Valentino Shines a Light on Shadowline

Image Comics enjoyed a strong year in 2010 with the television adaptation of "The Walking Dead" and critically multiple revered creator-owned titles like "Chew" and "Skullkickers." It was an equally notable year for the publisher's various imprints, not the least of which is Jim Valentino's Shadowline Comics which saw the arrival of the widely embraced "Morning Glories" ongoing series from Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma, "27" from Charles Soule and Renzo Podesta, "Meta4" from writer and artist Ted McKeever and much more.

But if you thought 2010 was a good year for Shadowline, wait until you see what the imprint has in store for readers in 2011. Valentino spoke with CBR News in an exclusive interview about all things Shadowline, including the successes of "Morning Glories" and "27," the publisher's future projects such as "The Infinite Vacation" and "Green Wake," and valuable tips for aspiring creators looking to publish their work through Shadowline.

CBR News: Between multiple issue sell-outs, assorted forms of critical acclaim and working with excellent creators both old and new, it seems fair to say that 2010 was a notable one for Shadowline as an imprint at the very least. Give us some of your thoughts, Jim: what kind of year was 2010 for Shadowline? How does the past year stand out when compared to the considerable number of years the line already has under its belt? What would you consider some of the biggest highlights of 2010?

Jim Valentino: 2010 was a year of change, of re-grouping and re-focusing and it was Shadowline's most successful year in terms of sales and critical and fan acclaim. We had multiple printings of every issue of "Morning Glories" and both issues, so far, of "27," both of which sold out prior to release despite aggressive overprinting. So those two books were clearly highlights.

We released most of Ted McKeever's "Meta4," which I think is his best work yet, and that's coming from a dyed-in-the-wool McKeever fan. We successfully ended "Cowboy Ninja Viking" and released the multi-creator anthology, "Fractured Fables" as Image's offering for Free Comic Book Day and as an "all-ages" hardcover that featured the first Image work by such notables as Jill Thompson, Peter David and Shannon Wheeler among a host of others.

So much good stuff happened that it's hard to narrow it down to just a few, but I think those were the highlights.

Honing in on success requires no small amount of foresight, but there's always a certain element of risk involved with green-lighting a project -- no matter how much you love it, readers might not love a book like "Morning Glories" in quite the same way. Clearly, that didn't turn out to be the case with "Glories." From your perspective, what were some of the reasons behind the success of books like "Morning Glories" and "27" in 2010? Maybe the best place to start is, what did you see in these projects that appealed to you as Shadowline's head honcho, as someone who has to think about what their audience wants?

Ah, and therein lay the rub as someone once said. An editor or publisher should never try to second guess the audience. There's just no way to know if a book is going to fly or not -- trust me, if we had the secret, I guarantee all we'd publish would be best sellers!

So, what is the criteria? For me I look at three things: 1. Is the work up to professional standards? 2. Is the concept original or does it give an original spin? and 3. Is there a perceived audience for the book? The latter is probably the most germane to your question and the most difficult to define and quantify. I have only two things to rely on -- my gut and my experience. And even then, I usually seek out other opinions prior to making a decision.

Each book is different -- for example, in the case of "Morning Glories," I sat on it for nearly a year. Nick felt it was his best and most commercial work, I wanted to build his rep up a bit, so we released "Existence 2.0" and "3.0," "Forgetless" and "Shuddertown," all to strong critical acclaim. Then, when the spotlight was clearly on Nick, we released "Morning Glories." It turned out to be the right call.

With "27" I did something I never do: I actually read it at a convention and accepted it while still there. This was a concept I'd been thinking about for years, wondering why no one had picked up on it. And here it was, well-written, nicely drawn. So I took the chance. And that's the thing -- you don't know. You can't know. I've published books I thought were amazing, but they tanked and others I thought were okay that flew. The key is whether or not as an editor or a publisher you believe in the work.

Clearly, you believed in Nick and Charles' work enough to publish their stories through Shadowline. As both a professionally invested party as well as a comic book reader yourself, what attracted you to "Morning Glories" and "27?" What stood out about both books that made you want to publish them? 

Story and execution. "Morning Glories" was a unique and multi-layered take on an old theme. Having already published four books with Nick, I knew what he was capable of. Rodin's covers are to simply die for, they're so amazingly beautiful, and Joe Eisma is a solid storyteller whose work is improving by leaps and bounds. Great art will attract people to a book, but a great story will keep them coming back for more. One is not more important than the other, both have to work in harmony and they were both there in this book.

With "27," as I noted earlier, here was an idea, or the germ of an idea, that had been sitting around forever untouched as far as I know. I've known about the "27 curse" for years. And here Charles had crafted, again, a multi-layered story encompassing not only that germ of an idea, but expanding upon it in an intelligent and insightful way. Scott's covers, all based on iconic imagery of members of the 27 club, and Renzo's expressively dynamic art just pushed it over the top for me.

I guess this time I wasn't the only one who responded to these works like this!

It's well-known that Image Comics is a creator-owned company, with writers and artists mostly left to their own devices without the normal editorial input you'll see at other publishers. Is that the case with Shadowline? Are you mostly hands-off when it comes to titles like "Morning Glories" and "27," or have you been involved in guiding those stories forward on their path?

We tend to be very hands on, but that all depends on the creator involved, how much help they need. In the case of creators like Nick Spencer, Charles Soule, Ted McKeever, Jimmie Robinson, they all know what they're doing so we stay out of their way. We just copy edit them -- correcting spelling, grammar, etc. A less seasoned writer would get more guidance. We want to see plots and scripts, make sure the story beats are there and there are no inconsistencies in the plot. But, [we want to] do so without changing the story they've written. I take an active hand in covers usually, again, with some exceptions.

Our job, as we see it, is to try and make the books we publish the best they can be. Sometimes that requires a little more guidance than others. One thing a writer can be confident of is that we will never change their story, never add in dialog or change dialog other than for grammatical clarification.

From what I understand, Nick Spencer came to Shadowline through the traditional pitching process. A guy like Charles Soule, as you said, found his way to you through a convention. But you also have comics veterans like Ted McKeever in the Shadowline fold, someone who you yourself were already a big fan of before publishing his stories. Do you find yourself seeking out established creators more often than you're seeking out new ones, or vice versa? Are guys like Spencer and Soule, who came to Shadowline essentially from the ground up, more of an exception than the rule, or are you actively looking for new talent? 

I'm always looking for interesting books, interesting stories. Whether they come from new or established talent isn't really the issue. If the concept and execution is great, that's all that really matters. I'm very proud of the fact that I've managed to introduce a lot of exceptional talents to a wider audience, but I'm very aware of the fact that what made their careers was their talent, not me.

I maintain a dedicated e-mail address for submissions, but very, very few cold submissions are accepted. I'd say around 1% of those I receive. The problem is that most novice writers and artists haven't learned their craft. The idea may be there, but the execution isn't -- and they both have to be there. As I noted previously, I never accept books at conventions. I don't like to even accept proposals at cons; there's too much going on and cons are too exhausting to try and make an important and informed decision.

There really is no one single way. Books with established creators usually come to me via a conversation at a con, sometimes they come through a mutual friend's introduction. I believe that's how I hooked up with Ted McKeever. The method isn't really relevant; the work is.

As a follow up, even though the acceptance rate is very low, how many of the cold submissions sent to Shadowline would you say are actually read and considered? Do you and your team make it a point to go through the submissions pile pretty thoroughly, or does that not happen too often because of the few titles that actually get accepted from the pile?

I read every single submission that comes in and I respond to them all, even if it's with a "no thanks." What I do, and I started this when I was Image Central's publisher, is set aside one day a month, usually at the end of the month, and I go through them all. Everyone gets a response because I know what it's like to work hard on something, send it out and not hear back, and I promised myself I would never do that to anyone else. I figure if someone's worked on something, they deserve the courtesy and the respect of a reply.

Since his name has come up a bunch already and since I know you're a fan of his work, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about working with Ted McKeever on "Meta 4." What has that experience been like? And what was it about "Meta 4" as a whole that first reached out and grabbed you?

[Laughs] Here's the thing -- all Ted has to say to me is, "I have a new idea for a new book," and that's it. My best move with someone like Ted is to get out of his way, and that's what I do. [Shadowline editor Jade Dodge] copy edits him, but other than that, the policy is hands off. You don't screw with genius, you let it flow. Ted is going to lay a new project on us for the latter half of this year. I have no clue what he's going to do, but it's pre-approved.

We've talked a lot about 2010. Now let's talk about 2011. Give us a glimpse: what do we have to look forward to from Shadowline's near future?

Please forgive me if I sound like a huckster here, but I'm genuinely excited about the books we have coming up, probably more so than I've ever been. In January we're debuting Nick Spencer's new book "The Infinite Vacation." It's illustrated by Christian Ward, who illustrated "Olympus," so not only is it smartly written, but it's gorgeous! Also in January we have AJ Lieberman's original graphic novel, "Term Life." AJ gave us "Cowboy Ninja Viking" and this time he's joined by Nick Thornborrow on art. If you like crime drama, you'll love this.

Then in February, we have Brian Haberlin and Phillip Tan's "Captain Wonder." This is a full-color 3-D one-shot and a new twist on superheroes, and glasses will be included. Our favorite supervillain, Bomb Queen, will have two back-to-back one shot specials: in February, we're releasing the "Bomb Queen vs. Hack/Slash Valentine's Day Special" and then the following month, "Bomb Queen Presents: All Girl Special" #1. The Queen will also be returning in a new series in June that Jimmie Robinson promises will turn the whole concept in a new, but no less depraved direction.

And in April, we have a new horror book, "Green Wake." This one is written by Kurtis Wiebe, late of Image Central's "Rat Bastards" and illustrated by Riley Rossmo of "Proof" and "Cowboy Ninja Viking." We also have plans for a sequel to "27" called "27: Set Two," appropriately enough, and a new project from Ted McKeever. And that's not to mention more "Morning Glories" goodness every month and some special things planned for that series as well. We're continuing our association with comiXology for those folks who like their comics digitized, and on top of all that, should all go according to plan, we should be announcing no less than three feature films based on Shadowline books within the first half of the year! So we're really looking forward to a great year with some amazing talents and wonderful books.

Perhaps you're just being modest, but there's no mention of "ShadowHawk" in your list of books to look forward to in 2011. Can we expect to see more from the Backbreaker as the year trucks along, or is the character going on the back-burner for a little while?

No, we're going to be giving him a rest for a while. When and if he does return, I doubt that I'll be doing him. At this point in time there are no plans for him.

Closing out, when we spoke almost a year ago about the return of the "ShadowHawk" ongoing to Shadowline, you mentioned how you're enjoying the role of "overseer" more than "writer" and "artist" these days. Is that still true? Are you getting more enjoyment out of your role as a shepherd for other comics titles under the Shadowline banner, or do you think you'll feel the itch to dust off the word processor and drawing board in 2011? 

I'm doing a few things here and there. I've drawn a cover for every Hero Initiative auction, so that tides me over for superheroes. I just wrote and drew a story for this Halloween's "Simpson's Treehouse of Horror" and I've been promising Mike Richardson a new "normalman" story for Dark Horse Presents for, like, forever. When I do draw these days, I'm leaning back to drawing humor stuff rather than superheroes. I just enjoy it more. But, I don't really feel compelled to draw a whole lot anymore, which is probably a good thing for the world at large.

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