"Unity" is a name with a history at Valiant Entertainment. When fans first heard the word in relation to comics in 1992, it was the title of a massive, 18-part crossover than ran through the publisher's biggest books, with several new series launched in its aftermath.
In 2013, "Unity" marks a major moment for the current incarnation of Valiant, which launched in May 2012 with a rebooted continuity that draws heavily from the original company's concepts. This time, however, "Unity" is an ongoing team book from Matt Kindt, Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber. Debuting November 13, the series sports a cast which includes X-O Manowar, "Harbinger's" Toyo Harada, Eternal Warrior, Ninjak and Livewire.
"Unity" is also the biggest sales success to date for the new Valiant, with the company reporting 68,500 in retailer orders, making it the best-performing single issue by a non-premiere publisher (as in, other than the five front-of-Previews publishers; Marvel, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics and IDW) thus far in 2013, and in range of much of the Big Two's regular output.
CBR News spoke with five of Valiant's top-ranking staff members -- chief creative officer and CEO Dinesh Shamdasani, publisher Fred Pierce, executive editor Warren Simons, sales manager Atom Freeman and director of marketing, communications and digital media Hunter Gorinson -- about what the "Unity" #1 sales number means for the company. In addition to sharing an exclusive preview of the series' first issue, the group explains what they're looking to do that Marvel and DC can't, plus their reaction to the news that Dynamite Entertainment is reviving former Valiant franchise players Magnus: Robot Fighter, Solar: Man of the Atom and Turk: Dinosaur Hunter as part of its Gold Key relaunch.
CBR News: "Unity" #1 has reached a reported 68,500 in retailer orders, which represents a major benchmark for Valiant at this stage of the company. There's the factor that it's a team book with a lot of Valiant characters in one series, with high-profile creators, but do you also see it as at the gradual build of positive buzz that's Valiant's been getting noticeably paying off? Internally, what do you attribute that success to?
Warren Simons: I think we have a great concept for the book. It's our first superteam, filled with all of Valiant's great all-star characters. We also have a superstar creative team with Matt Kindt, Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber. Those guys just knocked it out of the park -- Matt did a hell of a job with the script, we love it, and Doug's art just looks fantastic. Brian's doing a beautiful job coloring it. I think the combination of that, as well as the efforts of the guys up here promoting and selling the book, really came together.
Atom Freeman: The book looks amazing. Matt and Doug are doing amazing work. But I would also attribute it to the retailers who have been so supportive of us since the very beginning, and seem to have used this as a chance to help introduce a valid third option to their fans. I think they really want to make sure that these books are on shelves, and have responded really well to all of the programs and offers that we put in place for "Unity."
Hunter Gorinson: Valiant's gotten a tremendous amount of reception in the comics community and in the comics press over the past year -- we've gotten some tremendous reviews, some tremendous buzz about the books. We always got the question, "Where do you start with Valiant?" This is our eighth ongoing title, and we did our best to ensure that this was set up from a story-selling standpoint as the perfect introduction to this universe of characters. I think that's an idea that resonated, and we look forward to getting a whole lot of new fans in the door to see what we're up to here with the release of "Unity" in a couple of weeks.
Fred Pierce: Also, I think the current Valiant fans got behind it and pushed it into stores. They were great ambassadors.
How gratifying is this number to the Valiant team? Just getting the new Valiant off the ground was a years-long process, and there's always a risk launching a venture like this, especially one based on long-dormant properties, so how meaningful is this?
Pierce: The beauty of this title is, while the word "Unity" resonates, this is something entirely new for us. Valiant has never had a team book. I think people are responding to the newness of it.
Dinesh Shamdasani: We didn't expect it. To be completely candid, this is not in our projections. We're very, very happy with this. From the outset, we've said we expect slow and steady growth -- we're going to do the best books that we can, we're going to market them in a fair and honest way, and we'll grow the fanbase slowly. We'll start with the initial fanbase that was there from the '90s, and we'll grow out from there.
A number this large, with retailers getting behind this and telling us they've got a ton of fans hearing great things, and they're going to point them all here -- this is a great thing. This means that we're ahead of where we thought we were.
Gorinson: This is growth. This is the biggest thing we've done since "X-O Manowar" #1. That's what we said going into it. It's exciting to see that pay off.
Simons: As with everything, we're extremely happy with the team and the book that we're working on, but we're never satisfied. Our job is just to make sure, month after month, we're putting out the best books in the marketplace.
"Unity" is being presented as a very important book, both story-wise and in its positioning in the marketplace. In what ways do you see "Unity" as key to Valiant as a whole?
Simons: One of the things that we've done is tried to build stories organically. We feel that this is really the right place for the book, based on where we've been for the last couple of years in the universe. Robert Venditti's done a wonderful job building X-O Manowar into one of our key characters, along with the beautiful art of Cary Nord, Trevor Hairsine, Lee Garbett. We didn't just want to jam a team book or a crossover in because we "needed" to. We felt like this was the right place for it based on where the story has gone in the universe, so it really came together well. Matt Kindt came up with a great concept. We've been talking about a team book for a couple years now, but we felt like this was really the right place and the right time to do it.
Shamdasani: What Warren is saying is something that we talk a lot about up here: "How can we do good comics?" Our nearest competition has a different mandate. They're IP generation companies. They have a corporate mindset. There's a corporate reason to do a big team book or an event three times a year. That's something we've been trying to avoid. We've been trying to let the writers, the artists, the characters guide the larger events that we've been overseeing. Things like "Harbinger Wars" were not part of the plan from day one. "Unity" is the same way. It wasn't on the docket from day one.
The first issue of "Unity" is fully returnable for retailers, and we've learned that #2 and #3 will be as well. What went into that decision, and what kind of effect do you see it as having upon the "Unity" #1 numbers?
Pierce: It's the first time that we've had a returnable book, and we wanted to make it as easy as possible for the retailers to take a position. We believe that once the book is in the stores -- and many of the retailers are very good about hand-selling our books -- we'll get into the hands of consumers. There's no easier way for a retailer to take a chance on a book then if the book is fully returnable. Once you make #1 fully returnable, it makes sense to make #2 and #3 fully returnable, because they're making decisions on #2 and #3 really before they have the full story about #1. So we really want them to be confident that we're putting great talent behind it, and we're so confident in the book that we'll make it returnable. We'll take the risk.
Shamdasani: We haven't announced what we're doing with "Unity" #5 yet -- that's going to be another big, big piece for us. I think before the book comes out, people will see our sell-through campaign, which is huge. I think it's going to feel like everything is pointing towards "Unity."
Freeman: We also want to remain very aware that even though these books are returnable, that doesn't mean that the retailers are ordering without risk. They've all taken a flyer for us, even if that flyer is only however long it takes before those books actually can be returned. The amount of time and labor involved in returning them is a risk on the part of the retailer, and we want to make sure that we are following up with the promise. Not only is the book good -- and it is, it's awesome -- but we as a company are putting as much effort, and energy, and time and money into the sell-through campaign as we did the sell-in campaign. Most publishers tend to put most of their money in before the book comes out, because they want retailers to order the book. This particular instance especially, it is most important to us for fans to follow up and pick them up off of shelves.
Gorinson: You've seen Valiant do some memorable, a little bit crazy promotions over the past year and a half, and we have some special stuff up our sleeve for the remaining weeks, up until "Unity" is released, and the weeks subsequent to it, as well.
Shamdasani: We have our craziest, silliest promotion for sell-through on "Unity" #1.
Valiant has done a few unique cover gimmicks with their line, with "Unity" #1, specifically, including the QR-activated 8-bit animated cover, and, perhaps most nontraditional at all, a Team USA luge variant. How important is it for Valiant as, in this incarnation, a new company and an underdog to do unconventional marketing, and how much does that play into the game plan at the company as a whole?
Pierce: We're still the underdog. We're going to remain the underdog for years. We always have to be working differently, and we always have to be making sure that, in an industry dominated by so many big players, little guys like us actually get noticed. We're looking to make sure that when people are thinking "comic books," we're one of the people that they're thinking of.
Gorinson: You have to be scrappy. There's a tremendous amount of noise. There's more good comics coming out right now than probably any point in the history of comics. In order to make Valiant stand apart and let everyone know what we're up to, you have to get a little bit P.T. Barnum from time to time. We have a tremendous amount of fun doing it, but we also want to make sure that anything that we do is in service to the storytelling of the books. That's something that we take very seriously.
Freeman: Anything you see from us, from marketing to sales to promotion, it all comes out of the books. The books are so good, they get us excited to do wacky stuff. To get P.T. Barnum. To make sure people see this incredible product. We're inspired to show it off.
Gorinson: It also gives you the chance, when you start thinking outside the box like that, to do some things that are genuinely cool, or a little bit groundbreaking. Having an animated 8-bit cover done by those awesome guys at CineFix was tremendously exciting, and they totally nailed it. It's something that I think people are going to remember for a very, very long time.
Shamdasani: It's also the history of the medium. This is how Marvel started. This is how DC started. They did wacky, crazy things -- I've got the Merry Marvel Marching Society vinyl.
It's been interesting for us to see people look at us and say, "Wow, this is cool. Why don't more publishers do this?" I think the reason is because we don't have an allegiance to Fox through a first look deal. We're not a movie studio, we're a publishing company. We're not owned by a $123 billion market cap company like Disney. Warren and I were looking at how much Disney and Warner Bros. are worth, and it really put things into context.
Simons: We're not a publicly traded, multinational corporation. We're a bunch of guys in a room scrapping, trying to tell great stories, and trying to sell those stories and market those stories. We're all up here working really hard, and really late hours, to get that done. We're lucky that we have some awesome creators who are excited about that. We have some guys that just don't want to write the fifth story of a crossover. We have some guys who don't want someone walking into their room and telling them what to write. I think the creators are super jazzed up about that. I think a lot of the heat that we've had as a company is because guys want to come over and work with us and do that stuff. It's a pretty exciting time.
Pierce: And the editors are encouraging it. The editors are saying, "Give me your best ideas, let's make it work. We don't have to fit it into any set formula."â€¨Shamdasani: That's why they're doing better work here than they're doing for others. You're seeing creators of huge stature, very early on say, "I'm going to tie my future to Valiant." You've got Cary Nord here for two years, we've got Clayton Henry, who signed an exclusive, Brian Reber, who signed an exclusive. Doug Braithwaite signed an exclusive. And there's more we haven't announced.
With whatever confidence has been added due to the "Unity" #1 number, what are the broad goals now? How do you want to see the company grow in the near or long term future?
Shamdasani: Our goal is, first and foremost, to make the best comics that we can. We think that'll help us get to No. 3. What you'll see from "Unity" is, this is where we go into our Phase Two. We've got a writers' room coming up next week -- all the big writers are coming in. We're going to talk about all the big plans that they have, that we have. You're going to see something in the back of "Unity" #1 that's a tease to where we're going from here. We also have a number of jumping-on points coming up, right off "Unity." We're going to get a lot of momentum going into Free Comic Book Day; new fans will be able to come in there, as well. â€¨What you're going to see from us now is doubling down all of our efforts; some crazy ideas. We've built the foundation of the Valiant Universe now, now we get to forge a new identity.
Pierce: We're not going to a second print on "Unity" #1. Whatever everyone has, they'll sell it through, and we're not going to go to the second and third and fourth print. That, we hope, will help everybody sell through. The best thing for us, if it's a returnable comic, is nothing gets returned.
Dinesh mentioned being No. 3 -- so is that the goal?
Pierce: We're the scrappy Rocky company. Basically, I won't be upset if we're No. 5, and I won't be surprised if we're No. 3. We're on a trajectory, we're very patient. We're not going to do it next year, we're not going to do it in two years -- but three, four, five years down the road, as we grow, you'll see that we'll take even more and more traction in the industry. People are still learning about us.
Shamdasani: We've found all we've got to do is put one book in their hands, and they come back and buy that series, and then they come back and they buy everything that we're doing. That's been really nice. It means that it's working, it means that people like it. We're well-financed, we've got great characters, great creators, and we're willing to work our asses off to get books to be as good as we can. I think that's coming through. The energy's coming through, and the quality of books is coming through. And the 68.5 is proof of that, because the retailers are now saying, "We believe in the books, we're going to help bring new fans in, and this is the one we're going to do it on."
Clearly, Valiant has done an effective job of relaunching many of the previous properties -- there are still a few left that haven't been relaunched, and "Unity" is a new concept with an old name and pre-existing characters -- but in terms of growing the line long term, is there a thought that at some point, there's a limit to how many of the older characters you can bring back? Does the plan eventually switch to being more about introducing new characters and concepts, and bringing them to a point where they can carry their own books?
Simons: We have a very, very, very deep bench here. We're blessed to have a lot of extraordinary characters that were created by guys like Jim Shooter, David Lapham, Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith. We haven't been able to get to all of those characters yet. We haven't been able to launch a Ninjak ongoing. We haven't been able to launch a Rai book. Those characters are certainly interesting.
We've introduced new characters in all of the books -- we love new characters, and we'd love to get some up and running, but we wanted to get to the characters that have a dedicated fanbase right now. But it's certainly one of our goals, it's something we talk about all the time. A book like "Unity" has a name that's from the past, but there was no team book, so in some ways that's a new book. There's lots of stuff that we can grow, and tap into the great foundation that we have here, and still innovate. â€¨Pierce: There are a lot of new ideas, but the new ideas have to be better than the foundation ideas that we have.
Valiant is one of a select few companies right now directly competing with Marvel and DC, in that it's a shared universe playing out across multiple books. In what ways is Valiant truly looking to distinguish themselves from Marvel and DC? There was talk earlier of offering creators a different experience, but what about readers?
Simons: Read the first four issues of "Harbinger." [Laughs] Read the first four issues of "Bloodshot." Read the first four issues of "Archer & Armstrong." I worked at Marvel for seven years, I have a lot of friends up there, I love Marvel, I have a lot of friends at DC, I love DC. But the content of the books that we're doing right now is radically different from anything you're going to see anywhere else.
Shamdasani: Even the lineup to "Unity." We've got strong female characters, we've got racial diversity. It's crazy. You look at that team, and it's not the team that you would see on the Avengers or Justice League.
Simons: I think Robert Venditti did a great job on "X-O," and I think DC saw that, and they put him on "Green Lantern." I think almost all of the creators we have up here are being bombarded by calls from other companies to come work for them, because everyone sees what's happening up here. That's why the fans read the books and they come back to us, because they see something unique, something innovative. We're hopefully hitting on a vein that no one else is touching right now.
Yes, it's a shared universe, and yes, we're working primarily in the superhero genre, but I think the content of [Valiant's] books is wildly different from anything you're going to see from a mainstream superhero publisher. We're able to take more chances, because we're not beholden to another corporate umbrella that has to approve something.
Gorinson: That really is an outgrowth of what the principles of Valiant were when the company first came together in the late '80s and early '90s. It's really a return to form, and we're happy and grateful to have a foundation to build upon.
Pierce: The editorial and creative staff have a vision of what's going on in the world today, which are reflected in our books. All of the other companies are reflecting their vision of what's going on in the world today, and ours is unique. Ours is edgy. We think ours reflects more of what's going on in today's world than at other companies. When you pick up a Valiant book, it has a unique vision.
How much have collected editions and bookstore market been a factor in building the new Valiant?
Freeman: We have beaten every projection that we've had in the mass market, soundly. The books have been a huge, huge contributor to our sales. Most of our trade paperbacks, we've had to go back to print two or three times. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing. We have so many ways in which to get the stories out now -- both through the individual issues, through the trade paperbacks, the hardcovers, digital, foreign licensing, getting into new languages -- it is a fantastic next step for us.
Pierce: And we're finding that the collected markets are bringing in a lot of new readers themselves. A lot of people are becoming new readers when they see the collected books.
New readers to comics, or to Valiant?
Freeman: Both. I know just from my own experience, many people who their first comic was the "Harbinger" Vol. 1 trade paperback.
Pierce: If you speak to the retailers, they will tell you that where a lot of companies said they were going to bring back a lot of the old readers, we're the only company that did bring back those readers.
I think you'll find that this is the book that retailers will use to turn people on -- when they walk into their comic book store for the first time, we want "Unity" to be the book that they give them. "If you want to read a great comic, read this. This will get you addicted to comic books for the rest of your life."
Earlier this month, at New York Comic Con, it was announced that Dynamite plans to publish comics based on some of the Gold Key characters -- including Solar, Turok and Magnus, who were all, of course, once a very major part of the previous iteration of Valiant. Was that news disappointing at all, especially given that it involves some of the same creators who are working on current Valiant books? Or is that not something you're not necessarily concerned with?
Simons: It's flattering, you know? Whenever someone launches a line, they're pretty much using the template that we sat down.
Shamdasani: The best thing you can do as a writer, is, in front of one of the other companies, talk to Warren Simons, because they will descend on you so quickly. We're just trying to do the best comics we can, and for some reason, they think we're doing the most innovative comics on the planet, because every single thing we do they seem to do very quickly. The 8-bit, the pullbox covers, all the creative teams, the way we market.
Dynamite's the best example. It's our characters from the '90s marketed towards our fans, with our trade dress, our cover artists, our writers. They tried to get our interior artists! They couldn't, because people are loyal to us.
We're looking forward to those books. We love Fred and we love Greg, we wish them the best of luck. The Valiant fans have had an interesting reaction, and I hope the books work.
Simons: We're super-happy for Greg, we're super-happy for Fred. They're great characters, we all think the world of them. It's fascinating that this is the template that they're following based on what we did when we launched.
Shamdasani: It's a compliment, is what it is.
Pierce: We, at this point in time, are not interested in those characters, if that's the basis of your question.
Shamdasani: We never went after them.
Pierce: When we were discussing this before we launched the company, I was very clear that I wasn't interested in those characters. I love the Valiant characters that we have.
Simons: We said this from the start: We have such a big universe as it is, we have great characters. We don't need them.
Just to clarify, there's also no crossover coming. We have no plans for that right now. I have no interest on making sure that one of my writers' scripts needs to be approved by a third party somewhere else.
Shamdasani: And that's the reason we haven't gone after them. We own all the characters that we're launching now, and that's the big piece for us, because it means we can do what we want with them. We don't have to compromise the creative integrity because we have to get a licensee to approve something. And we haven't been able to get to some of the bigger characters.
Down the road, once we've grown the company in a slow and steady manner, will we go after those characters to wholly own them? Potentially. They are a good next step. But probably at that point we're going to have a bunch of characters, like the Bleeding Monk, that are new that we've created that the fans demand get their own books. It's hard to say. The fans ask us a lot: Are we going to get Magnus, Solar and Turok? The answer is, we don't know. But certainly not as a license.