C2E2 Interview: Shamdasani and Simons Fly Like VALIANT Into 2016

At this year’s C2E2 convention in Chicago, if one publisher took center stage — on the floor and on the page — it was Valiant Entertainment. With new mini-series like Faith (now announced as an ongoing series) and 4001 A.D., as well as successful relaunches of older properties like Archer and Armstrong and Bloodshot, Valiant is poised to take the rest of 2016 by storm, and it’s not an accident. With years of curating and careful planning, CEO Dinesh Shamdasani and Editor-in-Chief Warren Simons talked to Comicosity about how they got where they are today as a rejuvenated publisher, what keeps the momentum going, and where we might see them go next!

FAITH_ONGOING_001_COVER-A_WADA

Cover art by Kevin Wada

Matt Santori: Four years after relaunching Valiant, do you think you’re where you wanted to be? Has your path changed any? What are your thoughts today?

Dinesh Shamdasani: We’re happy! We’re super happy!

Warren Simons: I think we’re ahead of where we thought we’d be.

DS: Yes, certainly in terms of numbers and creative teams and ideas, we couldn’t have dreamed of being in the place we’re at now.

WS: Yeah, we’re super happy. To be honest, I don’t think our strategy has changed. We’ve not tried to force 20 books a month into the marketplace. Or double-shipped. Or done a weekly book, or anything like that.

What we have done is just tried to build books, slowly and meticulously, that are pound for pound the best books in the industry. That’s our goal.

DS: Every decision we made before we launched was in pursuit of quality storytelling. And every decision we make today is again, still in the pursuit of quality storytelling.

MSG: What do you look for in the title slate? You’ve expanded over time, but what kind of mix of type of book are you looking for?

WS: When we launched, we had X-O Manowar (sci-fi), Harbinger (teen drama), Archer and Armstrong (buddy comedy), and Bloodshot (action). So, I don’t think we’ve tried to drill down on one genre and dig into that.

What we’re just looking for is a great story. When something comes along like Divinity — which is one of our biggest hits with five printings on the first issue, eleven total on the first four — that has organic success, we’re really happy. But we’re not sitting down and saying, “OK. We need a sci-fi book here. What have we got?”

We just try to look at our creators and see what organically comes out of the process. The universe kind of moves in its own way, too. The Valiant will lead to Bloodshot. And Bloodshot will lead to something else.

We try to let our creators create.

FAITH_ONGOING_001_VARIANT_KANO

Variant cover by Kano

DS: And we listen to the characters. Sometimes, a character will come in and brighten up the place. A character like Faith comes in and suddenly the universe is more optimistic than it would have been had she not been there.

WS: Jody Houser did an extraordinary job with the Faith pitch, and Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage are drawing the hell out of it. Faith has clearly been one of break-out hits this year. It’s nice to have an archetype that’s not a grizzled anti-hero that doesn’t want to kill, but has to kill, and drowns his sorrows in a pint of beer. It’s nice to have someone who represents wide-eyed optimism.

DS: Especially for Warren, because that’s really his daily routine. [laughs]

WS: Yeah. I mean, I wake up every morning, and someone has to die by 8:00 am. But after that, I can just get on with my day.

DS: But from a genre standpoint, I think we do look at it and ask, “What can we do that’s not out there in the market?” Marvel and DC have a very specific brand, and they replicate that brand in most of their books. We try to be very diverse. With Valiant, you see espionage, romance, period, in addition to sci-fi, action, and comedy.

Comedy is something that we do really well. It’s a big part of our line, and it’s not something you see in a lot of other comic universes.

The other thing we do pay attention to is how we approach our character creation and updating characters. We hope that the fans come to what we do and say, “I can’t believe they made this guy a super-hero.” That it’s something they haven’t seen before. Or something crazy.

Variant cover by Cary Nord

Variant cover by Cary Nord

WS: It’s about innovation. We’re always trying to innovate. We always try to be on the cutting edge. And the organic process plays a big part in that.

And honestly, we’re working with characters that were created by some of the greatest creators in the history of our medium, whether that’s Barry Windsor Smith or Jim Shooter or David Lapham. We had a very talented crew of creators who started all this, and we’re able to tap into that.

MSG: Do you feel like you’ve reached a limit on the things you’ve gone back to from the original publishing history or are there still things you’re looking to mine?

DS: AH. How to answer this without giving away spoilers?!?!

WS: I think we have a very deep bench. I don’t think we’ve mined everything, not by a long shot. I think there’s a ton of stuff left.

But by the same token, people forget, we’re not even four years old yet. When we first got up here, people didn’t know if we could relaunch X-O Manowar, Harbinger, Bloodshot, or Archer and Armstrong and do a good job with it. But we did. And we also launched new characters like Faith, and gave her a new title. And we have a bunch of other stuff down the pipeline. I think it’s a balance.

DS: When we launched we had a very big goal in mind. We had to relaunch our big characters, the ones fans wanted to see. We weren’t stupid. We knew that the original Valiant creators did good work, so we went back to their origins, changed what we needed to, but kept a tremendous amount. It wasn’t about ego for us.

And then the second wave was when we expanded upon that. We brought more of the original Valiant characters back into the fold and made more changes, because those were the characters that needed more change.

Cover art by Clayton Crain

4001 AD Cover art by Clayton Crain

And now we’re at a place where we’re able to build the mythology. The next phase of where we are starts with Divinity, Book of Death, and what we’re doing with Faith. It’s pure creation. I think you’re going to see the balance shifting to equal parts of mining the old characters and creating new things. It’s super exciting.

WS: I think something else we tried to do is look more at the first incarnation of Valiant and less at the Acclaim version of Valiant, which really deviated from the origins of the characters. I think when you have a character that’s been propelled over 40, 50, or 60 years, whether its Wolverine or Superman, really drilling in on the core concept of that character and what made them great in the first place — and not deviating from that concept — is a sound approach.

For example, when we started developing X-O Manowar with Robert Venditti, one of the things we were looking at was how he talked. What would he have sounded like? What was Divine’s motivation? It was important to keep the essence of what made it great, but then just modernize it a little bit.

You don’t want to stray too far, but you do want to put your own fingerprint on it. Do Armor Hunters. Do Planet Death. Do stories that haven’t been told before, so that you’re not telling the same stories over and over and over again.

DS: There are great things in the Acclaim Universe though. Like Quantum and Woody, for instance.

WS: Oh yeah! It’s really about trying stuff out and seeing what resonates with fans. It’s sort of like putting Daredevil in a suit of armor didn’t work. But that doesn’t mean it diminishes what Daredevil is today. I just think we try to be judicious in what we try out.

Art by Clayton Crain

Art by Clayton Crain

MSG: You’ve talked a bit about Faith. There are two other books I wanted to narrow in on that have risen to the top in recent months: Bloodshot and Archer and Armstrong.

WS: Jeff Lemire has done an exceptional job with Bloodshot, essentially telling the story of a soldier recovering from PTSD in a super-hero genre — and by creating Bloodsquirt, a cartoon possessing him. It’s kind of genius! And of course having Mico Suayan and Butch Guice and Kano and Lewis LaRosa — a host of extraordinary artists contributing to the mythology — we just couldn’t be prouder.

I mean, we open up issue #1 and Bloodshot is there drowning his pain in drugs and alcohol. With no abilities. There aren’t too many publishers that would have done what we did there. I think it’s a testament to the creative environment we give our writers and artists. And also our editors.

DS: Faith was honestly the first big hit from any publisher in 2016, and now we have A&A too. It comes after a very very venerated run, which came after a very very very venerated run from Barry Windsor Smith. So, we have some really big shoes to fill. But the fan reaction has been phenomenal. Reviews have been phenomenal. It’s been selling like crazy at the booth here. People have been loving Davey the Mackerel. [laughs]

WS: Rafer Roberts and David LaFuente have been doing a phenomenal job. We couldn’t be happier. There’s a real Monty Python/surrealist vibe from the original series that Rafe and David are really tapping into.

DS: The world’s most worldly man and the world’s most idealistic man, together? It’s a great concept that all these great creators built for us.

MSG: Speaking of David, the big news of late is that you brought 15 artists on board with exclusive contracts…

DS: Correction: we made public 15 of our exclusive roster. Notice how I worded that. [laughs]

Art by Clayton Crain

Art by Clayton Crain

WS: It’s been four years of a lot of hard work and we’ve brought in a lot of great creators. We wanted to recognize their contributions. Our writers and our artists are everything. I feel like we’ve really built a murder’s row here, and it’s reflected in the quality of the books.

DS: I’ve gotten a lot of emails lately from other publishers — and I didn’t expect it — saying, “I can’t believe I’m not going to have a chance to work with that guy because of you.” That’s the PG-13 version of the emails, by the way. [laughs] It’s interesting to see the reaction.

MSG: Last thought I had: a lot of publishers don’t talk about their sales at all or their strategy about the markets that they’re trying to reach. From direct market to digital to bookstore. Any final thoughts about how you’re approaching your market reach?

DS: Sure! We’ve always been really candid about our sales. Part of it is because we want to be transparent and that’s how we’re comfortable running our business. And part of it is because of the fans, and we want them to know how we’re doing.

From what we’ve seen, the direct market has grown. Year over year, we’ve grown, and last year more than ever before. Now, we’ve talked to a lot of retailers and they’re saying they’re not seeing that across the board, but we’re one of the few bright lights they have in terms of publishers that are growing. We’re not exactly sure why that is, but we’re going to just continue to put out the best books we can.

In terms of digital, we’re very happy with how we’re doing. I believe we have a higher percentage of digital than most publishers, from what I’ve seen. I think our fans are a little more tech-savvy, and there’s a more even split between men and women than for other fan bases, probably because of the diversity of the universe.

And then for the mass market, we’ve very specifically stayed away until now. That’s because we only wanted to get into things we knew we could succeed in. We have had a long term plan. We don’t want to go in and not annihilate, you know?

We also wanted the chance to build up a back catalog, and now you can see we have a very robust back catalog of books. We’re very proud of every trade paperback we’ve ever put out. There’s nothing that we feel like we wouldn’t want someone to have as their first Valiant book.

So in this next year, we’re going to be serious about pushing into the mass market and bringing fans into the Valiant Universe that don’t come into comic book stores on a weekly basis.

WS: As they say, slow and steady wins the race.

 

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