This weekend was kind of a big one for Valiant Entertainment, as their first film - Bloodshot - debuted in theaters.
While Valiant's main goal is about making comics, there's something to one of those comics being adapted into film - with Vin Diesel starring in it, no less - and that's not lost on Publisher Fred Pierce. Even though he's been through a lot and seen a lot at Valiant.
Pierce is one of the Valiant stalwarts - from 1990 to 1994 he was the company's Director/VP of Manufacturing & Operations, and then he rejoined in 2009 as the company prepped for its eventual 2012 relaunch. Inbetween that he was COO/President of Wizard for another 14 years, so he's seen two sides of the business.
Newsarama visited Pierce at Valiant' New York City offices, to talk about recent and upcoming events - as well as the larger picture that he has with this 30-year career in comics.
Newsarama: Fred, how did you fall in love with the comic book industry?
Fred Pierce: It's funny because I fell in love with comics after I was assigned to the comic book industry. I was working for a venture capital company, who had invested money in Valiant and in the late 1980s and early 1990s it wasn't running from a business perspective as smoothly as one would like I will say carefully. They put me in, in May of 1990, just for the summer, to straighten it out. It's been a very long summer. This May will be 30 years I'm in the comic book industry.
The original Valiant had a lot of legends in the comic book industry involved, and I had a great introduction to the comic book industry. I worked with Bob Layton who we're still friends to this day. Don Perlin, we’re still friends to this day. Kevin VanHook, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Joe Quesada - first breaking into the industry then and they taught me a lot about the comic book industry. I knew writing, I knew a bit of writing, but they taught me a lot about the comic book industry. Clearly, I knewnew Jim Shooter and Barry Windsor-Smith. So, there's very few people in the industry who could have taught me in the industry better. So, I had a very hands on course and it was very hard not to fall in love with the industry.
We started the Valiant universe at that time, so we were intimately involved in starting a new universe from scratch. I don't know if any of the universes have been done that way. Clearly DC didn't and Marvel didn't. They didn't start as a cohesive universe at first.
So, that’s I fell in love with the comic industry. I've worked in a lot of industries. I’ve worked in education, banking, I've non-profits. The people involved in the comic book industry are as smart as anyone in any of the industries I’ve work with, and I was working with presidents of banks, and the people in the comic book industry are as smart as any of them. It's very enticing to see that every day.
Nrama: What do you think is the secret to Valiant’s longevity, and ability to come back from the proverbial dead?
Pierce: The secret to our current success is - I know everyone wants to think story, this is the Valliant fans. We had a cadre of fans who remain Valliant fans through - Valiant went on a hiatus for a while when Acclaim went out of business. It was then bought back by two Valliant fans, Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari - who just loved it.
But there were a whole group of fans, before we even launched the first set of comic books from 2012 - they were playing poker all through that time at Comic-Con International: San Diego. We'd play poker with them. they knew me because if you're Valiant fan you know my name because I was involved in the 90s and on. One of them threatened my life, he said, "If the books aren't as good now as they were then I'm going to get you!" and he was some kind of special forces guy. I have my own background in those things. So, I told him "I'm not really afraid..." but I got his point.
We had thousands of ambassadors throughout the industry even before we launched - that's really our secret weapon. The other part of the secret weapon is probably a third of the people who own comic book stores today grew up at that time when Valiant launched, and if you walk into a lot of the comic book stores they are Valiant fans. So, it helps us tremendously in that the people who are on the front line, the retailers, they're the ones who promoted us right from the beginning, especially those who knew us.
Nrama: Speaking on retailers, what is your relationship like with them? As a comic book company, what do you try to do for the retailer?
Pierce: We are the most aggressive company in terms of sales and marketing to the retailers. We have the largest sales and marketing department, clearly the largest sales department of any company, including Marvel and DC. We’re on the phone with them constantly.
We contact hundreds of retailers a month, thousands a year, and wherever there's a con we'd go to the store and we speak to them. Whenever I go traveling, I will walk into a store and check out what's going on and speak to them. Free Comic Book Day, everyone in the company goes out to the stores. The sales department usually sends me to the store furthest away from where I live just to make sure that it'll be a pain for me. [Laughs]
If there are ant retailers that are reading this, who we haven't contacted, get in touch with our sales department – they’ll be in touch with you. You cannot walk into a comic book store without feeling the presence of Valiant, whether it's standees, posters, or bookmarks and any of those things. We make a much larger footprint and have a much larger voice in the comic book stores than you would believe for the size of the company we are.
Nrama: Looking at the comic book industry as a whole, there have been many indie companies that have been focusing their efforts on graphic novels, skipping floppies all together. How important are trades sales to Valiant? Do you see your company doing the same?
Pierce: The more the industry switches away from monthly sales the more we're hurting ourselves as an industry. The beauty of the comic book industry is this social aspect. Why comic books continued to thrive and grow as opposed to let's say science fiction and some of the others - it's only because of the comic book stores. The 'Wednesday Warrior' goes into the comic book store for that monthly book. They need that monthly fix.
If you're telling somebody that they don't have to read a comic or they don't have to read a story for four or five or six months, where's the sense of urgency? We, as a company, have a tremendous sense of urgency. Valiant from the 1990s to today has never shipped late. We have to have a sense of urgency with that kind of a story process.
So, if you're telling me that you could do a graphic novel, how are we any different than anything else? We write our stories in such a way that every month is important, that every issue is important. You have the big opening and you have the cliffhanger - it all comes together as a story.
But if you're going to do a graphic novel, that's very nice, I could buy it next week, I could buy it next month. But if you're not pushing through the comic book stores, you're missing the whole attention that you get from that comic book store and from the social aspect.
I think that the more that I hear people pushing graphic novels, I've had this argument with publishers, I think we're really hurting ourselves and we're hurting the comic book industry. The key to the comic book industry is the retailer.
Nrama: There’s a second part to this question. A lot of creators are moving towards graphic novels because of the harm piracy has brought to the industry and the opportunity to open their product to more bookstores. Is this something Valiant thinks about with their books?
Pierce: They key to our success is the comic book stores. Are we in bookstores? Of course, we are in bookstores. Are we going to be on Amazon? Of course, we are going to be on Amazon. Over the years, I've spoken to a lot of indie publishers, guys looking to launch and a lot of the people who have very successful companies in the industry. I remember when they started and we had these conversations.
You can't avoid pirating. I think the biggest problem most indie publishers have is nobody cares to pirate their stuff. It's not pirating, but you have to make people care about your stuff. There are four or five, 600 titles coming out a month? How are you making people care about your stuff? The way you make people care about your stuff is through the comic book stores, marketing.
We have a distributor, with Diamond, that is phenomenal. Okay? They treat us phenomenally well. They help promote us. They're always asking, how can we serve the comic book stores better? So, if you're not using that channel, if you're not using the retailers, it's very hard for an indie publisher to make it big. I think a lot of indie publishers are creating things people don't care about and then they blame the audience for not caring about it. You have to find what the audience cares about.
I have the luck of anybody who's worked at Wizard Magazine, because I worked for Wizard for 14 years where we had a global look at what was going on in the world. I can't tell you how many times new publishers would come over to me and come over to us and talk about all the stuff that was going on and nobody cared, nobody did anything. And you know that, people who work in diamond understand that too.
The key to indie publishers is find out what your audience wants and give it to them. If you have a particular voice and you have a particular thing you want to say, you have to have that voice and do that in a way that your audience will respond. How do you make sure that the retailer amplifies your voice? And I think that's the problem that indie publishers have. So, I don't believe in pirating. In terms of - it's always been there. It's easier now to pirate than it ever was. But at the end of the day you're going to stand or fall by how much people care about your work.
Nrama: How do you cater to different demographics - whether it be age, gender, ethnicity, etc.?
Pierce: I don’t think Valiant has ever catered to anything like that. When we launched Valiant in 2012 we had one mantra: "We're about 20 years from now, not 20 years ago." If people thought of us as a nostalgia brand, we would be doomed.
The DNA of Valiant, and I was part of that original DNA, had people like let's say Faith ... who wasn't your typical superhero. She took joy in being a superhero. She had a body type that most superheroes didn't have. We never mentioned that in the books, it's just there. We just got a new intern today, when I asked her why she wanted to come to Valiant and to be an intern she said because she read Faith, she loved it, and found out who the publisher was.
One of the funniest questions I ever had on a panel, and I've had a lot, somebody stood up, and said aren't you pandering by having the Faith character? This is two, three years ago, and I said, we're not pandering our Faith character is 25 years old, you finally caught up to her. And that's Valiant, and that's value in today.
So, what do we write about and who do we hire? We’ll hire somebody like Vita Ayala and they write a story that they want to write, and it's a great story so we can publish it. But if it wasn't a great story, it wouldn't be there. If we didn't think it had a voice in today's world, it wouldn't be there. So, we're not looking to do that. It just so happens in the mix of what's in the zeitgeists of the comic book industry. We don't have to answer it to big corporations.
If somebody brings us something that we want, basically in a week we can put, we can publish it. We don't have a big corporation on top of us. DMG has been a phenomenal partner in all of that. They like to think of us as the owners, but we think of them as partners. They've been a phenomenal partner. And I was just speaking to Dan Mintz last week when I was in California and they just want to make sure we were doing what's great for the comic book industry.
Because we have that kind of relationship, I can do anything I want. So, if it's a great story and it happens to fit what's in today, in terms of social action, great. And if it's a straight superhero story, great. And if it's something that's happening on another planet in another world, and it has nothing to do with whatever we're saying, excellent.
And I think that's the secret to our success today because we're a truly independent universe with the third largest universe after Marvel and DC. And that the corporate structure that we have is very supportive. They’ve allowed us to do what is true to the comic book industry. You’ll never hear we are pandering. You’ll never hear that we're doing anything that's not 100% true to the comic book industry. And those are my marching orders from above.
They’ve always been the big financial backers, but two years ago when when Dan took over the company, almost two years to the day, he just said, "Do what you're doing." It's why he loved what we were doing and didn't want us to change. So, that’s how freedom comes. So, to answer to your question, we just do whatever we think is the best story.
Nrama: You’ve had many big names on your titles. How do you scout for new talent?
Pierce: For the most part, the editors have their contacts. Writers who have worked with us have their contact. I believe the talent community appreciates what we're doing. So, most of the talent we have a good reputation with, if not all, I wouldn't say all because you know, one person says well you don't have good reputation with me.
But it’s really through the editors. I try not to get involved. I don't know as much about the talent than the editors do, marketing will do it. Gregg Katzman, marketing manager, will say "Look, I read this!" or Matthew Klein will say we like what this guy has, we'll read something or "I like what this guy's writing." "I like the way this person draws."
Recently, because I've been in the industry a long time, Paul Levitz, the ex-editor in chief of DC, for years we would talk "Yeah, when I'm free," and he was free. So, he wrote The Visitor's story for us, which is wonderful. It's a small industry, as big as the industry is, it's a small industry. Everybody knows everybody for sure.
Nrama: Taking a time machine back to 2012, what was the processing of re-branding Valiant?
Pierce: The first part of that rebranding the company was we had to figure out what the company was going to be? So, we had a base of what the company is, and we knew what the company is - I was part of it. So, I knew the DNA of the company. Jason and Dinesh, were huge Valiant fans in the day, and they had their concept of what the company was.
We brought Warren Simons in, and Warren had a big voice on what the company would be, he had been a Marvel editor. So together we formed what we thought the company would be. Then they hired some great writers to set the tone. We took chances on some of the writers, some of the writers hadn’t written serial fiction before. Then we took off. We gave ourselves a year, which really wasn't a lot of time.
Another funny story was, why is it taking so long? And I'm going, I think you'll find if you're launching a company from scratch in a year – and the other thing we did was the way we launched a company, I think we made it easier for people to find. For the first four months, we launched a new book as we went.
I think all of that together with the thought that we really are about today in the future, and that was very hard, because when you have this old tug of very successful company done by creative geniuses. I mean Jim Shooter, Bob Lane, and Barry Windsor-Smith, these are creative geniuses. These are people who are legends in the industry, irrespective of Valiant. Kevin Van Hook - and they were all very much involved in the industry today.
It was a very magical time then, and we wanted to recreate that magical time. There was the energy - the room would buzz in the early 1990s, and we have that here. It's just everybody works hard and everybody plays hard. So, we don't really look over each other's shoulder and I think that really sets the tone and that was the tone we set right from the beginning.
Nrama: How do you feel like the overall comic book industry can improve?
Pierce: The comic book industry has to be more vocal about what it is and how it is. The beauty of comic book industry today is that it's ubiquitous. You do not go to the movies without feeling the comic book industry. You don't feel video games without feeling the comic book industry. So, the comic industry is an industry that has taken over.
I used to run conventions for Wizard, and there were a nice few conventions around, San Diego is the biggest and Wizard then ran the four of the closest size. Then ReedPOP comes in, huge company, and they were very good about asking what the industry was. So, they run great conventions for the industry. The comic book industry is huge today. There are three or four conventions every weekend, and there are some huge comic book conventions. So, when you talk about the comic book industry, the comic book industry has grown exponentially.
I love the Big Bang Theory. Okay. I can't tell you how many people in the comic book industry hate the Big Bang Theory, but it's great for us. Here are brilliant people who are into comic books. I buy that. I don't have a problem with that. And brilliant people do buy comic books. Your top readers are comic book readers.
So, when we're talking about what can the comic book industry do, I think when you're asking a question you're not asking about the industry because when you're asking about the industry, you're not asking about the movies or the conventions. You're asking about ink on paper comics and the comic book stores. I think that's your question, but the industry is doing phenomenal. The industry has grown by leaps and bounds from this little quiet industry in the 1990s that I walked into to what it is today.
The industry is doing fine. I think that we have to make access to the ink on paper, monthly books much easier, that requires a lot of work. People who are going into the stores need to be ambassadors for their friends to come into the stores. But the stores have gotten much better. You walk into a comic book store, they're very modern, they're very well lit.
They have a lot of diverse product. They have products for kids, products for women. Um, I don't know if you saw that in the 90s as much. Also, if you look at the cons, I don't think I'm exaggerating, by saying they were 90% male, now they're 50% male, 60% male. But there's a lot of people walking around the cons and they are normal looking people. I just mean when you are walking around a comic book convention, you're walking around America. It's wonderful to see. You see mothers walking around with their kids without the fathers and you see fathers with the kids. I can't tell you how many babies I’ve seen, and I'm the baby whisperer, that have walked in front of our booth. I take them, quiet them down, and I give them back to the mother.
It's just because the comic book industry is huge. How do we funnel everything that's happening back into the comic book stores is the challenge? I don't think any of us have an easy answer. Part of it will be that we have to make sure that the conventions do that to a bigger extent than they do. I think we have to make sure that when people see a Spider-Man or Batman movie, they know that they're actually based on comic books because I have a feeling, as strange as it sounds, a lot of people don't know, even Spider-Man and Batman.
Nrama: Do you believe comics should have a high number count or keep it at let’s say 12 issues and then relaunch the title?
Pierce: I think X-O Manowar hit 50. So, we've done what you said, and I think it's great, but the problem is if I have X-O #1 through #50, that's one of my slots. So that means you're not going to do a new book. You're not going to relaunch a book that we've put on hiatus for a while. We're a universe of the 30 families, 2000 characters.
We took an old story, Doctor Tomorrow, and rewrote it. Alejandro Arbona was an editor here, and he knew the universe well enough that he could write it. So, this was something from the 90s. We had a title, we owned the trademark and it was relaunched - The Visitor, it was relaunched. You're investing so much energy in terms of editorial resources, writing resources, drawing resources, marketing resources, and sales resources that we have to husband everything we do very closely. It has to be a mix of things that the retailers, readers will want, then very often it’s just something that we like.
Nrama: From a sales perspective, what was the difference between a XO Manowar #51 compared to an #1?
Pierce: Sales are always important. You can't say sales aren’t important, but stories are more important. We have the luxury of being in a situation where if it's a great story, we'll go with the great story. And when you're deciding how to promote a book, and what resources we'll put into promoting a book – going okay I think this will sell this amount. We knew Bloodshot would be a big hit. We had Tim Seeley on it and Brett Booth, Lysa Hawkins, our editor, got a great story together so we knew it was going to be a big book. We put a lot of resources behind it.
Other stores are smaller stories and we’ll put the same resources behind smaller stories. Let’s say we're going to have four big promotions a year. What are those four books? Then you have other books that are a little bit smaller. I as a publisher need to decide that early on and I have to have a conversation with the editorial sales, and marketing staff. We love the story. It doesn't have the same audiences as a Bloodshot. The Visitor is a great book, it's not going to have the same audience as a Bloodshot. You have to deal with it that way. The Visitor, which is six issues, will live forever in a graphic novel form. Then eventually it'll be made into a TV show, movie, or something like that. It’s a great comic as a comic, but we are hoping it will be something else too.
Nrama: And in some cases the secondary market for a title goes up when its adapted to other media.
Pierce: Look at The Walking Dead, it’s your perfect example. It was your small black and white book that I think sold 5,000 - give or take 2000. Anybody who owns that book today sold it and bought a house, and that’s the beauty. You bought it because you liked it and then you happened to get into the fringe benefit of it being worth more money. You should always buy things because you like reading them. But if anybody wants to buy a Valiant comic as an investment, feel free, go ahead.