In case you hadn't heard already, May was a very good month for comic book sales in the Direct Market. But in particular, it seems to have been a very good launch month for the fledgling Valiant Entertainment. The new version of the '90s superhero powerhouse debuted its first title with "X-O Manowar" #1 by Robert Venditti and Cary Nord to a #40 finish in the top 300 sales rankings, making it the best-selling non-Premier publisher title for the month and the #2 non-DC and Marvel book behind "The Walking Dead."
Of course with a start like that, the question arises as to how Valiant accomplished such a launch and how they plan on capitalizing on the sale as series like "Harbinger," "Bloodshot" and "Archer & Armstrong" continue to roll out new versions of characters created by Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, Barry Windsor-Smith and others over 20 years ago. Surely, Valiant landed a high position with "X-O" #1 after months of promotions and variant cover teases, but can they maintain the momentum?
To find that answer, CBR New conducted a round table with the lion's share of Valiant's executive and marketing team including Publisher Fred Pierce, CCO Dinesh Shamdasani, Executive Editor Warren Simons, Sales Manager Atom Freeman and Marketing Manager Hunter Gorinson. Below, the Valiant team talks about how the system they build won't be a one time flash in the pan, respond to questions about their retailer outreach, tease new creative moves that will see more characters and titles appear once the "Summer of Valiant" ends and give some more exact numbers for what a #40 performance for "X-O" #1 means.
CBR News: Gentlemen, Valiant's first issue of "X-O Manowar" seemed to present a very good start for the rebirth of the universe and publishing line. To start our conversation equally big and broad, I thought I'd ask how you feel performance has been so far for all the books when compared to your initial hopes and expectations for the line?
Fred Pierce: Our expectations were exceeded far beyond anything we actually thought was possible. The "X-O" #1 numbers were phenomenal, as was the fact that it sold through and went to a second print and now a third print. That really shows the demand. We had a secret weapon in all of this, and that secret weapon was the fact that there was a cadre of Valiant fans who have been waiting for this. Two of the Valiant fans actually bought the company and have been working for seven years on the company. But all the Valiant fans, really, were ambassadors to the comic stores. And what Atom found when he spoke to retailers - because Atom wasn't a huge Valiant fan when he came on board - was that many of the retailers were also Valiant fans, which made them great supporters too.
Dinesh Shamdasani: I think what convinced Atom - in fact, I think the exact moment he became a fan - was that there's this podcast called "Only The Valiant," and they wrote an X-O Manowar theme song after reading issue #1 because they liked it so much. Atom couldn't believe that the fans were that crazy. [Laughter]
Atom Freeman: I don't know why I'm getting called out on this! [Laughter] I read the stuff. I was around in the '90s and enjoyed quite a bit of Valiant. I don't know that I was so obsessive that I bought the company, but I really did enjoy it. And it is really impressive how the Valiant fans are so passionate even today. And they've been very supportive of everything we've one, which could have gone the other way. They have totally been behind us.
Let's talk specifics on "X-O" #1. Diamond released their May rankings, and estimates placed the book at 42,705 copies sold. Can you tell us what you've found are the actual sales on that first issue?
Pierce: We actually shipped and printed 45,000 on the "X-O" #1 first print. And #2 and 3, we'll see what happens with them. But the Diamond number you see is estimated based on everyone's algebra, so a lot of it depends on when everybody's orders actually hit.
Hunter Gorinson: That being said, it's a very, very strong number and one that we were enthusiastically surprised by. It was certainly beyond our wildest expectations, and we thought it would be possible to do well with the support of the fans, retailers and of course Diamond. But to do so in that manner was a breath of fresh air and put us on a real solid footing going forward for the "Summer of Valiant."
Freeman: Also, I'd like to point out that from a sales perspective, one of the biggest indicators for me was that we really wanted to get behind this first printing and do an aggressive overprint, which is evident by the fact that we had books ready for retailers on day one. We wanted to make sure that right away, they could come back and get some more. And they did. And they kept doing it and kept doing it. For me, that's been one of the biggest things. Not only did we do a good job marketing it, but the book is so good on its own that we kept getting those reorders.
Shamdasani: The reviews have been great, and Warren and the creatives have done a great job with the books - not just on "X-O" but on "Harbinger" and "Bloodshot" as well. The response has been really nice.
Warren Simons: We're very happy with what Robert, Cary and Stefano Gaudiano did on the book. The guys really put their heart into it, and I think that's why people responded to it. Everyone around this table has a lot of love for the characters and a lot of love for these books. We're really trying to build the best books possible, and I think that's something the fans responded to.
Pierce: And you know that if the creators phone it in on the page, you can tell before you even touch it.
You came out right from the start, reintroducing fans to the characters before announcing creators and then bringing Atom on to talk to retailers and then announcing things like the Pullbox Variant and the talking cover. Did you find that you had an uptick in interest at each phase of the rollout, or were things more gradual?
Pierce: We've been working on this quite a while, and we made a conscious effort not to promote everything too early so that all the air had come out of the balloon by the time we were talking to the retailers. Atom coming in was a huge step - having somebody that the retailers trust and somebody speaking their language. When we went to ComicsPRO we spoke to retailers a lot. And it's a very, very credible team. You have Warren who was one of the top guys at Marvel and Atom who knows the industry from a retail perspective, and Hunter's marketing has been great while Dinesh has been working on the creative for seven years now. It's not like this was slapdash. We knew that in January, we'd come out guns blazing and then we're lucky that everything hit and was respected and received well.
Gorinson: It was a very deliberative process. Each one of those things was meant to capture the interest of a certain segment of comics fans. We were very cognizant of the fact that not everyone reading comics today would know what Valiant Comics stood for historically or what the Valiant Universe was all about. So we wanted to make some noise and capture the attention of as many comic book readers we could and the attention of retailers in an intelligent and well-reasoned manner.
Shamdasani: We wanted to build with each announcement, and I think as we came closer and closer to the launch month for each of our titles, you'd feel momentum from a marketing, sales and editorial perspective. More info would get out there, and you'd see more and more people getting excited. We very carefully built that. We did something that I'm very proud of, which is making the retailers part of the buildup. We made them partners in this, and they came out to support us because of that.
Freeman: And a lot of that excitement wasn't just build on the outside. It wasn't a facade. It was built from within. You start seeing the pages that these guys are turning in, and you can't help but get excited about the comics you're making. From my perspective, I'd see the work coming in, and it would immediately make me want to put on the P.T. Barnum hat and come up with new ways to get people interested.
Well, while Valiant has certainly built an online promotional presence over the past year, you've also been very aggressive in terms of letting stores and readers know your plans. And I think there have been some questions around the level of interest versus the kind of particular ways publishers promote to the Direct Market. Often, this kind of stuff can just be sour grapes from the industry, but we've heard many people asking about this rumor that Valiant was offering to buy back unsold copies from retailers if they ordered up on "X-O" #1. How do you respond to that?
Pierce: Well, at the end of the day, it's silly. We have such a small, contained industry that had we done anything like that, we'd know it would be mentioned right away. This was mentioned off-handedly, and the second it was mentioned, people looked into it. It was a 45,000 number. In order to affect that tremendously, we would have had to have bought so many copies that you wouldn't even be asking us that question. You'd be telling us who did it. In truth, the numbers were so diverse across so many different comic book stores that that's just a silly question. We answered the question, and I think it was a bit of sour grapes. You've had guys who were in the industry for a very long time who are not selling as well as we were, and at the end of the day, we're launching a new universe, we have great stuff coming, and people got behind us. So I think you're right about it being sour grapes. And the guys who started saying that, I actually love. But what are you going to do?
Gorinson: Simply put: it did not happen. I've been working here for almost an entire year, and my job for about eight months of that year was to promote "X-O Manowar" #1. That's a very rare circumstance in comics where you have so much time solely focused on promoting one release. Everyone in this room spent an exorbitant amount of energy promoting the book, and the sales number we got is truly a reflection of that. It's a reflection of fan interest and the backing of retailers.
Shamdasani: And we had that support not only on "X-O," but on "Harbinger" and "Bloodshot" as well. The retailers have come out to support us, and any other idea is a ludicrous statement. We didn't spend a year building this to buy our own books.
Dinesh, you just predicted my next question in a way because we often talk in comics about how it's great to have a #1 issue that does really well, but it's even better to have several #1 issues and several #2 issues that do well. What can you say at this point in the game about how that retailer interest is holding up as the line continues to grow?
Shamdasani: We're very happy with where things are at. It's great to be in a position where you have more than one #1 doing well and you have all your #2s doing well too.
Fred has said how you're building a universe. There's a creative element to that and a business element to that in terms of how you build the line. Sometimes we'll see a new publisher come out with ten or 12 books out the gate. How have you been managing the risk for the Valiant line both in terms of the over-arcing story issues and the size of the line as you hope to see it?
Simons: I think we have a great roster of characters here, and I think that we have a great number of creators working on those characters. One of the reasons I'm sitting in this chair is that it was very clear to me that Jason [Kothari, CEO] and Dinesh wanted to do something very influenced by story. They wanted to get down to the core of what makes the characters tick. With a great lineup of characters like Bloodshot, X-O, Harbinger and Archer and Armstrong, they're characters that fans love and that people want to see more of. The main thing for us was getting back to what made each character tick. We wanted to get back to what made the characters great. We didn't come in saying, "If you buy one book, you've got to buy them all." We wanted to make books where each title was a stand alone, but if you do buy them all, there's a greater tapestry of the universe that's unfolding before you. I think the audience and the fans have responded to that with "X-O" and "Harbinger," and I think they'll continue to do so with "Bloodshot" and "Archer & Armstrong" as well. You'll see the universe begin to unfold before your eyes, but by the same token, they're not dependent on anything else. That's something that's rare in the marketplace right now.
Freeman: Also, one of the things I heard over and over again in my retailer calls is how even before we were able to show a lot of the books, we'd be told that it was an impressive thing that we weren't coming out with 20 titles they'd have to find room on the shelves for - that we were allowing an audience to build. And if I could jump back to a question from earlier, I can say that we're very close - I can't say how close - but we're very close to an "X-O" #2 sellout as well. I think that shows the strength of the tile overall.
In terms of those sellouts, with 45,000 as the level that sold through for "X-O" #1, are you looking to up the print runs in general to a higher base level than that moving forward?
Pierce: The way it works in our industry is that the retailers think they're going to sell through Diamond. So when we ascertain a print number, it's basically like we're printing on demand. Diamond will sometimes ask us for some more, but because of the nature of the business and because they work on such slim margins, it's much easier for them to make more money by having us print between 42,000 and 45,000 than wait and then offer a second print. A second print is a lot more work for them than just having the initial order. And one of the things that impressed Diamond was that we went to second print after we sold more than we expected on some of these, and so they knew there would be a demand.
Shamdasani: And especially with "X-O" #1, we were doing more than launching one title. We were launching the Valiant Universe, and people wanted to see what we were doing as a whole. But having said that, we've had high expectations for "Harbinger" and "Bloodshot" as well, and we've surpassed those expectations by a significant margin. So it's great to have the community coming out to support us.
Freeman: I'll add that when I was talking to people and I'd ask what they thought would be impressive - even before we had any idea what the orders would be like - and they'd say, "If you do 12,000 that'd be impressive." [Laughter] I mean, it's no wonder people are asking questions about this!
Shamdasani: And with those numbers, we had the #1 non-premier book, which was really, really nice to see. And I think you'll see "Harbinger" as one of the top non-premier books, and "Bloodshot" be one of the top books as well. We've had that success now with the first three books, and I'm confident "Archer & Armstrong" will continue the trend.
Pierce: Warren has done such a great job with the editorial side that he's made the marketing look good.
Simons: Oh, Fred! [Laughter]
So we know there are two more #1s shortly on their way and that each book will continue month after month through the summer and into the fall. Now that the launch is off and running, what's the most important goal you have at this critical phase in the rollout?
Pierce: The most important thing is what Warren is doing. Warren is making sure the books maintain greatness. In terms of the rollout, we're going to have four titles. We thought four was important to make us important to the comic fan and the retailer, but during the course of our first year we'll probably roll out two more titles. We'll let a few months pass and then rollout a title, and then we'll let a few more months pass before we roll out a second title so that everybody has a chance to absorb them in terms of dollars an in terms of reading. The key is to maintain good marketing and more importantly maintain good editorial quality.
Gorinson: Four has proven to be a very fortuitous number. As our first arcs start to close in September with "X-O" #4, you'll see second arcs begin starting in "X-O Manowar" #5 which features Ninjak as we announced last week. And as the second arcs begin across the Valiant Universe, you'll see some more familiar faces begin to appear along with some new characters. We announced that Zephyr will return in "Harbinger" #5, and if you stay tuned over the next several weeks, you'll see some familiar, some not so familiar and some exciting stuff on the way.
Simons: We've got some tricks up our sleeves.
Pierce: Also understand that we figured that 80% of people buying comics right now had never heard of the Valiant books before January. So while we were very happy with the support of the 20%, we were really aiming for the 80% to make these characters and the universe we're creating alive today.
Simons: And it's really not just a testament to the fans and the retail partners who have supported us so far, but it's also the creators. So many of the guys I'm working with now are so jazzed to be working on something that just tells a story - that doesn't have to be beholden to something happening in another book. They can just tap into it and draw a story. Everyone's excited to help launch the universe and play a key role in architecting the title. I think the guys are really juiced up, and to a man, everybody who's working with us be they writer or penciler or inker or colorist is really putting their back into it. Up here, we love comics. We're all comic geeks. I've met maybe one other person in the entire industry who's a bigger comics geek than Hunter is. This kid must burn through all of his money on comics. It's ridiculous. Every week he goes to the shop and comes back with like 40 books. [Laughter]
Pierce: But at least he gets his Valiant comics for free!
Gorinson: Between the comics and the gambling, it's pretty rough for me right now.
Simons: And Atom had a comic store. And Dinesh - we have a picture of him at 12 years old blowing out a birthday cake with the word "Valiant" on it. It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen! Fred worked at the original Valiant, and I was at Marvel for years. So for all of us, the discussions we have up here are about what's happening in comics, which comics just came out, what we think about our work versus everyone else's - there's a real love for the medium here. And I think that's what we're trying to get across here.
Shamdasani: Warren, you skipped yourself. Why don't you tell him what happened when you met Neal Adams and got that "Archer & Armstrong" cover?
Simons: I mean, I met Neal Adams! [Laughter] It was a defining moment in my life. The guy's an industry icon.
Shamdasani: Warren met Neal when we were getting the "Archer & Armstrong" cover for issue #1. And when we sit down at the table with Neal, I look over and see that Warren has turned bright red. I said, "Warren, are you all right?" And he said, "I'm just excited to be here!" [Laughter] Up until that moment, I'd never seen Warren anything else besides calm, calculated and professional, and he just melted. Neal's Continuity Studios had helped us with the animation for the talking covers, and so we got Warren a signed poster, and it was adorable.
Pierce: And let's not forget: I was at the original Valiant, and it's a testament to these characters that Bob Layton worked on and Jim Shooter worked on and Barry Windsor-Smith worked on. We had David Lapham and Mark Moretti and Kevin Van Hook and Don Perlin. All these guys worked on this stuff that still resonates today. That makes it much easier for us to build on what we have.
Freeman: We have a heritage to live up to and the collective geekiness and experience of the people in the room. And we're also in a publishing environment right now that's actually great. It's great for stores. It's great for fans. People are excited about comics today. I don't know if you could pick a better time to start a new comic book company than right now. And that has a lot to do with all the other people making comics. We're all fans here, so Wednesday around here has stacks of comics everywhere.
Pierce: The success of DC's New 52, the success of what Marvel's doing with "AvX," the success of all the Image properties right now - when retailers can sell those books, they have money to experiment with on guys like us.