Creating "X-O Manowar's" Talking Variant Cover

This year, Valiant Entertainment relaunches with "X-O Manowar" as the flagship book of its publishing catalog. The publisher has announced a number of marketing initiatives including a retailer pullbox variant by "X-O Manowar" artist Cary Nord. Today, Valiant has announced an innovative new use for smartphones and QR codes in conjunction with comics: a "talking" variant cover for "X-O Manowar" #1.

The cover itself doesn't actually talk, but the 1:50 variant by Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic has a space to place your smartphone after scanning a special QR code. Once scanned, the smartphone will play a special clip animated by Neal Adams' Continuity Studios featuring Aric of Dacia's mouth speaking words scripted by "X-O Manowar" writer Robert Venditti.

To shed some light on Valiant's newest initiative, CBR News spoke with Valiant Executive Editor Warren Simons, Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani, Publisher Fred Pierce and Marketing and Communications Manager Hunter Gorinson, who spoke to the origins of the talking cover, the potential for QR codes in comics and teased the future of Valiant's marketing initiatives.

CBR News: Dinesh, Warren, Fred -- let's start off with the inception of this QR code initiative. How did it start out and what was the impetus to use QR in this way?

Dinesh Shamdasani: This was a result of a number of ideas we kicked around. We all looked at QR and it was something that we liked, we wanted to use the technology, but we wanted to do it in a way that was different from what was on the market. All of us really like bringing editorial into things. We don't want to do variants because they're gimmicks. Warren was very keen on doing something to allow the mythology of the brand to come out further.

Warren Simons: One of the things we loved about this idea was that it taps into the editorial side of things and also plays to the strengths of our great freelancers. It's not gimmicky but we feel like it's very much in keeping with the strengths of Valiant's history innovatively and creatively and taking the medium into new territory.

Shamdasani: With everything we do, we try to bring the marketing and the editorial together so that we're not doing things that aren't value-add, that aren't getting people excited about the characters and the stories.

Fred Pierce: Also, it's fun.

There have been a lot of uses of the QR code in popular media and social networking recently, but this is a use that requires a high level of interaction with promotional materials and the comic itself. Why did you feel a variant cover was the best way to go?

Hunter Gorinson: We're really at a tipping point for this kind of technology. Right now, as we speak, a 65-foot tall QR code is draped over the side of Madison Square Garden just around the corner from Valiant HQ. On top of everything that we're doing, this seemed like a really great way to get into the comic shops and tell the world that Valiant is coming in a totally unique and totally distinctive way. At the same time, it's a promotional item with the poster, but also it's a truly distinctive variant cover. This is going to be the world's first talking variant cover. Any time you can do something for the first time in comics, that's always worth doing -- especially when it turns out as well as we think this has.

Shamdasani: Our primary focus is the storytelling, is the creative, is the books. With that, Warren's always talking about us needing to do what's next -- not follow the trends, but pave the way. I think he's definitely right, we need to do that. So, with everything that we're doing -- the marketing, the variants -- we want this to be something other people will come and copy.

Pierce: We also wanted to make a statement, and this will make a statement. If it works really the way we want it to, it will make a statement so often, the comic book retailers will be sick of hearing the statement.

Simons: I think we're trying to tap into thinking outside the box, doing something that can draw people in to retail stores and also really great synergy between the great ideas Fred, Dinesh and Hunter came up with that we could also utilize and then bring Robert and Jelena [Kevic-Djurdjevic] and really create something that's innovative and thinks outside the box and really also taps into Valiant's history. This is sort of a hallmark of Valiant in the past and there's an extraordinary amount of potential here in that the guys, the freelancers, really did a beautiful job here. Dinesh is always saying, "Story first, story first." We didn't want to come up with something that was solely marketing for the sake of marketing. We feel like this really taps into who the character is, who Aric is, what the character has to say and really introduces the character to new and old fans alike.

Robert is in charge of developing the voice of Aric in the upcoming "X-O Manowar" ongoing series -- but who actually provided the voice for the talking variant cover?

Shamdasani: Hunter located Neal Adams' Continuity Studios. We put out a casting call and had auditions. Hunter ran through all of these guys and just found this guy that had -- if you look at him, he's not what you think, but the voice that comes out of him [was perfect].

Gorinson: A lot of credit goes to Continuity Studios here in New York for putting this together. It was not easily explainable at first when we conceived of it, but it was treated beautifully from everything from the casting to the animation to Jelena's art to Robert's dialogue as well.

While the QR cover is certainly a unique way to spruce up the variant cover, it seems as though this might have even more interesting uses for adding extra content to the pages of the book itself. Do you have any plans to use QR for other "X-O" and Valiant initiatives?

Gorinson: Let me say this: This is a chance we have to redraw the boundaries between print and digital comics. There's so much debate going on right now about where the industry is headed. We see this as a chance in making Valiant books, right out of the gate, again, some of the most rewarding and immersive comics out there. There's an infinite amount of ways this could be applied to content of books, whether it be in an overt manner or as an Easter Egg.

Simons: It just opens everything up. The potential, as Hunter said, it can help reshape the boundaries of the medium. It can help take the medium into new territory, but it also relies heavily on the strengths of the great aspects that are in our medium right now. The sky's the limit with this certainly for the potential opportunities.

Pierce: The beauty of the application is, we hear a lot about digital, but this points digital back to the comic book stores. This points technology back to the comic book stores, the technology is back on the paper again.

While a lot of fans have smartphones, there are also a number of readers who do not -- is there a way for them to experience the talking cover in all its glory?

Gorinson: You'll definitely be able to see it. The actual animation itself is posted and available on the Valiant website and the Valiant YouTube page. We'll also be putting up a how-to video that shows people who may not be familiar with QR codes exactly how best to utilize this and go through it step-by-step instructions and also view the animation without a phone.

Pierce: We showed the guys at ComicsPRO this, they couldn't stop laughing, they couldn't stop doing different things. I was just in a meeting today where a guy had a smartphone. He didn't have the app to read the QR code and he was able to download it very quickly. So, again, part of it will be people will see it in the stores. Also in the stores we're not sending one or two posters, we're sending a packet of posters. So, the store will put some up, some of the people who are more Valiant fans, who are more into this will take the posters home.

Gorinson: There will be tens of thousands of posters circulating around this week. It's really meant to be a communal thing. You're not supposed to take one and keep it; you're more than encouraged to do this in a group of people. Our belief, our hope is that this shows up in a comic book store, someone will be more than willing to step up if someone who sees it doesn't have a phone and share this. It's supposed to be a communal experience.

Shamdasani: It brings community to comics stores. We went to ComicsPRO, we trained 100 plus retailers how to do this and a lot of them grabbed it immediately and understood it. They're going to be out there showing their consumers how this works. Hopefully, it'll be a poster people can gather around and watch. If you don't have a smart phone, the guy in the store buying the other books has a smart phone.

In terms of the code itself, will you be using the same code for the cover as on the poster?

Gorinson: Right now, this is the same. The video could change slightly by the time the variant is available, but right now, this is preview of the world's first "talking cover." This is really to get people excited and stoked about what is an innovation to the medium. I'll just say that.

Pierce: Let's understand, the whole point is that people are excited about Valiant launching and specifically excited about the "X-O" title. Just listening to the short spot, you'll get a good feel for what the comic is about. Robert did a great job with that.

Simons: We also really love what Jelena and her studio Sixmorevodka did with the art. We think she did a beautiful job rendering the face. It's a beautiful piece of art that could stand alone by itself, but then when you add the dialogue Robert put together, we really feel like it's a great first piece for "X-O."

Whenever a cover comes in from her, we usually gather around the computer and look in awe at what she's done. She's really a world-class great artist and Robert did a beautiful job with the dialogue as well.

Shamdasani: Peter Cuneo, our Valiant chairman, when he first heard the dialogue, ever since then, he comes into the office and he quotes the line, "Their blood will stain my boots."

Gorinson: When it comes to what we'll do with the QR code on the actual comic itself, we have complete control of the QR code and where it's routed. We may have a few aces up our sleeves yet. There are always surprises to be had.

In addition to the QR program, you've also announced a number of other initiatives for XO's launch including a retailer pullbox program for local stores to get special variants for folks who put it on their pull list. How did that particular initiative come about?

Pierce: As Valiant, we have a specific opportunity because we have fans that are so involved with the IP and characters they never left. A lot of them haven't been in comic book stores, so we're trying to figure out a way to get them back into the community they love so much, and another way to get the comic book retailer, who is at the forefront of everything that we do, we wanted to make sure they could say, "Come in, Valiant is doing this for you. It's really very easy -- anyone who has a pullbox can get to it." It's an encouragement for the last Valiant fan and for all of the fans to say, "Hey, I want a pullbox variant, I may as well start a pullbox." Anyone who goes to a comic book store on a regular basis really should have a pullbox.

Shamdasani: The way the pullbox variant works is, we've given out flyers to the stores and we've put them online. You can take one of those flyers to your store or you can just go in and ask your retailer, "Listen, I want this pullbox variant, can I open a pullbox?" If you open a pullbox with them, you'll get this cover. It's the only cover done by the interior artist Cary Nord, and if you've seen the pages, you know he's doing some of the best work in the industry right now.

What other initiatives does Valiant have in store working toward "X-O Manowar's" launch?

Shamdasani: This is just the beginning. Valiant has a long heritage of innovations of doing things to get people excited with great content and great characters. That's exactly where we're coming from. This is the start. You're going to see a lot of stuff coming from us that's going to be exciting, a lot of stuff that's going to get people into the stores, a lot of stuff that's going to get copied by the other publishers.

Shamdasani: You should know, our focus is the content, our focus is the storytelling. Warren is one of the best in the business on this, and he's doing some of the best work of his career. When the books come out, you're going to see Valiant is bringing some of the best books in the industry. We look at those books and think, "Now we need to be bullish about the marketing," which is why you're hearing about the pullbox variant, why you're hearing about the QR voice variant. Those are initiatives we're doing because we feel so strongly about the great content behind them.

Gorinson: Indeed. The poster will be in stores next Wednesday, the same day Previews is released, featuring "X-O Manowar" #1, Valiant Entertainment's first title. We're extremely excited about it. We're extremely excited about the work we've seen so far.

Valiant's "X-O Manowar" debuts on May 2 with the Free Comic Book Day issue hitting May 5.

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