As 2012 comes to a close and we look back over the last twelve months at the biggest events in comics publishing, one to make numerous lists would have to be the resurgence of Valiant Entertainment after nearly a decade out of the game. The publisher came out swinging with strong sales numbers for each of its four Summer of Valiant launch titles — “X-O Manowar,” “Harbinger,” “Bloodshot” and “Archer & Armstrong” — and each series has continued to pull solid numbers. Valiant launched its fifth title, “Shadowman,” in October, with strong sales for the issue leading to a reprint.
In order to gain some perspective on the year of Valiant’s rebirth, CBR News spoke with Executive Editor Warren Simons, Publisher Fred Pierce, Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani, Marketing Manager Hunter Gorinson and Sales Manager Atom Freeman to discuss the performance of the initial titles and how the publisher hopes to combat the dreaded “standard attrition,” the publisher’s first crossover event “Harbinger Wars” and what it has planned for the remainder of its first year as a newly reborn publisher.
Gentlemen, the first item that bears discussion is the recently-announced “Harbinger Wars.” Obviously, this is an important moment for the relaunched line. While it’s a great opportunity to bring readers on, there’s always the risk of folks using it to decide to drop off. Considering that both “Harbinger” and “Bloodshot” are still in their first year, why did you think this was the right time to do a crossover?
Warren Simons: That’s a great question. I think [we chose to do it now] for a number of reasons. First of all, and most importantly, this is where the books were headed, really, since their inception. This is the natural story and the way they’ve progressed since “Bloodshot” #1. You can look at the first page of “Bloodshot” #1, and that’s where we were leading the story. “Harbinger” as well. There’s a massive collision course coming in the Valiant Universe between Bloodshot and the characters in “Harbinger” — Toyo Harada and Peter Stanchek. We really feel like this is a natural progression of the story and where we wanted to go with it.
Most importantly, the thing to remember is that this is going to be a self-contained family crossover. This is not something that’s going to spread across our entire universe. This is something that’s going to be contained in the pages of “Harbinger” and “Bloodshot.” We’re also going to have the “Harbinger Wars” series, which doesn’t cross over into “Archer & Armstrong” or “Shadowman” or our other titles. It’s a book that we’re really excited about; we think it’s going to be absolutely action-packed and awesome. We’re pretty pumped up about where we’re headed and we think we have a super-talented creative team here. We’re extremely happy about what Clayton Henry did on “Archer & Armstrong,” and we feel like he’s going to draw the hell out of [“Harbinger Wars”]. Barry Kitson we think is great, and Khari Evans as well. We’re really excited about it.
Dinesh Shamdasani: It’s also a shared universe, which is a defining factor of Valiant. Warren, the crew and all the guys have been building that shared universe for a long time. As Warren said, it was leading that way, but we want to stress that if you’re reading “Harbinger,” you don’t have to read “Bloodshot” or “Harbinger Wars.” You’ll get a full story just reading “Harbinger.” Same thing with “Bloodshot.” Same thing with “Harbinger Wars,” to be frank.
Simons: Yeah, we’re really intent on building these things as standalone stories so that if you buy all those books and read all the story, it makes for a more robust event, but you don’t have to jump on to everything.
What are your expectations, sales-wise, for this miniseries?
Shamdasani: Sales aren’t the reason that we do this — I want to make that very, very clear. We’re hoping we’ll get a bump, we’re thinking we’ll get a bump — we love the excitement, frankly, that we’ve seen from the announcements. The frenzy’s been bigger than we thought it would be, frankly. But as Warren’s saying, this is a natural progression of the stories we’ve been telling, and that’s the reason we did it.
Simons: I want to make it really clear that one of the great things about working up here is the first question we have when we start every series, or when we started every series, is never who can we get that will sell the most units? The thing that we stress over and over again is just story, story, story. For me, as an editor, that’s why it’s such a great place to work, and I think that’s why some of the freelancers we work with love working here. The main thing that we’re targeting over and over again is the story. Just like Valiant was such an extraordinary leader in story when it first launched 20 years ago, that’s something we’re trying to replicate here, and just tell great, great, powerful stories. We’re not marching into this saying, “How can we spike sales? How can we get the numbers higher? Who can we get?” That’s not the stuff we’re looking at — what we’re looking at is how to make great comics.
Shamdasani: It would be easy to slap the “Harbinger Wars” logo on “Shadowman” or “Archer & Armstrong” and tie them all in and make a big thing to try and get a spike in all the books. But it didn’t make sense creatively, so we didn’t do it.
“Shadowman” is the fifth book to join the Valiant Universe, launching well after the “Summer of Valiant” titles. Despite its later launch and not having the Summer of Valiant promotional push behind it, the first issue has already gone back to a second print. What are your primary criteria for judging the right time for a series launch?
Fred Pierce: The Summer of Valiant was great because it gave us a chance to let everyone absorb the new Valiant titles, let the retailers order the new Valiant titles, let the fans buy the titles and just get used to them one by one by one until we hit a critical mass. We hit four titles, we became important to the industry, we became important to the retailers and we became important to the readers. What happens after that is the next title that we did was just a few months later — remember, the highest number comic we’ve printed is #7, so everything that we’re doing is new. Everything that you’re seeing was prepared for the launch. We did the “Shadowman” title — we actually did it, truthfully, a month quicker than we thought we would because everything just fell into place. The writers, Warren got the story, everything was much quicker. From my perspective, I thought we would have launched in December, not in November, but when it hits, it hits early. It was great.
Simons: I think what Fred is saying is content is king and story is king. That’s what we’re trying to do across all the books, that’s what we’re trying to do across the entire line and that’s really what our primary goal is up here.
Let’s look back for a moment at the “Summer of Valiant.” Sales-wise, the launch did very well, with X-O Manowar leading the way in terms of #1 issues. However, the numbers have drastically dropped since the debut of X-O. Moving forward, how does Valiant plan to combat a decline in sales for each of its major books?
Shamdasani: Sales are absolutely a concern. We’re a business, it’s something we look at all the time. But we’re where we want to be. What you’re looking at in our sales is natural attrition. It’s actually a better attrition rate than we projected, so we’re very, very happy with where we are. We’re looking at this, we’re seeing success and we’re emboldened by it. We’re seeing the success of the critical acclaim we’re getting, the sales we’re getting and we’re emboldened by it.
Pierce: I help prepare the budget. We’re ecstatic by the numbers. Of course you’re going to go from a “we-haven’t-seen-the-company-in-a-very-long-time” #1 [issue] to what the real numbers are and what the real market is going to find. If you look at our numbers, our numbers beat any other numbers on average, except for Marvel and DC. We would have never figured we would be doing as well as we’re doing now. It’s great.
Shamdasani: We’ve seen spikes in the numbers based on when we do new creative storytelling or we do new creative marketing. One of my favorite responses from any initiative we’ve pulled is on “X-O Manowar” when we did a story arc with Ninjak. People were so excited to see that mashup between those two characters. We saw great initial orders on “X-O Manowar” #5, but then we saw crazy sell-through and crazy advance re-orders, and re-orders again. When the book hit, people said, “This is the best book they’ve done. This is an amazing story and they bucked expectations. Ninjak is a really cool character.” I think we’ll continue to see that. I think when people see “Planet Death” and “Harbinger Wars,” we’ll see that spike.
Atom Freeman: Just to get in on the numbers aspect of what you’re talking about, the attrition rates, the way those numbers do diminish, our numbers are not incredibly lower than any of us really expected them to be. As a result, we’re seeing a lot more stability. As Fred said, we average #3 on the top 300 charts per title. This is just phenomenal, beyond our expectations.
Pierce: The numbers you’re looking at, the November numbers — we’d been in business for six months. It’s funny.
Simons: I’d also like to clarify that numbers are incredibly important to us. Marketing is incredibly important to us. We’re a company, but what I’m saying is that it hasn’t moved into editorial. And that’s what I’m trying to differentiate a little bit. There’s no one standing in my door saying, “This book has to crossover into this crossover or it’s done,” or, “We have to tie-in four books into a crossover or five or six.” What we’re doing now is we’re building natural, organic stories. On the other side, the brilliant Hunter Gorinson is marketing them, Atom’s selling them, Dinesh and Fred and I are working closely on everything. That’s what I mean. It’s not that the numbers aren’t important; of course, they’re critically important. But they just haven’t leaked over into the editorial at this time.
What about Valiant’s marketing plan for next year? During the launch, Valiant introduced a number of neinnovativew initiatives, like the pullbox variant and the talking comic book cover — what do you have planned to keep driving the Valiant marketing plan for 2013?
Shamdasani: We’re going to keep innovating. We did the blackout cover for “Shadowman.” I think if you go into retail stores, you’ll find nobody has them anymore. Those things jumped off the shelves. Retailers are super-happy, fans are super-happy, we’re obviously very, very happy with the success of that. We’ve got some pretty exciting things planned for “Harbinger Wars,” and then a couple of really, really exciting things planned for the end of the year that we don’t want to talk about just yet. They’re pretty cool, though.
Hunter Gorinson: I can safely say that as soon as the idea for “Harbinger Wars” started to get bandied around the office, we put a few things that we were working on into our back pocket to go into 2013 with some serious gas in the tank.
Shamdasani: I want to give a shout-out to Jody LeHeup. Jody came up with a really, really stellar marketing initiative — he was a driving force on the blackout cover, but he came up with something really cool that we’re going to be doing at the end of the year.
Pierce: Jody was much more than a driving force. Jody drove me crazy over the blackout cover.
Free Comic Book Day 2013 will mark the first full year of publishing for Valiant. Looking back, what was your biggest challenge so far in starting up a publishing company?
Pierce: The hardest part about all of this is creating great editorial that people care about. When you overcome that, the rest actually becomes much easier.
Simons: We’re really lucky to have the creative teams that we have up here. I feel really lucky, as an editor, to be working with the guys, to have Rob launch “X-O” for us and Josh launch “Harbinger,” Fred and Clayton working on “Archer & Armstrong,” to work with Duane and Patrick and Justin and all the guys. We have an incredible crew of creators up here, and the guys really care about the work that they’re doing. This isn’t the fifth or sixth most important thing that they’re working on. They’re putting their hearts into the books and it shows. I think it’s helped propel it and us over our first year. I think it’s also a testament to my colleagues that I’m working with up here in the offices. We still have enormous obstacles ahead of us, it’s still really early, I’m still very excited about where we are, but we want to make our next comic better than our last comic. That’s our goal. That’s why everyone’s up here working so hard every day, that’s the reason why the guys are staying until 7 or 8 PM every night. That’s the reason why you can walk into our offices at 8 or 9 every night and at least two or three people are here. That’s an extraordinary thing. It’s been a lot of hard work over the first year, but we’re really happy with where we are.
Shamdasani: That goes for the freelancers as well. I don’t know if you’ve seen Cary Nord’s pages from “X-O Manowar” #11, but he’s inking himself now, so he’s growing as an artist with Warren’s guidance. It’s really, really nice to see.
Simons: These guys are working at the boards 15, 16, 17 hours a day. The writers are working closely with them. It’s been great. The creators have just been tremendous. We’re really happy with the editorial side of things, how everything’s coming along so far. We want to make the next book better than the last one, but we’re really happy with where we are.
One of the books that fans seem to be asking about is “Quantum and Woody.” While you’ve released the previously published issues on comiXology, are there plans in the works for a new series?
Simons: “Quantum and Woody,” huh?
Pierce: Quantum and what now?
Simons: That would be something, huh? I can tell you that everyone up here really loves the initial run that [Christopher] Priest and [Mark] Bright did and think it’s absolutely brilliant. They are some of our favorite characters that we have up here, and we talk about them all the time.
Shamdasani: Especially the goat. We talk about the goat a lot.
Bringing it back to editorial, what’s the editorial plan for the next six months? The first six months, you’ve managed to launch five titles with strong first issue sales. How will the editorial team take the experience you’ve had publishing so far and apply it to the rest of the first full publishing year?
Simons: Well, we have “Harbinger Wars,” we have “Harbinger” #0 coming up. We’re very excited about that initiative, which goes on sale in February. That’s an amazing issue that Mico Suayan is drawing. It’s absolutely beautiful. Josh has written the hell out of it, so we’re excited about that. Then, we have “Planet Death” coming out, which we think is going to be awesome — X-O Manowar is going to go beat up a planet. You don’t see that too frequently. We have Trevor Hairsine on #9 and #10. The pages are coming in, and they look absolutely amazing. Cary takes over and kicks off from #11-#14, so we have two superstar artists back to back on that book.
“Harbinger Wars” comes around in April and we’re super excited about that as well. We have a lot on our plate right now, and I can promise you that the repercussions of “Harbinger Wars” and “Planet Death” are going to be immense. Both of those stories are going to queue up things which are integral to the next year in the Valiant publishing line. It’s going to be a super-jammed, action-packed, exciting year. We’re really happy and pumped-up about what’s coming up.
Pierce: You know, everybody needs to realize what we’re seeing here is the genesis of a new universe that’s really being crafted from the beginning to be a universe. That doesn’t happen too often. We were looking at the books today, and our books are as good as any books out there. I don’t think it’s hard to argue that our books can stand up next to any of these other books.
Gorinson: We make a concerted effort on a month-by-month basis to make sure there’s something new for fans and for retailers to get excited about coming out of the Valiant Universe. Whether it’s “Harbinger” #0 or “Planet Death” or what’s going to be the eventual third arc of “Archer & Armstrong,” what Fred Van Lente has in store for that — if there’s not something to talk about each month with Valiant, we’re not doing our jobs right. So throughout 2013, we’ll be generating some serious buzz, hopefully.
Pierce: Watch what we do with “Quantum and Woody” in 2013 or 2014. All these conversations —
Shamdasani: That’s a good idea. We should start thinking about “Quantum and Woody.” Thanks for that! I like that.
Freeman: It’s also worth noting, as well as not only having, editorially, new ideas every month, we’ve also really focused on how to bring new ideas to Sales and Marketing. There are a lot of tools that have been used, things like the invitation covers, that we just haven’t done yet. I think we’re always looking for something new and new ways to build this up. I think you’ve already seen that and you’ll see it a lot more in 2013.