When it comes to comics, Jim Valentino certainly knows his stuff. He got his start writing back-up stories in Dave Sim’s “Cerebus” starring his character normalman. After that he moved over to Marvel where he wrote the future-flung “Guardians of the Galaxy” for 26 issues before leaving that company to co-found Image Comics with the likes of Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen. At Image he created his Shadowline imprint which published the violent exploits of another of his creations, ShadowHawk, who can still be seen kicking around the pages of fellow Shadowline title “Bomb Queen” these days.
From 1999 to 2003, Valentino served as publisher of Image Comics, bringing in creators such as Robert Kirkman and Brian Michael Bendis and their books “Walking Dead” and “Torso,” respectively. After Erik Larsen took over the position, Valentino returned to spearheading Shadowline and has since ushered in even more well-regarded creators and comics including Nick Spencer’s “Morning Glories,” Charles Soule’s “27” and Ted McKeever’s upcoming “Mondo,” among others.
CBR News spoke with Valentino about his history with Image, running his own company and what he looks for in new comic proposals.
CBR News: Jim, what is your process for figuring out which books you want to put the Shadowline logo on?
Jim Valentino: First and foremost, I look for quality of execution and originality of concept. I have no desire to read or publish another ersatz Superman, Batman or X-Men, there are plenty of them. I want something a bit more unique, a bit more “grown-up” or unusual. But something I feel I can sell, something other people beside myself might want to read. Quality of story and art is far more important to me than genre or style. If you look at the line you see that every book is completely unique, one from the other, on every level. The only thing they have in common is a commitment to craft.
How did books like “27,” “Morning Glories” and “Mondo” come about? What drew you to those specific projects?
Well, to illustrate the point made above, each in a completely different manner. Charles Soule handed me “27” at a convention. I did two things I never do — one was actually read it at the show, the other was to accept it. The reason was, here was a concept I’d thought about many times, but never got around to doing myself. It was well written, the art was great and I gave it a green light at the show. It was a precedent that will probably never be repeated. I hate taking proposals at shows and would much prefer people send them to me online (at firstname.lastname@example.org) as it’s easier for me to give them my full attention. “Morning Glories” I held back for nearly a year. Nick Spencer had done several books for me and I wanted to give him a chance to build up a buzz, which he did. And “Mondo” is Ted McKeever, so that’s a no-brainer for me. All Ted pretty much has to do is tell me he wants to do something and I’m there. There aren’t many people I’m like that with, but he’s one. Bendis was one, Jimmie Robinson is one and Kurtis Wiebe is on his way to becoming one.
In addition to putting out comics, ShadowlineOnline.com also does webcomics. How important is that to the imprint’s continuation?
I see web-comics as another vehicle for storytelling, just as valid in its own right as black-and-white or color comics. Web-comics add to the site’s content and, hopefully, drive people to the site. I don’t know that they necessarily add to the company’s continuation as much as they represent a different approach to the art form — and that’s good by me.
How do you decide which ideas go on the site and which get the hard copy treatment?
I see them as very different mediums, for one thing. But, if I feel that a webcomic has the audience to invest in print publication — which, let’s face it, is a lot more expensive — I’ll give it a go.
Let’s go back almost twenty years. How did you first get hooked up with the guys who would become your partners in Image?
Short answer is this: Rob Liefeld and I had been sharing a studio off-and-on since 1988-89. Rob wanted to form an independent comics company that would allow creative freedom. He realized that there was strength in numbers, so he started talking to the three guys he knew best in the industry — Todd, Erik and myself. After nearly a year of talking about it, it finally came together in December, 1991. Marc, Jim and Whilce signed on and the company was announced to the world on February 1, 1992. Todd, Erik and I were there from the start and it was Rob who instigated it and named the company after a TV commercial, believe it or not!
Moving from Marvel work to launching your own company must have been no small task. How worried were you at the time that the venture would work out?
I was extremely worried. It was no big secret that out of all of them I had the least amount of cache. Todd, Rob and Jim, all of them would have no trouble getting work if things went south. That wasn’t necessarily true for me and I was married with five kids. So, I was scared to death. However, the industry was in the biggest boom it had ever seen. We had the three most popular creators in the business spearheading the group and we had a good plan — do the kind of books our fans would want to see from us — super hero books. When looked at like that it was a damn good bet that this had a chance to break the third company barrier and stigma — and it did, and that is not a dig at companies like Eclipse and Dark Horse that preceded us.
You were publisher of Image Central for a while. How does running the whole company differ from running Shadowline?
Outside of there being a lot more people to concern oneself with, not that much, actually. In both cases, I try to keep Image’s best interests at heart. I had enormous latitude as Image Central’s publisher, as all Image Central publishers have had. You have to when you’re dealing with a company this diverse. Bear in mind that Image is a co-op and each partner is completely autonomous, one from the other. Image Central, which is how we refer to the non-partner part of the company, must also have a considerable degree of autonomy. We don’t vote on the books [current publisher] Eric Stephenson chooses, nor should we. Same was true when I ran Image Central and the same is true at Shadowline. I call the shots — good, bad or indifferent. That’s the beauty of owning/co-owning your own company. Just try not to embarrass the other guys… too much.â€¨â€¨You’ve been putting comics out through Image since the early ’90s. How has the industry changed in that time and how have those changes altered your publishing plan?
Oh, god, immeasurably. It’s changed on virtually every level. When we started, the Internet was Compuserve. There were no digital comics. There was a speculator boom — which we were blamed unfairly for. When we started, I was doing one book. Unlike, say, Jim and Rob, both of whom had large studios and a bunch of guys doing thousands of books a month. Todd, Erik and I kept it real simple. Today I will publish a maximum of five books a month, as that’s all I can handle. This makes me more selective in my choices for a strained and overcrowded marketplace. I may not bat a thousand commercially with my choices, but I do stand behind them.
I spoke with Ted McKeever about “Mondo” and he said you were instrumental in suggesting the golden age format of the book. How did you come to that decision?
Experimentation. I love to experiment, to try a new approach, do something a bit differently. In Ted’s case, we had released the McKeever Library (“Transit,” “Eddy Current” and “Metropol”) as digest-sized hardcovers. That was cool. New format, looked great. Then we released “META4” as a series of regular-sized comics. I had done two series in the Golden-Age format, which I really liked (“Cowboy Ninja Viking” and “27”), so I sent those to Ted and suggested we do “Mondo” in this size. And, since Ted enjoys mucking things up as much as I do, we were off and running! I like to consult with the creators — if they’ve got something they want to try and it makes sense, I always figure “Why not?”
What is your overall goal with Shadowline? What do you see as its place in the comics industry?
My goal is to offer excellently executed comics with original concepts or new twists on old concepts. Equally strong in story as well as art, each unique — a word I seem to be using often here, sorry — one from the other. What Shadowline’s place in the industry is, hopefully, is a place where new talent might gain a start and established creators might spread their wings a bit. All that said, I have to caution that this is still a business and in order for me to continue I also have to publish books I believe I can find an audience for.
You’ve mentioned Shadowline’s place in the industry, but what do you see as Image’s, and has it changed since you founded it back in 1992?
I see Image’s place in the industry today as a place where newcomers can gain a foothold in the industry. If you look, it’s pretty obvious to see that this is where most creators at Marvel and DC started their careers or first came to the “big boys'” attention. The list is long and includes writers, artists, inkers, colorists, etc. Hell, sometimes I think we’re a farm team for them. And a place where experienced creators can stretch their wings. Again, the list is long everyone from Jack Kirby to Sergio Aragones, Alan Moore to Brian K. Vaughan right now. I think we stand historically as the company that broke the third publisher ceiling and continue today as a vital force for diversity, creative freedom and creator’s rights. And, in my opinion, that’s a pretty damn good legacy.
Do you have any plans for upcoming ShadowHawk appearances or stories?
He’s appearing in the current “Bomb Queen” series. Other than that, no. The last couple of series we did with him were less than successful, so I think I’ll let him rest for a while. I’m personally not in a real creative space at this point in my life, so I have no plans to return to the character — but, you know what they say, “Never say never…except for sometimes.”
What other projects are in the works for Shadowline?
Oh, lots of good, good stuff — 2012 is going to be another very exciting year for us! We already discussed Ted McKeever’s new book “Mondo,” which is always exciting for me because his books are always so smart and multi-layered. In February, we have a new book by Kurtis Wiebe (“Green Wake,” “The Intrepids”) called “Peter Panzerfaust.” This one is drawn by newcomer Tyler Jenkins and it’s great. Think Peter Pan in World War II and you’re halfway there. “Rebel Blood” is a new book by Riley Rossmo (“Cowboy Ninja Viking,” “Green Wake,” “Proof”) and writer Alex Link. This is a zombie story unlike any you’ve ever read before. Trust me, the ending of this four-issue mini will floor you. It did me, and I’m hard to floor!
This summer we have designer Tim Daniel’s first writing foray which is being illustrated by another newcomer, Mehdi Cheggour, whose work is simply amazing — he’s the next Rodin Esquejo, mark my words! They’re doing a book called “Enormous” about giant monsters ravaging the world, so, of course, we’re going to do it as a Treasury-sized edition just in time for San Diego 2012, which I’ll be a special guest at, I’m told. Also this summer we see “Harvest,” a new 5-issue series from A. J. Lieberman (“Cowboy Ninja Viking,” “Term Life”) and Colin Lorimer, another artist that’s going to knock everyone on their ass, he’s that good. And, of course, “Morning Glories,” “Bomb Queen,” the end of “The Infinite Vacation” and more. It just keeps on getting better and better — who could ask for more?