Building A Universe: A Guided Tour Through The Inner Workings Of Valiant Comics
Since their first tiles appeared on comic-shop shelves in 2012, the resurrected Valiant Comics has established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Their new take on the characters and mythology of the original 1990s Valiant line, their pursuit of top-shelf creators, their focus on storytelling and world-building, and their gift for unorthodox marketing and promotion has drawn praise from both fans and press, led to a film development deal with Sony, and won scores of industry awards (and award nominations). They've proven themselves to be not just cashing in on past glories, but a company that's capable of pushing their stable of characters in new and exciting directions while remaining true to their roots.
And on a quiet afternoon earlier this summer, in a nondescript building on West 33rd Street, just a few blocks from the Javits Center (where New York Comic-Con takes place each October), Valiant invited ComicsAlliance's New York City correspondent to visit their offices embark on an all-access tour, get a glimpse behind the scenes of a comic company's day-to-day activities, and talk with their publishing and editorial staff about the company's history and plans for the future.
ComicsAlliance: Given the announcements that you're developing an entire slate of screen adaptations with Sony, and all the noise DC caused earlier this year when they moved to Burbank to consolidate their publishing and film divisions, I guess the first thing to ask is, why are Valiant's operations based here in New York? Is it the creative community, is it the sense of tradition, is it just the place that feels like home?
Warren Simons (Editor-In-Chief): Well, I think New York has, classically, been the publishing mecca of the United States, while the West Coast is all about film, Hollywood, TV. I mean, as a college student here, I was lucky enough to intern at Rolling Stone, Interview, and ESPN Magazine, so my background is really in publishing and journalism, right here at the heart of things – it's just a no-brainer.
I actually have a picture of me going up to the DC offices when I was nine or ten years old; it's a picture of me standing next to Superman with my arm around him, and I've got a bundle of comics. I got to go up to the offices, I got to meet Denny O'Neil, he gave me a make-ready of Dark Knight Returns #3 with that cover where Batman is looking at the reader, and I got to interview him for a school project. For me, the hustle and bustle of New York, the high energy level here is always something I've associated with this job. And of course, comic book publishing has a rich and storied history in New York, there's that image of four guys in a loft in a really bad neighborhood cranking out the thirty pages that are due on Monday.
Tom Brennan (Associate Editor): DC Comics was always publishing out of New York City, and Marvel wasn't just publishing out of the city, but basing all their stories here. And that means that really, this has always felt like the heart, the spirit of comics. And we're keeping that alive in a way, and though our books are based all over the world, we certainly have New York as a very important character in many of our stories.
Kyle Andrukiewicz (Associate Editor): In fact, in Dead Drop, we even did a recap page that was sort of a map of the city, that traces the story through New York. It's very much part of the fabric of our world.
Dinesh Shamdasani (CEO, Chief Creative Officer): And it's cool that the original Valiant, when Jim Shooter and Don Perlin and those guys started, they were about ten or twelve blocks from here. But really, what it comes down to is all the best publishing talent is here. And if you want to make the best books, you have to have the best talent, so you have to be in New York.
CA: So obviously, you don't have the same situation as Marvel or DC, where there's 75+ years of continuously-published characters and then occasional course-correcting, line-wide reboots – but there is a strong sense of history to Valiant. So it seems like you've set it up for the best of both worlds, where you've managed to cherry-pick a number of cool elements without being strictly held to what's come before...?
WS: Yeah well, I think when we walked in the door here, the question that people had is if we could do this. Nobody knew if X-O Manowar was going to be good, if Harbinger was going to be good, if anyone could replicate what went before. There's a large dedicated fanbase that loves this stuff, so right off the bat, we wanted to show that we loved this stuff as well, and we were setting out to create great stories using some of the most popular IPs that have ever been created in our medium.
So we didn't want to launch four or five new books that nobody had ever heard of, we wanted to tap into what made the company so great in the first place. We wanted to rebuild in a way that was accessible, but we'd be foolish not to make use of that stuff. It wasn't broke, so we didn't want to fix it, we just wanted to maybe modernize it a little, and hire great writers and great artists who would treat this as something special.
Hunter Gorinson (Director of Marketing): And when we first started figuring out how Valiant was going to relaunch, one of the first questions we dealt with was what properties to lead with. There was a lot of debate…we have so many great characters, Rai or Eternal Warrior could've been launch books, but we knew that we had to reestablish the biggest corners of the Valiant Universe before we started thinking about introducing new characters.
DS: It's a long-time thing that we're building. I mean, you can see on this wall [gestures to a wall covered in pieces of art and notes and a whiteboard outlining past and upcoming storylines] there's twenty years of stories built up here. A lot of this is for Book Of Death, where we're going to be glimpsing pieces of continuity and new characters and events that the writers and editorial team have been putting together for years now, and readers will get a sense of where we're going. And I think Book Of Death and Divinity are the point where we really start coming into our own.
CA: So how carefully do you have things planned, and how tightly do you stick with those plans? It can be a delicate balance between planning the direction of a universe and still letting creators be free to create…
WS: Well, when you're managing a shared universe, you need to be flexible to a certain extent. You don't want to have every detail planned two years out, because you need that room to grow. You need a longterm vision, but you want things to be able to flex and move, because you're hiring the writers and artists to create, and bring their voice. You obviously want people who are good collaborators, who are open to feedback – as an editor, that's incredibly important – but by the same token, I'm hiring people like Robert Vendetti, Joshua Dysart, Matt Kindt, and you want their vision to get to the page.
CA: Were there any worries that there might not still be an audience for these characters, or that the wave of nostalgia hadn't hit the right point to make a relaunched Valiant a success?
DS: Well, there is a cyclical nature to pop culture. People talk about it, there are articles written about it, and when we got the rights in 2005, we knew it was way too early, we knew we had another ten years. We probably actually ended up launching a little bit before the cyclical momentum would've started on its own, but we wanted to do that.
HG: And one of the interesting things is, we could've easily published X-O Manowar #69, but we didn't want to be a nostalgia-driven company. We knew that no matter what form this new company ended up taking, we'd be introducing these characters to a lot of readers for the very first time, and much like the original Valiant – what made the original Valiant so special is that there wasn't decades of continuity, they were a fresh voice in comics, they were storytelling-centric in the midst of the artist-driven Image boom, and we could recapture some of that element that's really baked into the DNA of what Valiant is.
Gavin Cuneo (Chief Operating Officer, CFO): There were old-school Valiant fans who were out there and really active, but it wasn't just about how many, it was about how passionate they were about the content, even though it wasn't being published at the time. And we knew that they would be ambassadors for the brand when we relaunched, and would tell other fans about what made Valiant great and why they should be reading it. We couldn't have done it without those guys. So it was really a combination of seeing the fanbase, and looking at the conditions in the industry and thinking the market was ready for this.
CA: When you started building this new universe, and brought in all these creators to make it happen, what ground rules were they given? Were they given a crash course in Valiant history, did you make sure they knew everything that had gone before, or did you just say "here's the barebones concepts, run with them"?
WS: Most of the guys weren't actually too familiar with the characters. Robert [Vendetti] hadn't read X-O Manowar, I don't think [Joshua] Dysart had read Harbinger, Fred [Van Lente] had not read Archer & Armstrong...
DS: But Matt [Kindt] was a huge '90s Valiant fan!
WS: Yes, Matt and his brother were huge Valiant fans growing up, and he knows all that stuff inside-out.
DS: And the other guys, they're pros. Once we brought them in, they did all the work, they read everything, every issue, every story.
CA: Well, again, I think part of the appeal of Valiant is that it's a shared universe where you don't actually need to know 40+ years of convoluted history. But keeping that quality intact is a pretty difficult proposition – as time passes, you publish more books, a history builds up. So now, three years into this new Valiant, how do you keep things accessible, but also keep building this tapestry? How do you keep it so new readers can step in, and not fall victim to the diminishing returns of a dense superhero universe?
WS: I think it's something that we try to very carefully monitor. I think we're still trying to figure a lot of that out, we're still building the characters, and we're really only thirty-five or forty issues into our longest-running book right now, so there's a lot of fertile ground to explore. We're just trying to make sure we give people something in every issue that they can latch onto, because we're busy expanding and creating, and seeing that happen is one of those things that draws readers in, and makes them feel like they're part of something.
Fred Pierce (Publisher): And I think with good storytelling, any book can open up the universe to you. We like to believe that you can really start with any book and get a feel for the Valiant universe, and if you like it, you can start exploring from there. And that's really what we're trying to do.
CA: So Hunter, as the person who handles the publicity and PR, and takes this work to the public, how do you sell an ongoing, interwoven universe to new readers, without scaring them off?
HG: Well, the first thing to realize is that there's room for more than two universes out there in comics, and once you look at it that way, you can focus on selling the stories and characters. And if you look at the history, as we talked about, it's clear that this is the third great universe of characters in the medium, it stands alongside Marvel and DC, and people care about it.
CA: So now that you have this film deal for Valiant, are you reconsidering those concerns of what elements you want to keep and what will work for a new version of the universe? I mean, this is a very comics-specific question in some ways – comic fans are very vocal about wanting things kept exactly as they are…
DS: I think you really only see continuity complaints, especially for film adaptations, when the films themselves aren't good. When a film is a good film, and it works in itself, in its own medium, nobody complains that they changed things or they should have stayed more loyal to the source material. So I think that's less about continuity than it is about quality. And we are always focused on creating something that's good quality.
And we like to look outside of comics, at storytelling and character and how things work in whatever media. We're influenced by all media, by the things we like, from James Bond to Star Wars to The Simpsons, not just trying to be like Marvel and DC. The DNA of this universe and characters includes lot of different ideas, in different genres, that have elements of superhero storytelling, and that's what makes it great. And hopefully we can bring that to life on film too – Bloodshot isn't necessarily going to be a superhero movie, as much as it's going to be a character-centric action film, with some superhero elements.
CA: So, on a somewhat related tack – thus far, all Valiant's publishing plans have been focusing on the stories of this universe. Is there any talk about expanding into other types of titles and widening your focus, or are the publisher and the universe synonymous, so far as you're concerned?
FP: Right now, we've been concentrating on re-establishing the Valiant brand in a way that's more future-oriented. We like the fact that this company has a fanbase that goes back for twenty years, but we don't want people to just think of the Valiant universe of twenty years ago, we want to keep moving forward. I think eventually, we might look at other things outside this universe, but that would be premature right now – we want people to hear the name Valiant and think about the books we're creating today.
GC: There's so much opportunity within our current universe – I mean, we've just launched our first book with a title character that didn't exist before that book launched. And there's so much we can do with characters that exist, with ancillary characters, with brand new characters, all within this universe.
DS: And there are fans screaming for us to bring back some of the major characters that we haven't even touched yet.
FP: If you look at Divinity, it opens up so many opportunities within this universe, that we can go practically anywhere from here.
CA: So given that inherent diversity of the Valiant universe, in terms of genres and stories, are there other types of stories you haven't gotten to yet that you'd like to expand into, or genres you're itching to play with?
DS: Yes, certainly. Warren and I talk a lot about this, and Book Of Death starts to do some of that.
HG: Yeah, there's a sequence in Book Of Death that introduces some ten or fifteen new characters all at once, and it sets up so many things...
DS: We're very excited about Book Of Death. It looks phenomenal, Robert Vendetti is doing the best work of his career, we get to see little pieces of what's to come, and it sets us up for more cool things. It's really a great example of what we do best. The film deal is exciting, but it's not why we're doing this – that's all great, but it's gravy. Because really, to us, the films are a way to draw more people into the comics. Our number one priority is building this universe, making good comics, and telling the stories we like.