A Year in Review with VALIANT COMICS’ Head Honchos

Credit: Valiant Comics
Credit: Valiant

Over the course of the past year, Valiant Comics has experienced both ups and down as it moves into the back-end of its third year as an independent superhero publisher in a world dominated by Marvel and DC. In spite of continuing their winning streak of garnering fan and industry approval, it hasn’t been an easy to find in-roads within a fairly closed door genre of an already difficult to break-into business, maintaining only a little over 1% of the market.

As Newsarama closes the books on 2014 and move into 2015, we took the opportunity to speak with Valiant Publisher Fred Pierce, CCO/CEO Dinesh Shamdasani, and Editor-in-Chief Warren Simons about some of the highlights from 2014, their creative direction and goals for expanding the audience for their line of books in 2015, as well as some of the challenges they see facing not only Valiant but the industry as a whole in the year ahead. The publisher has provided exclusive pages from the upcoming Ivar The Timewalker #1 and Imperium #1, which run alongside this interview.

Newsarama: Gentlement, let’s start this off with an end of the year favorite: What’s in your Top 3 from your pull list for 2014? This can be from Valiant or other publishers, as well as monthlies, original graphic novels - anything that’s considered comics.

Warren Simons: That’s a very political question, Forrest!

Nrama: [Laughter] There may be a few we encounter along the way!

Credit: Valiant

Dinesh Shamdasani: Let’s let Warren kick this off. Warren reads a lot of comic books.

Simons: You know, Forrest, I don’t know if I can give you my “Top 3,” but I can give you the last several comics that I read. And yes, I read about 40 comics over the weekend. I think Rick Remender is doing a really nice job on Deadly Class. Then the team of Matt Fraction and David Aja did an extraordinary job with Hawkeye. They took a middle character who, while appearing in a billion dollar movie, is really a pretty little character in our industry, and they did a really poignant and beautiful story about him. I just read Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard – highly recommended. I also picked up 3 Story by Matt Kindt.  I didn’t originally read it when it came out, but when Matt was here for New York Comic Con, I picked it up and thought it was wonderful.

It’s always hard to tell you what my three favorite albums are. I just like to listen, more or less. Listen, it’s a really vibrant time in the industry. You can talk about Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s book, Southern Bastards, which is exceptional. You can also talk about what Joshua Dysart’s doing for us on Harbinger. I was talking to someone not so long ago who said “Every character that’s ever been published is being published right now.” There’s an exceptional amount of creator-owned material coming out right now also. DC’s also doing really well with Batman and a couple of their other titles. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s The Multiversity: Pax Americana that just came out was great. Marvel’s also chugging along and putting out some great stuff, too.

It’s just a really vibrant time. You can throw a stone up in the air and you’ll hit something good. And that’s also really rare.

Nrama: I’ll pass then on the question over who you think your greatest competition is. [laughter]

Simons: Myself! It’s like Jay-Z, dude – just quoting The Black Album. [Laughter] How about you, Dinesh? What are your top three?

Shamdasani: Man, you took them all! You just rattled off my top three except for The Ghost Fleet. You left that out. That’s easily number one for me not only because it seems to be incapable of getting less than a 10 out of 10 review, but also because of the quality of that book. You really need to check that out.

Simons: You know, I also think Afterlife with Archie and Sex Criminals were really good as well. Just to cut you off before you could mention those as well, Dinesh! [Laughter]

Shamdasani: I was also going to mention all of our books because I do go back and read them over and over again because they’re just so good.

Simons: And our books as well! That was implied with question!

Credit: Valiant

Nrama: Now, looking back on where you were in 2013, what goals did you set going into 2014 and what would you say your greatest accomplishment was having reached the end of ‘14?

Fred Pierce: In 2013, we had only been publishing for about a year and a half. We’ve been publishing for two and a half years now, and we’ve doubled our line and become embedded in the industry. The big accomplishment here is that people are looking forward to Valiant rather than looking back on Valiant. People are looking for the books we’re doing today, the great stuff we’re doing. This year in particular, we’ll be having a lot of new characters coming out, which builds on the existing Valiant Universe. There’s a real breadth to our line at the end of 2014 that didn’t exist in 2013 as we were so new at the time. I think we’re now accepted as a permanent fixture in the industry. As a publisher, that’s our big accomplishment. And I still have all my hair!

Credit: Valiant

Shamdasani: I thought Fred hit the nail on the head. It continues to be about putting out good work. We look at each comic book individually as something we need to hit a home run on. I think the last 12 months have shown everyone in the industry that we can continue to keep up the pace of putting out books just as great as when we launched and continue to grow explosively just as when we launched. I think we are a permanent fixture for anyone who’s read anything from Valiant; whether they’re reading X-O Manowar or The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage across the whole breadth of the genre of what we’re putting out, they’re saying, “These guys put out good comics. There’s a consistency there, and when I see that logo, I know it’s a good comic.” The last 12 months have been about hitting that consistency over and over again. We’re looking at it long-term, and that’s the goal.

Simons: On the editorial/story side, I’m very proud of the books we put out this year. We introduced the 4001 universe with Rai, and Matt Kindt is writing a masterpiece in the making. We’ve got some extraordinary art work coming in from Clayton Crain. I’m really proud and honored that Clayton is here at Valiant working with us – a truly amazing digital painter. Then, Robert Venditti did an exceptional job on Armor Hunters. As anyone in the industry knows, it’s extraordinarily difficult to execute a crossover well and have it make sense and be well-received. I think he did a great job spearheading that event along with the other creators involved.  Dougie Braithwaite drew the hell out of it!

I’m also really proud of The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage. It’s quite different from any other book we’ve published previously, but Jen Van Meter and Roberto de la Torre have done beautiful work on that. I also think Alejandro Arbona, who’s the editor taking point on that series, is doing a fantastic job as well. Also finishing up, The Valiant, which launched in December. That was a personal highlight of the year for me bringing Jeff Lemire and Paolo Rivera into the Valiant Universe. These are two of the best creators in the industry today and we’re fortunate to have them come join us and Matt Kindt for this story.

It’s a really vibrant and exciting time to be a Valiant Comics fan and to be looking into independent comics.

Pierce: Something else I think we’ve done really well over the past year is that in 2013, we didn’t really have the critical mass to develop our trade paperback and hardcover line. I think if you walk into comic book stores today, you’ll find a substantial number of trades and hardcovers. We have two, three, or sometimes four coming out a month, which gives us a definite presence in the industry.

Credit: Valiant

Nrama: Looking ahead to 2015, where is Valiant Comics? Continued growth? Maintain the current line?

Simons: I think the mantra here at Valiant has been “slow and steady wins the race,” and we try and just put out really good stories for every series that we put out. We might have a slow and steady growth, but we’re not rushing things out to market right now just to fill slots, you know?

I’m really excited for the Bloodshot Reborn book we have coming out in April with Jeff Lemire, and I think that’s going to be an absolute beast of a book. But we had to take our time getting to it. It’s the same thing with Ninkak, Imperium, or Divinity. We have a lot of really great stuff coming out, but we need to make sure the story is sound and the creative team is ready before we start pushing this stuff out the door. I think the guys will attest that I don’t let it go out that door until its kicking and screaming – it’s got to be pulled out of our hands. We care about quality. 

Shamdasani: The quality is a key thing for us. What I’m looking for from next year is to continue to improve the quality of the books, to continue to challenge ourselves to raise the bar, and frankly … I think we’ve got this.

As Warren said, Clay Mann is coming on Ninjak, and it’s going to be a phenomenal book. Bloodshot Reborn has been in the works for well over half a year now, and Mico’s pages are beautiful and Jeff’s script is…phenomenal. So I’m feeling really confident in Valiant for next year and our ability to raise the bar. Hopefully, other creators and publishers take a look and try to raise the bar themselves after seeing what we’re doing.

Pierce: You talk about the “Big Two” or the “Top Three” publishers, well, we want to become the next company you talk about. For a lot of readers and retailers, we are that company. My goal is for that to continue to happen. We’re probably in Phase Three or Four of the company where it’s time where we can reach out and hit the top 100 or 200 stores each month. The truth of the matter is that for as widespread as comics are, for us, it’s all about the comic book retailer. Our goal is to do the things you don’t see on a broad level but we see on a grassroots level that will give us the ability to create deeper roots that enable to continue to move forward.

Credit: Valiant

Nrama: In spite of being a smaller publisher, Valiant has been able to secure a number of very established comic writers and artists. Who is on your “must get” list for 2015?

Simons: I can’t tell you that! [Laughter]

Pierce: Riiiiight. We’re going to tell you, and you’ll keep it a secret. And then everyone else goes after them.

I’ll tell you what: Warren happens to be the cutest and handsomest editor in the industry and that’s why all of these folk come to us. But we’re not telling you until they’re signed!

Simons: Sometimes, people think I’m in a boy band, but I’m not! It’s strange, really.

Shamdasani: I think one of the “Big Two” put him up to that question! I think this is how they try to get all of the new talent so quickly!

What we can say is that there are some people working with us right now who are just about ready to elevate up to that next level.

Nrama: Breaking into Valiant: With more news of up-and-coming talent breaking into the Big Two, how then does one get your attention?

Shamdasani: Warren loves flowers.

Simons: It’s true. I do! I bring them home to my wife, it makes me look good, and I don’t have to spend any money. It’s a win-win, really. [Laughter]

Credit: Valiant

It’s a great question. Whether you’re trying to break into Valiant, Dark Horse, Dynamite, Marvel, or DC, the main thing to do is try create work that gets published. Get it into an editor’s hands. Don’t wait for me to reach out to you to find out how to “fix” Ninjak, Bloodshot, or X-O Manowar. Marvel won’t reach out to you to fix The X-Men just like DC won’t reach out to you to fix Batman. Put stuff out there that’s in your voice that you created that you’re passionate about and shows what you can do as a writer or an artist. I think that’s the first step. Once you’re able to do that, then people in marketing, editorial, and other creators will begin to read it and pass that stuff around. Until you take that first step, it’s very hard to break in as a new writer or artist.

Nrama: What do you think caught people (or you) by surprise in 2014? What from Valiant is going to surprise readers in 2015?

Shamdasani: We knew Rai was going to be a big book, but we hadn’t expected fans to respond to it the way they have. It’s got us rethinking a lot of the things we do, and it’s got us thinking that in 2015, we’ll be able to take some real chances. For us, it’s a whole new element – working in 4001. It gives us a lot of freedom. So we essentially have two universes to play with and getting to watch them collide at some point will be a lot of fun.

Pierce: What surprised me the most in 2014 was how much I like Punk Mambo #0. It always cracks everybody up here, but when I read it, I loved it. It just struck a really sympathetic chord with me.

Simons: Fred was a really big punk guy… in the 1970s.

Pierce: Nobody here knows that, but I used to go to … um, whatever they’re called!

Simons: [Laughter] The little-known “Catskills Punk Scene,” right? He was the bass player for an underground band, right?

Shamdasani: Gefilte Fist!

Simons: Gefilte Fist and the Firebirds! [Laughter]

Pierce: Hey! I did drive a Firebird!

Simons: Okay, but back on track, I’d say Rai was a real surprise and it was also really nice to see the response to Dr. Mirage. I think people really took to that book. It was also really nice to see the reaction fans had to The Delinquents.

Credit: Valiant

Shamdasani: I’m going to say Armor Hunters as well. It’s nice to see people saying we were doing the best crossovers in the business.

Simons: Right. I think with Armor Hunters and Harbinger Wars, we’ve had a really good history with doing crossovers, so that’s always nice to hear.

But I think we will surprise people with Divinity. Matt Kindt and Trevor Hairsine are doing some really beautiful work on it, and that’s out in January after Ivar, Timewalker. I think people will also be surprised by Bloodshot Reborn – stuff that both Jeff and I think will catch readers off-guard. We’re excited for it.

Pierce: It’s our responsibility to show this, but we want people to understand that what we’re doing in Imperium is a continuation of Harbinger. It’s something a little bit different from what everybody else is doing.

Simons: There’s a sentient robot in Imperium who is beholden to Toya Harada who might be our breakout character beyond all of the other heroes. He’s got a real mouth on him, and he’s a brilliant creation from the work of Josh Dysart and Dougie Braithwaite. I’m really excited for people to meet that character.

Pierce: On some level, we’re going from strength to strength – it’s really encouraging.

Nrama: Now, there have been a variety of different problems facing the comics publishing industry. Which stands out most to you? How has Valiant addressed these concerns? How will it continue to do so in the coming year?

Pierce: I think for us the biggest problem is, with all of the other great books and companies out there, how do we – as “David and Goliath” – make ourselves a part of the original look and buy for the retailer and consumer. We go to twenty shows a year to wave the flag, and my favorite thing to hear is “This is great stuff! Why haven’t I heard of it?!” Of course, it also makes you cringe a bit since we’ve been around for two and a half years, you know. But are big goal is to figure out how we can break though the white noise that becomes a lot of what marketing is. That’s our big challenge. It’s not like we need to fix the books – they’re great. We just need to strike that sympathetic chord and become a “must buy” for everybody.

Shamdasani: Volume will be a big issue – for everybody. You’re seeing every publisher ramp up the volume of their output. You’re also seeing that from outside of comics but featuring comic characters. You’re seeing this with the movies with the Marvel and DC film slates as well as those from Fox and Sony – video games and toys as well.

The solution, and how I think Valiant factors into that, is with quality. If everything is quality, then the audience will grow, too. I think we’re doing our part by making the best possible books we can. We hear it all the time in our little corner of the industry. Many, many, many fans tells us we are the reason they read comics. They’re giving them faith in the medium, and that’s really nice to see.

Simons: I think some of the challenges in the medium are accessibility – making sure each book is an entry point for a new reader – and I think that’s something we’re doing. I also think, to a certain extent, we’re publishing weird books like Punk Mambo that are different and strange.

It’s a huge boon to have Hollywood introducing comic characters to the world, as Dinesh pointed out, but with that boon there’s also a very real danger that comics could lose some of that magnificent zaniness that’s driven it for well over fifty, sixty plus years. As you see more comics that are essentially just pitches for movies, I think there’s a danger there. It’s really important to me, then, that we’re still doing these weird and fun and strange books at the same time as we’re doing our more mainstream superhero books.

It may seem a little unpalatable right now, but certainly if we look 2, 3, or 4 years down the road from now and we’re still seeing ten or fifteen comic book movies being put out every year, it’s certainly going to affect what people are putting down on the paper over time. That is some concern.

Pierce: From our perspective, we continue to do things that are key to the industry. When you look at Harbinger: Faith #0, it’s a superhero, but she has the vulnerabilities of a normal woman, and we expose that. It’s something that’s been well received.

Simons: Yeah, I just saw an interview on a couple of the sites where Tim Burton said we need a happy superhero. [Laughter] I wanted to send him a copy of Faith #0 because what Dysart – and the creators who initially created Faith back in the day – have done a magnificent job in creating an archetype that is unique to her. She’s one of the joys of the Valiant Universe. Every time I read Faith and she’s on the page, it makes me smile. That was one of my favorite books of this year, and I’m excited about her as a character.

Pierce: She was a lot of people’s best friend in high school.

Nrama: You’re actually touching upon another issue that seems to be a major point of concern within the industry: representation. Other larger companies seem to struggle to improve diversity in creators and comic leads. Is Valiant pushing against this – how conscious of a decision was diversity when establishing your line of creators and series?

Shamdasani: We can’t take full credit for that. The original Valiant creators built the universe to be very diverse in gender, race, religion, and creed. This is something that Valiant has always been lauded for. Faith is a character that Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, Barry Windsor-Smith, David Lapham, Don Perlin, and all of those guys created that and were very good about doing so. And we’re continuing that, certainly, and continuing to create more. Punk Mambo is one such creation that continues the great work those guys did.

Simons: No, I think it’s a great point and one of the great benefits we have up at Valiant is we’ve been able to work some of the most extraordinary icons that have been created in the history of our medium. To work with creations from guys like Jim Shooter or David Lapham and Barry Windsor-Smith – some of the real titans of the industry. It’s been really nice to be able to not only step in and re-envision some of the many characters in the Valiant Universe, but also to tap into what made them so special in the first place.

Pierce: We’re a company of today. We’re not tied down to a lot of history, so we can reflect a lot of what’s going on today. And today’s readers want to see more in terms of diversity of race, gender, and perspectives.

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