Valiant Execs are 'On Their Own Path,' Won't Follow Marvel & DC

As the comics market continues to grow, readers regularly see new publishers attempt to establish themselves within the marketplace. in recent years, few publishers have had as immediate an impact as Valiant Entertainment. After announcing its reformation in 2005, Valiant debuted its first line of comics in 2012. since then, the publisher launched several new waves of comics, a number of line-wide events, and a genuine crossover hit in the form of 2016's "Faith."

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So, where does Valiant go from here? And how did the company even get here in the first place? It's not easy to create, populate and support an entire universe, and yet, that's been Valiant's goal from Day One. To look more deeply into their past and future plans, CBR News rang in 2016 with Valiant CEO Dinesh Shamdasani, Publisher Fred Pierce, and Editor-In-Chief Warren Simons.

CBR News: At one point, a little more than a decade ago, Valiant was... gone. The company didn't exist for years, and suddenly you came back. Where do you start with that? How do you suddenly come back with these characters, these ideas, and build them into something familiar but new?

Warren Simons: I think one of the tricks we've done is to not try and build our universe all at once, but rather to do it one step at a time. It started when we redesigned X-O Manowar's costume, which was the first thing which we did. We started there, hired [writer] Robert Venditti and had his pitch come in, and had the new design from Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic. Then, it started to make shape.

We didn't want it all at once -- we just wanted to make sure every single page, every single issue, every single series felt as strong as possible. I think once you take care of that, you're in a position where you're putting out good books, and readers will start to notice.

Fred Pierce: One of the things we had to take a look at was, what were the things which were in the way of us being accepted by the industry? We decided early on that we really wanted to focus on was where we could be in 20 years time, rather than where we were 20 years ago. If you look at a lot of relaunches, they really can get quite caught up in the nostalgia factor.

I think what surprised people was that long-term plan you had -- there were always new comics and stories planned out, new waves of books and promotions. How do you keep up that momentum? How do you decide the stories you tell, and when you tell them?

Simons: I think what really dictates things more than anything else is that we're telling good stories. It's about when a story arrives at the office, either through a pitch or at our writers' retreat, and that's what has historically always worked about Valiant.

Pierce: To continue along those lines, also remember that we don't have a corporate mandate where we have to come out with twenty, thirty, forty titles a month. Our mandate is that if something is ready then it can go, and if it's not ready then we keep hold of it for a while longer. We keep a really tight line, keeping everything as an A-Game story.

We also have a great sales team with four salespeople -- perhaps the biggest in the industry today, even though we're small. We keep one finger on the pulse of the industry, checking with retailers to see what they're looking for, making sure we keep with in touch what they want. It all revolves around quality first. We try to make sure that the spotlight is on Valiant, and that the spotlight is bright.

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Along that line, from the first announcement, "Faith" became this huge thing for Valiant, especially online and across social media. How do you play into that buzz, when it comes about?

Pierce: I think the funny thing is that Faith is a character people warmed up to quickly. You can tell that when she was in "Harbinger," she was quickly [writer] Joshua Dysart's favorite character. She's a character we can all empathize with because she loves who she is and makes no excuses. She's a huge comics fan -- which we can all understand -- and she thinks she can do better! So, she becomes a superhero.

Simons: You don't have to look hard at a shelf to see grizzled anti-heroes, who drink too much, smoke, kill -- it feels like 90% of the books which are out right now share that archetype. So when you see something like "Faith" come out, and she's just this big optimist who believes in right and wrong, that people can change, and that people can accomplish anything -- she's not jaded and it's a big reason why I think people have responded to her.

Dinesh Shamdasani: We also bring something I think no other publisher does. You see Faith, but you don't know what we're going to do with it, whereas with Marvel and DC you know what they're planning on doing because it's what they've always done before. We're all superhero publishers, but with Marvel and DC it feels like they can get so trapped in what they were, that they start to break what they have. You see them killing characters every quarter, rebooting the books every two years, and here we are at little ol' Valiant, publishing new books, featuring new leading characters like Faith.

Simons: I think what we do is, we don't pull that trigger unless the story is ready. Even if something has an overwhelming response, if we feel it is not yet ready, then we don't put it out early. Even if it takes a year to get a story right -- well, that's only a year. I think that's an attitude which is very unique to Valiant, and part of the reason why our books are some of the best in the industry.

Shamdasani: You can't have 70-odd comics come out a month and have them all be good, so we made the very conscious choice that we would only put out as many books as we knew we could make well. That choice comes from not having a corporate parent who tells us, "You have to have this come out to tie into that movie," or, "You have to hit those numbers for this quarter." We're very lucky that our board is thinking on a very long term.

How do you feel you do distinguish yourselves apart from other shared superhero universes, like at Marvel and DC? Do you consciously look to follow or ignore some of their traits?

Pierce: I actually don't think that's part of our decision making process. I think what we are really looking at is our story, and how we get to tell it.

Shamdasani: Agreed.

Pierce: I understand that our success is hugely dependent on Marvel and DC, in that if they do better, then the whole industry tends to do better. So we're always rooting for them to do well, but we don't really have time to look at how they're playing with their toys.

Shamdasani: We don't really look at Marvel and DC -- it doesn't matter to us, aside from in terms of market issues. What we do tend to do, however, is look at the first few years of each company. We looked at the very first few years of DC, Marvel, and of the old Valiant Universe -- because that's the position we are in currently. We're in a place where we are building books, building characters, and seeing how we can weave together this tapestry. Looking at Marvel and DC isn't a bad place to look to see how that can be done.

Simons: We're all fans of things they're putting out, and books at other companies, too. But as a company, we can't look at their template and see something to follow -- we have to follow our own path.

So where does that path lead? Recent books, like "Divinity" and "Faith," feel like they're pushing outward into different genres. Is it important, as you move forward, for Valiant to have books which expand outwards into these new styles, tones, concepts?

Simons: I can only speak to where I'm coming from, but two titles which have really blown me away in the last year are "Ninjak" and "Bloodshot Reborn." I think [writer] Jeff [Lemire] has done an amazing job on "Bloodshot," which is one of my favorite books, along with [artist] Butch Guice. It's about a soldier returning from war with PTSD, but done in the form of a superhero comic book.

I think Matt [Kindt] and Clay [Mann] have turned "Ninjak" from a spy book into a new interpretation of Ninjak, which is one of my favorite things we've ever done. So I feel really lucky to work on IP which is fun and interesting.

Shamdasani: It's organic, too, because the original Valiant Universe of the '90s was bright, but short. They put all these pieces on the board, but didn't get to use them all in the way that, say, Marvel or DC were able to. Now we're able to pick them back up from the board, and we have the years which they didn't.

You also seem to give a lot of freedom to your creative teams to explore these tangents.

Shamdasani: Yeah. You're talking to a company that loves comics more than anything else. The creators who work here do so because they love comics -- not because they want to work for TV, or anything like that, but on comics.

Simons: We want them to be who they are, and Valiant allows them to execute comics in a way that expresses them. Creator-owned is a great thing. Everyone should have one coal in the fire in that regard at some point in time. Work for hire is also useful, because it helps you pay the mortgage! I think building that collaboration, so that when people come to Valiant they get to do their best work, is extremely important to us. It's something we really embrace.

How you find talent? For example, how did someone like Jody Houser come onboard as writer for "Faith?"

Simons: In that case, Jody submitted a sample to Tom Brennan, who passed it to me. It had a package of about eight or nine different things she's written over the years, and we thought she had a really interesting voice. We reached out to her specifically for "Faith," and she came back to us with a great idea for the story.

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Jody is one of the first writers working at Valiant to not have a background at Marvel/DC. Is that something important to you, moving forward, that you find voices away from the typical superhero comics background?

Simons: It's something that I've always valued -- going out to find new writers and artists who are future superstars looking to make a name for themselves. That happened with Robert Venditti, who was the first choice of writer [for "X-O Manowar"]. Dysart, similarly, had a wonderful book at Vertigo called "Unknown Soldier," but he didn't have this long career writing for Marvel and DC.

Shamdasani: Rafer, too.

Simons: Yes! Rafer Roberts, who is launching "Archer & Armstrong" with us. He had never done a published comic for Marvel and DC -- it was the strength of his indie work which attracted us. I think we're really starting to find writers who have a unique voice, and can do something new for our characters, and not simply always someone with a 40-50 issue run over on a superhero comic elsewhere.

Resurrecting a defunct publisher and its characters is a big deal. You needed to go from being a comics publisher in the '90s to being a comics publisher in a more contemporary, developed society. What was that immediate leap like?

Shamdasani: This is a fascinating question. These are characters from the '90s, yes, but the core of each one of them still works. You couldn't do these new books if they weren't good characters at their core, but if you can maintain the heart of the characters, then you can have these new comics now.

I think this question is more about you, though, Steve. I think current publishers have brainwashed the readership to think that characters should be static and shouldn't change, but if you look at the great advances made by someone like Spider-Man over the first couple of decades -- that character evolved so much, going from high school to marriage with Mary-Jane. Or looking at "The Walking Dead," which similarly keeps changing.

We look at the core of our characters like, say, Archer. And in five years, I'm so excited to see who Archer will be, because it'll be something different. The core of him will be the same, but everything else will be different. Marvel and DC, all they do is break a character and restart them. They don't have any interest in evolving a character, because continuity, for them, doesn't move like it used to.

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Simons: You look at "Archer & Armstrong," and you could probably continually reprint that exact story and series almost verbatim for years to come, and it'd still be relevant. It'd still be timely. You have this kid who had no idea what the outside world is like, has been sheltered by his foster parents his entire life, and he comes into the world of this drunk immortal. That combination, at its core, is what those characters are, and how they work. With that core concept, you can move the characters forward so easily.

There's also been more mixing of old and new characters as time has gone by.

Pierce: Whether it's an old or new character, it needs to feel new. That's been one of the big things Warren has done as editor. Once a character enters the Valiant Universe, it feels as though they were always there.

On that front, there's also the work that's been done in terms of reprinting some of the older Valiant material, like Christopher Priest and Mark Bright's "Quantum and Woody."

Pierce: With that big, really nice omnibus of the material.

Was it important to you to have your history out there on the shelves, so people can retrace and try out the old stuff?

Pierce: We really needed to not put out the old stuff at the beginning, because we really needed to establish who we are today, so at the start, we didn't put any of those books out. But after a year or two, the floodgates opened, so new readers will still think of "Valiant" as being the current Valiant, but people could also then go back to the reprints. We didn't want to be known as who we were, but who we are.

Do you feel Valiant Comics offers diverse representation for current readers?

Simons: I think that we inherited a very diverse universe. Whether it's characters with different sexual orientation, race, religion -- the thing that we've done is try to be representative of the world we live in. As characters come in, they'll diversify the line, but the thing that really matters most to us is that everything feels honest to being a good story. It all comes back to story. We want to build a diverse universe that represents the world.

We always try to build things, not because it's trendy, but because it's a good story, and important.

Pierce: We're not writing to formula. Someone like Faith is here now, with her own miniseries, but she's not here because she's a woman. She's here because she's a premiere character within the Valiant Universe.

Shamdasani: It's not something we consciously think of. In fact, people keep saying we should be doing a better job of publicizing our diversity; that we have possibly one of the most diverse superhero universes in comics, but we don't go out and publicize that.

It's not for us. We're happy to say how good the books are, but representation is just inherent to the Universe.

Looking towards the future, including whatever this mysterious "Britannia" is, what would you say readers should look to expect from readers across 2016?

Shamdasani: It's a very, very ambitious year, I'll tell you that! We may have gotten too big for our britches -- it'll either be an incredible success, or a spectacular failure!

Pierce: Well -- I don't agree!

Shamdasani: No, Fred -- I guarantee that if we fail it's going to be so spectacular that people will be talking about it for decades.

Simons: I'm with you on that. I think 2016 is going to see a really strong line from us. I'm excited for more "Faith" with Jody, Francis [Portela] & Marguerite [Sauvage]. I'm really excited for "Archer & Armstrong" coming up -- they've done a really amazing job on that book. It has a talking mackerel straight out of "Glengarry Glen Ross." "Divinity" is coming up, featuring a guest appearance from none other than Vladimir Putin. "4001 A.D." is coming up, as Matt creates this second universe for us with art from Clayton Crain that is just jaw-dropping...

Shamdasani: ...there's Analogue Man showing up in "X-O" #50...

Simons: Jeff Lemire on "Bloodshot Reborn" with Lewis [LaRosa]. He is, pound for pound, one of the best artists in the industry. I feel "Ninjak's" story "Operation Deadside" is exceptional. "Wrath of the Eternal Warrior" -- Raul Allen is another person who has done no work for Marvel and DC, and his work here is just incredible. He's a rising star in the industry -- he's one of the finest illustrators I've ever worked with, and I've worked with many.

All in all, it's a really good time to be a Valiant fan, and I think 2016 will be great for us.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on all of Valiant Entertainment's upcoming projects.

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