenty years since the original Harbinger book.
"Tapping into what's going on outside our window is really one of the key aspects of what we are trying to do with the line," says Simons. "If you are eighteen and looking out at the environment, the bad economy, countries at war, all these things help shape the psyche of a teenager. We really wanted to play into that sort of aspect of how does that shape someone, how does that shape the book, and how does that shape the story that we want to tell."
Publisher Fred Pierce, who had been with the company since the original publications back in the nineties, states, "The kids today feel disenfranchised. So how does a disenfranchised eighteen year old super hero going to respond to the powers that he has versus the activities of him and his friends."
"It's such an important book for us because of how the world is. To have this character that wants to do the right thing, tries to do the right thing, and with his powers is able to do the right thing but keeps doing it in the wrong way because he's young."
With Harbinger's relaunch, audiences are reintroduced to one of the best villains in comic book history: Toyo Harada. Harada is the Lex Luthor/Doctor Doom of the Valiant Universe - a man who is truly authority personified.
"He's a man born out of tragedy and as a result of that tragedy he tries to control everything," says Simons. "Part of his challenge is how does one person try to control the outcome of the entire human race. How does that weigh on a person? How does that affect the choices that a person has to make? If you have to sacrifice a hundred soldiers to save a thousand people, is it worth it? What are the consequences that you as an individual make and how far are you willing to take it? Is your belief system the correct one? Is it correct from Harada to do this? It's interesting to see what Harada represents, what Pete Stanchek represents, and how its a metaphor for whats going on outside in America."
With four titles coming this summer the question of why it is important that Valiant has returned was posed and the answer was not about going out to sell a million copies of each new book but a return to the days that made Valiant great.
"You can tell comics today are made by big companies," says Kothari "They are marketing-driven, not story-driven. I think there is a demand in the marketplace for something that is fresh, original, and true to great storytelling. We're a small company and the vision here is to do the best possible stories at all cost. We have the chance to create something different and better that will speak to readers today much like the original Valiant did in 1992."
Pierce recollects as he adds, "I was there for the early days of Valiant. I was Vice President of Manufacturing and Operations but we were all involved in everything. It was a big team. We would all sit in a room and we would discuss stories. We would discuss what we were doing. It was a very electric time. You would walk in and feel the energy in the office. Bob (Layton) would be teaching people how to ink and having classes at 10 o'clock at night. People would be coloring until 3 o'clock in the morning just to make sure that the books got out on time because none of the Valiant books ever shipped late."
He continues, "I don't if people remember the early days but Valiant weren't immediately successful. It took awhile. Then it skyrocketed and really just took off. There was a sympathetic cord to what Valiant was doing and we're going to strike that sympathetic cord today. We can see it with the editorial. We can see it with the marketing that Hunter has done. A good thing that we understand that we understood back then was it is not what we think should work but what actually works. What the readers want to see. The one other thing is we really aren't competing against the larger companies."
"We are a small company," says Gorinson. "We're flexible and extremely nimble. We're aiming to do the best comic books possible. We're not taking the Valiant name or reputation lightly."
Kothari adds, "When we put together a creative team we don't want people to treat this like a job. Everyone here treats it like it's a mission. We're doing things in our comic that no other traditional superhero comic or publisher can do."
"And we can take more chances on content just like HARBINGER #1 did twenty years ago," says Simons.
One huge questions resonated in my mind. When Valiant first launched its line twenty years back it did so with relaunching Gold Key characters Magnus Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom. Jim Shooter, mastermind of the original Valiant Universe, worked with the new Valiant for some time until jumping ship to Dark Horse comics and relaunches of Magnus, Solar, and Gold Key's Turok. With the cancellation of the Dark Horse line one but has to wonder if those characters would return home to the Valiant fold.
"I think Magnus, Solar, and Turok are great characters and if there was a way to include them, we'd consider it," says Kothari. "But I don't think we need them. We have the entire Valiant Universe. We're creating a new version of the Valiant Universe where we can invent new characters and do a lot of exciting things."
"It's not that Magnus, Solar, and Turok aren't great characters," says Simons. "They are great characters. We've all read comics with them and we all love those comics. That being said the Valiant Universe itself, Bloodshot, X-O, Harbinger, Archer & Armstrong, Eternal Warrior, Rai, we have so many characters right now that it's not like we'd lose anything by not having them included."
With the new books, the new BLOODSHOT movie announcement, and a HARBINGER movie still being talked about headed by RUSH HOUR's Brett Ratner I wondered what the Valiant staff itself was truly excited about.
"Personally I'm most excited about is when we get into the second and third arcs it will be very exciting to build the kind of universe that Valiant had originally," says Shamdasani. "Being interconnected, things had consequences, that kind of storytelling. For me I don't see it as much in comics right now so it's going to be very exciting to see that again. Especially when it's new. Like the first time we'll see X-O go up against Bloodshot, it's going to be a big moment for us. We're going to take that and we're going to give it the support that it needs. We're going to do the best we can with it. Those are the things I'm really most excited for."
"I'm also very excited to see the universe come together and create this new mythology," notes Kothari. "This new Valiant universe. I'm also excited to see what Valiant fans think once they see all the work we've been doing all these years."
Gorinson notes, "Getting Doctor Mirage, The H.A.R.D. Corps, Armorines, and all these characters back into the monthly dialogue of comics in the same venue as Batman, the Avengers, and Captain America is an incredibly exciting prospect that gets me pretty jazzed to get up and go to work in the morning."
"Looking at the first year, although the first arcs of the books may appear to be standalones we're doing that on purpose so we can make them accessible to new readers," says Simons. "By the end of year one you'll be able to look at the first years worth of books and everything will have built to a point purposely. We're very cognizant of building something that plays off of each other."
And in a "What is he talking about?" moment Simons first states that he couldn't mention the first thing he was most excited about, but the second thing he did mention was Barry Windsor-Smith. "I'm a gigantic Barry Windsor-Smith fan and I love ARCHER & ARMSTRONG. We may have something in the pipeline with them."
The drive in the eyes of the Valiant staff coupled with their long term planning signals a true return to Valiant storytelling. Time will tell if this is the most important comic launch in the past ten years but Valiant's return comes at a time where we, the readers of comics, have never needed Valiant more.
The Valiant legacy will begin anew with the launch of X-O MANOWAR #1 on May 2nd and the free Comic Book Day issue landing in comic stores on May 5th.
AND...Two lucky readers can win a X-O MANOWAR QR poster, War is Coming promo poster, and limited X-O numbered print by Esad Ribic courtesy of Valiant Entertainment. Simply email AICNValiant@gmail.com. Two winners will be chosen at random!
Ryan 'Irish Rican' McLelland has worked in movies and comics journalism for the past several years before joining the @$$holes here at AICN. Ryan’s comic work has already graced comic shelves with GRUNTS: WAR STORIES, Arcana’s PHILLY, and THE SENTINELS ANTHOLOGY. He rarely updates his blog but when he does it can be read at www.eyewannabe.com. CLICK HERE to help make ThanksKilling 2 a reality!.
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G