Toward the end of the Valiant Entertainment panel at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo's, Valiant publisher Fred Pierce told the audience what he is aiming for with the company's imminent relaunch.
"My goal is that Valiant once again becomes the number three company in the industry," he said. "I think we have the talent to do it, I think we have the characters to do it and I think we have the company perspective, the core company group, to do that. We won't do that next year or in two years -- but four, five years from now, if we are the number five company, I won't be upset; if we are the number three company, I won't be surprised."
That sort of ambition doesn't come out of thin air; in its heyday, in the mid-1990s, Valiant was the number three comics company in the U.S. in terms of market share, and in 1993 it was named Publisher of the Year. Its prestige and sales were built on good storytelling and a strong set of characters who inhabited the Valiant Universe. The company stopped publishing comics in 1996, but in 2007, a group of investors purchased the rights to the Valiant Universe from its parent company, Acclaim Entertainment. This year, the reborn company will relaunch four Valiant Universe titles, rolling them out one at a time in a program they dubbed "The Summer of Valiant." The panel addressed their plan to create a consistent Valiant Universe, bring back the old books and market the new Valiant comics to a dual audience of longtime Valiant fans and new readers.
At the panel Pierce, along with executive editor Warren Simons, writer Robert Venditti, chief creative officer Dinesh Shamdasani and marketing and communications manager Hunter Gorinson, sketched out a vision for the new Valiant Universe based on a select set of legacy characters. "We want to reinvent every character but also stay true to the core concepts that made Valiant such great characters in the first place," Simons said. At the same time, they are planning a complex story that will connect all four titles in an overarching plot that will span over a year. "What happens in book A will have a repercussion in book B," Simons said. "Over time, particularly with 'X-O,' with 'Bloodshot' and with 'Harbinger,' we are building toward a place a year from now where everything that is happening in all our issues will have massive repercussions for where we are headed."
Gorinson went through each of the four relaunch titles in order, starting with "X-O Manowar," which will be released on May 2. The first issue will be 40 pages long and will include both a 29-page "X-O Manowar" story and a generous preview of the next title to be relaunched, "Harbinger."
"X-O Manowar" is the story of Aric of Dacia, a Visigoth who was kidnapped by space aliens. He steals a powerful suit of living armor, which enables him to escape the spacecraft and return to earth, but time has shifted and he arrives on earth in the 20th century.
Venditti sketched out his vision for the series: "It's such a great core concept, the idea of who this character is and the motivations that drive him, so I wanted to keep all that intact," he said. "I think the longtime readers will still be able to see those elements of the book that they enjoyed in the original run." At the same time, he needed to update it, so he turned to the chief antagonists, the aliens.
"In the original series you had the spider aliens," Venditti said. "I wanted to change those antagonists up and come up with something new and different that was more multi-dimensional and more fleshed out in terms of character and what their motivations are, what drives them, why they come to Earth -- and also establish characters within the aliens, who we have renamed The Vine, that you can relate to as a reader, and you can sympathize with and understand the hierarchy of this culture."
Venditti also discussed his global approach to the series. "There's probably at least a dozen plots and subplots that are established in those first 29 pages, and they might not be immediately evident to you, but 24 issues from now something will happen in the book and you will say, 'Oh my gosh, they set that up way back in May of 2012!'" he said. "It's definitely a very long term approach, thinking not just about X-O, about his throughline as a character, but about how he can connect to other characters in the Valiant universe or other characters could connect to him, and how it could all be one big tapestry."
The series features art by Cary Nord and cover art by Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic, who also redesigned X-O's suit. Djurdjevic oversees SIXMOREVODKA, a studio that does design work for movies and video games. "We didn't want to rebuild the suit so that it was completely different," said Simons, "so it was immediately clear to someone that this was X-O Manowar but it was an updated and modernized version of him."
Gorinson then tried to demonstrate the "talking cover" for "X-O Manowar" #1, but the video froze. "Using your cell phone, you scan in a QR code and it animates the mouth and it talks and Aric gives a little motivational speech about who he is in the Valiant universe," Gorinson explained.
Shamdasani said the talking cover was a way to "bang the drum hard" about the new line. "We were looking at every silly idea that we could come up with, and here was something -- with all the digital comics talk -- here was something that brought the interactivity of digital to print," he said. The QR code has been downloaded over 20,000 times, but Gorinson said said, "I think one of the ways we knew it was a success was when we shipped it out we started to get YouTube parody videos the day before the poster actually arrived in stores."
"Harbinger," written by Josh Dysart and illustrated by Khari Evans, debuts on June 6. The story revolves around a group of teenagers with psychic powers, led by Peter Stancheck, an 18-year-old who can literally enter the minds of others "I think [the original] 'Harbinger' was successful because it did things that Marvel and DC at the time weren't doing," Shamdasani said. "You had a great, rounded, realistic set of characters, facing troubles that were very modern in its time. You had a lot of scenes that were in hotel rooms and vans; you didn't have fights on moon bases." He described the updated version of the series as "dangerous," saying, "It's going to do things that you are not seeing from other publishers."
"Comic books when they are at their best are really reflecting what is going on in the times," said Pierce. "We had to be cognizant of the fact that while there are a lot of Valiant fans from 20 years ago, the comics of 20 years ago we actually thought were comics about 20 years from now, so we couldn't have the Valiant comics of today be about 20 years ago. They still have to be about 20 years from now, they still have to reflect what is going on today."
Gorinson showed off a special pullbox variant cover designed to reward those longtime readers. "Basically we face the challenge that probably 80% of the people who buy Valiant comics this year won't have read Valiant comics in the past or won't know what Valiant comics are, but 20% of the people are huge Valiant fans and haven't walked in to a comic book store for a long time," said Pierce. In order to encourage pre-orders, the publisher is offering a special pullbox variant cover at no extra charge, and Pierce said the response has been good.
Simons didn't want to talk too much about the third comic, "Bloodshot," which launches in July, for fear of spoiling the story. The comic is written by Duane Swierczynski and illustrated by Arturo Lozzi and Manuel Garcia. He did hint that the reason for the dual art team was the book's utilization of framing sequences in its storytelling. "It's really just an extraordinarily beautiful work that the guys are doing," he said. "This book is like a house on fire -- if the house is rolling down a hill and filled with dynamite. It's just nonstop action."
The fourth launch title is "Archer and Armstrong," written by Fred van Lente, penciled by Clayton Henry and due out in August. "Armstrong is one of three immortal brothers in the Valiant universe," Simons explained. "He is one of the characters that has had a very prolonged lifespan, so what he is seeing is reflective in a way of what the Valiant universe is." The Archer character has been updated, but in a way that remains true to his origins, Simons said.
The slideshow for the panel included a teaser image from Valiant's Free Comic Book Day comic, a shot incorporating several other Valiant legacy characters, including Eternal Warrior (redesigned by "Before Watchmen: Rorschach" artist Lee Bermejo) and Zephyr, one of the teenagers from "Harbinger." Simons had nothing specific to say other than "we are knee deep in the development of the next round of characters."
Pierce said that he felt the company needed four series to start out with in order to be "relevant," but that he wants to grow slowly, adding perhaps two more titles within the next year.
He also said that Valiant will be making the original comics available in a new format. "You will see all of the old product eventually digitally," he said, "and probably sooner, some of it, digitally than not, and you will see it as trade paperbacks and hardcovers," to which Gorinson added that the company is working on its digital strategy and will have an announcement to make in the coming weeks.