It was the winter of 1812. Deep into the snow-filled depths of Russia was a contingent of French conqueror Napoleon's army attempting what would be a futile campaign against the Russians. After the heavy snow and massing Russian army taught them the error of their ways, the Napoleonic forces are in a tailspin and attempting to claw their way out of the bitter cold. Amongst those retreating are two soldiers who end up getting tasked to deliver the secret bounty that was the hidden agenda for Napoleon's stab in Russia all along. But when the falling snow brings supernatural semblances of men after this sacred object they're to protect, their job just got a lot harder. This is the comic Valentine.
The story of Valentine comes by way of Eisner-nominated writer Alex de Campi and artist Christine Larsen. de Campi, who earned an Eisner nomination early in her career for her work with Igor Kordey on Smoke, returns to comics after years directing short films and music videos (which she also continues) to take this 19th century epic to the masses in very 21st century sort of way. You won't be reading this as a print comic, no; it's online, in your pocket and on your mobile devices. Currently, Valentine is available on both the iPhone and all phones running Google's Android operating system, as well as being available for Amazon's Kindle e-reader as well as practically any other e-reader device. The only place it's not is your computer and your bookstore – yet.
Newsarama spoke with de Campi during a shoot for the band Los Campesinos! and their latest song, "Romance Is Boring".
Newsarama: This comic is a return of sorts to the world of comics for you, Alex. After doing Smoke, Kat & Mouse and Agent Boo you dropped off the map for a bit. First off – what did you do in the intervening time?
Alex de Campi: Oh, this and that. Directed two dozen music videos and a couple commercials; was shown in a bunch of film festivals; wrote two screenplays (one of which doesn't suck); began development on my first feature with one of Steven Soderburgh's co-producers; moved back to the U.S. to give hospice care to my father as he died of cancer; got married, moved to New York. There might be a few other things which have slipped my mind.
Nrama: And what brought you back to comics, and with this comic specifically?
de Campi: I always meant to do more comics. But the film thing really took over my life for a while (it still rules it, in many ways). And the places I did comics kind of went away. TOKYOPOP is a ghost of itself. Humanoids went into receivership. What I do doesn't fit into "big comics"; my work has always had a very collaborative, DIY nature to it. I also didn't want to give up any ancillary rights in the stories I write (except to the artist, of course). So you could say I struggled for a while to find a home, but that would misleadingly suggest I was actively looking. I believed for a very long time that wireless comics were Teh Futorz!!! (in fact I pitched an originated-for-wireless comic to Vertigo back in '04, to stares of blank incomprehension - "why would we want to do that?"), so doing a wireless-only comic had long been in my mind. Technology, and distributors like Comixology and Robotcomics (and even Amazon's Kindle store) had all reached point that it became clear to me that now was the time to do a wireless comic. And, even better, I could self-publish it to an extremely professional standard.
Valentine... you have to understand, I am always creating. I don't have nights off. I make things, compulsively. If it's not a story, it's an animation... and I'm often at the same time working on a story in the back of my mind. Flash back to about 2005. I’d been working the two series that, ironically, are likely to follow Valentine. They are both very personal, very disturbing stories, though most of the violence is interior rather than external. I reached a particularly tough bit in one of the stories – too many trips down the latter to the rag and bone shop of my subconscious – and I just had to put it aside for a little while and write something else.
So came Valentine. You know what new story ideas are like. So flirtatious, so attractive, such a sparkling veneer of eagerness-to-please, before you get to know them and it’s all stained knickers and intractability just like the rest. Except Valentine…. I found I could do something which encompassed Napoleon’s retreat from Russia (one of the great military tragedies/idiocies of the past 200 years), a lifelong love of fable and fairy tale, swordfights/creative action scenes, and the kind of cliffhanger pulp sensibility that had first brought me to comics’ warm embrace.
I dropped the more literary project like Hefner drops brunettes and nailed out the entire 25 episodes of Valentine over the course of three months. Had enormous fun; felt slightly dirty inside. Finished the affair in 2006 and returned to my difficult loves.
I actually put Valentine in a drawer for three years because it wrote too easy. Can’t be any good, I thought. Then, this past May, I found myself cast up on the barren and desolate shores of West Sunset, marooned in an Econolodge thanks to the stunning incompetence of a junior agent cocking up a week’s worth of meetings. I had no money, and nothing I could do but take my little pink netbook to the coffee shop and write. I had been thinking about a wireless-originated comic for some time , and something made me open up the Valentine file again. I rewrote, and thus assuaged my guilt over its facile beginnings. I also realised that, in between the fight scenes, it was a more serious and sensitive story than in my callousness I had remembered it.
Via friends, I found the Philadelphia-based artist Christine Larsen, whose skill and colours are so integral to the book, and Valentine returned to my life, full grown.
Nrama: You mentioned the big initial conceit of this book, as it follows Napoleon’s campaign into the colds of Russia back in 1812. What made this an ideal setting for the story?
de Campi: It's one of the most awesomely stupid military blunders - and tragedies - of the modern era. I've been fascinated by the 1812 campaign for a long time, ever since I saw Minard's map (http://www.zigron.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/minard.png ) in a book on visual depiction of quantitative information.
Plus, as a setting, it has a lot to offer. Human tragedy; visually stunning snowstorms; a sense of a vast army, totally disorganised and nearly all of whose horses have died, who were being picked off by Cossacks. Also, swords vs guns.
But if you're expecting to read a whole story about the steppes of Russia and Napoleon... you're not going to get it. That's all I have to say.
Nrama: It's not about that, it's about Valentine – it says so in the title. The titular character is a french soldier named Valentine Renaud. What can you tell us about him?
de Campi: Valentine's a farmboy, a youngest son of a country nobleman who was made a citizen during the Revolution. Quite literally, he's a pig-farmer's son, a Celt from Brittany. He's only 22, but he's been in the cavalry since he was 16 (by 1812, France has been at war under Napoleon for nearly a decade) so he knows how to fight. And he's seen a lot: Eylau, Austerlitz... some nasty battles. He is completely unpolished and looks to his best friend/superior officer, Oscar Levy, a suave Parisian, at all times. Oscar adores Valentine but it's one of those friendships built on slagging each other off. So they're always giving each other grief... it's mainly to hide the fact that they're both absolutely terrified, most of the time. Action with me has consequences, and is done by people who are panicking and cold and hungry and really don't want to be there. Even though these two have seen a lot of battles, it doesn't mean they want to see another one.
Nrama And he’s been tasked with carrying a special package the French took while on the Russian campaign – and episode 2 reveals it to be a sword. Maybe I’m pushing this here, but with Valentine being from Brittany and there being a special sword involved – is this a King Arthurian kind of tale?
de Campi: Hah, you should put that in white spoilertext!
de Campi: But I'm sorry to say your guess is wrong, there's not a hint of King Arthur anywhere. The tale does touch on aspects of folklore and mythology, but in a way which is more original. I do love the Arthurian stories, though; I grew up on Howard Pyle's magnificently illustrated versions. I always wanted to do a story set in that world, but about the women left behind in castles, not the knights...
Nrama: He’s on the run from some bad looking people – they could be Russians, but no Russians I’ve ever met have glowing red eyes and pale skin. What can you tell us about his pursuers?
de Campi: Nothing that won't spoil the story, sorry. I hate to be boring and give you such short answers, but the joy of a suspense/thriller are the cliffhangers, and I want to allow readers to discover them.
Nrama: Episode three just came out – when can active readers expect the fourth installment?
de Campi: Episode 04 will come out around the 15th of February, whatever Wednesday is closest to it. Basically, we're monthly, coming out circa the 15th every month.
Nrama What would you say is coming up in future installments of Valentine?
de Campi: Fighting! Romance! Really bad people! A dragon! Really, you have no idea how bonkers this story gets. It is a wild, wild ride. And I am keeping my suspense cards very close to my chest. But basically, if you like action, fighting and excitement, you'll love Valentine, because it's got some of the best fight scenes, and some of the most unexpected twists, I've ever written.
Nrama: Freshly part of the expanding digital comics environment, do you see a print edition in it’s future?
de Campi: It was always our intention to do print editions, with the hope that the digital editions would sustain our enthusiasm, keep us on a schedule, and perhaps even earn us a bit of money. There will be a circa 250-300 page full colour tankubon collection of the first 6-8 episodes (depending on where A Certain Event falls), fat enough to be racked spine-out in bookstores with prose fiction, that will come out in the autumn, hopefully. We're talking to a few publishers, both comics folks and fiction/book folks, who are keen.
The panels are drawn at a very large size, so we are able to re-edit the comic for book form, giving 1-5 panel pages so it reads like a "real" paper-originated comic, versus a wireless-originated one. We spent a long time thinking this through and planning its production, so the printed version was in there from the beginning.
Christine's going to take a break in August, after said Certain Event closes out our first of three "seasons". Because I'm like rust, I never rest, I am thinking of doing a standalone story with a different artist about Oscar and Valentine's experiences during Napoleon's campaigns. Not exactly a prequel, but something fun that more squarely addresses some of the things we touch on in the first two episodes. We'll see.
Nrama Format-wise, one of the most interesting things I see you doing with Valentine is the translations. Last I checked you had it in 12 languages – is that right?
de Campi: Thirteen live at the moment, and a fourteenth - Russian - in progress. I spend about four days straight lettering each episode, then another three days formatting. Amusingly, though, there's very little re-ballooning I have to do between languages. Everything's about the same length. (We also have great translators).
Nrama: Why was it so important for you to be able to launch in this many different languages?
de Campi: Because the non-English market is so huge. Because there are regularly *single* French BD albums and *single* Japanese manga tankubon that outsell in volume the entire US comic industry. Because I have friends all around the world, and I respect them enough to want to give them our comic in their native language. Because Big Entertainment's refusal to release media at an affordable price in an electronic format day and date around the world is what fuels piracy. Because borders are meaningless. Because we could. Because it's really fun. Because our comic looks AWESOME in Hebrew, and I get shivers of joy when I see it in Japanese.
Nrama: You mentioned several times how important your collaboration with artist Christine Larsen is, so how did this collaboration come together?
de Campi: Same way as everything about this comic came together, including the translations: I lobbed something up on Twitter; a friend from college saw it, put me in touch with the cartoonist Amy Ignatow, who knew Christine. I cannot say enough good things about Christine's talent, professionalism and general intelligence and skill. She's made this process a breeze.
Nrama: Numerous languages, numerous story ideas, and numerous ways people can read it. Can you tell us the different platforms Valentine is on currently?
de Campi: (Deep breath). Android phones, via Robotcomics. iPhones, via Robotcomics' standalone "Valentine the Comic" app, and in the Comixology store. (Side note: how awesome is it that in our electronic model, you can have several distributors on the same platform? It's like being published by DC and Dark Horse at the same time!). Kindle, via the Kindle Store. ePubs, via our website (www.valentinethecomic.com) - and thus, due to ePub folks generally all using Calibre (http://www.calibre-ebook.com/), all the eReader formats. Web, for those without futurephones or futurebooks, within the next 45 days. We're also working on being available via Smashwords at the B&N, Fictionwise and other eBook stores. And of course, print, by autumn. Honey, like the song says, we cover the waterfront. And it has paid off: with zero press or PR, we had nearly 5,000 downloads of Episode 01 across our platforms in the last 14 days of December.