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Wednesday, January 07, 2015 

An article about the revived Valiant

New York's Vulture section wrote about the work now being turned out by the revived Valiant comics publisher, but as expected, it's not very challenging. It starts off with a writer telling the reporter:
“I was sick of superheroes,” comics writer Matt Kindt told me as he sipped his coffee at a midtown Manhattan café. In 2012, he was doing contract work for superhero giant DC Comics and chafing under its tight creative controls. But in the midst of his caped-crusader fatigue, his brother called him with some bizarre news: “He’s like, ‘Hey, do you know Valiant is back?’”
While superhero fatigue might be understandable, what I can't understand is why some people can't say they're sick of the increasingly poor, insular way superheroes are being scripted, with less interest in co-stars and thought balloons, or lacking them altogether, or even the mass stream of crossovers that crowd out much of the creative freedom. Even the new Valiant recently published at least one of their own, and I'm not sure why Kindt can't say he's frustrated with that too.
As a kid, Kindt had been a fan of Valiant Comics. Founded in 1989, it became the first credible threat to Marvel and DC — the so-called Big Two — in decades. Series with delightfully '90s-style titles like Bloodshot, Harbinger, and Ninjak boasted massive sales and critical acclaim. For a short while, Valiant was the third-biggest company in the industry. Then it collapsed. In 2004, after years of irrelevance, it formally dissolved. Its superheroes became historical footnotes.
Were they really a third-sized company? I don't know if you can say that so easily about a company where several titles lasted barely 4-5 years before being cancelled. Dark Horse was more successful, and even then was surely considered more of a third-largest publisher. And if sales figures weren't much more than 200,000 at the time for any title, then you can't say Valiant was such a massive seller.
So you can forgive Kindt for being baffled to hear Valiant was, in any form, “back.” He quickly learned that his old favorite characters had their own books again, with completely rebooted stories made by all-new creative teams. “I was reading Bloodshot and Harbinger again, and I was like, Wow, this is good!” Kindt said. “I guess I don’t hate superheroes. I just hate the kind of superhero books that are usually out.”
That's still pretty ambiguous. Why doesn't he just say he's disappointed with the writing efforts and especially the editors of mainstream superheroes for draining away all that was once fun, heroic and charming about them?
Today Kindt isn’t just a fan — he’s one of the company’s star writers. He’s participating in one of the strangest experiments in comics history: the resurrection of Valiant, a brand that had long been a failure and a punch line. It’s an experiment that involves message boards, mysterious auctions, time-traveling Visigoths, filthy cubicles, and Moneyball. The goal is to create a superhero universe that can challenge Marvel and DC’s supremacy. It’s an experiment that could very well fail. But right now, against all odds, it’s working.
Last time I looked, they were only selling a few thousand copies of the titles they currently publish, so however long they last, I doubt it'll register much of a challenge. The article continues to tell how the current manager, Dinesh Shamdasani, became acquainted with the original Valiant, and some of its history, and says:
Those series were abrupt game-changers for the comics industry, and they all had marvelously strange premises. There was Rai, about a samurai who protects 41st-century Japan (which is a country-size satellite floating in space). There was Bloodshot, about a former mob hit man with nanite microcomputers swimming in his blood. There was Archer & Armstrong, about a Christian zealot and an immortal alcoholic who go on wacky adventures. To make things even more enticing for fans, all of these stories took place in the same universe, with characters popping in and out of each other’s series.
The original Archer & Armstrong lasted less than 2 years and was definitely not a title I knew much about until recently, but in the original premise, Obadiah Archer fled from allegedly religious parents who'd committed child molestation and tried to murder him to conceal their crimes. The remake isn't as nasty, but is still pretty biased towards Christians, and a pretty cheap premise when you consider all the more challenging possibilities that could've been tried out.

However, Vulture does explain what brought down Valiant pretty fast:
By the end of 1992, industry trade magazine Wizard reported that seven of the ten best-selling comics of December were Valiant series. By the end of 1993, Valiant had two of the top 10 best-selling series of the year, and five in the top 50. Just two years after launching their original superhero line, they had roughly half of DC's market share. The Valiant Era was in full swing.

But it wouldn't last. Valiant had helped inflate a now-infamous speculators’ bubble in the comics industry. Every month brought more silly promotional schemes from Marvel, DC, Image, and Valiant: Readers were told to collect and resell “special edition” printings of issues, “collectors’ edition” issues were held up as an investment item, and comics shops popped up all over the U.S. just to cash in on the trend. The bubble slowly burst and the industry fell into a horrible slump in the late ’90s. Valiant’s investors sold it to a video-game company called Acclaim. There was a failed attempt at a reboot in 1996. Scattered issues trickled out until 2002, when publication ceased. Acclaim went defunct in 2004.
As far as business steps are concerned, there you have it, that's why they fumbled so quickly at the height of their success. They could've steered clear of the speculator market, but instead, they succumbed to desperation. And maybe this holds a clue to the real truth about their sales receipts: did they really sell in spectacular numbers, close to a million? Highly unlikely.

When the article gets around to how Shamdasani began organizing and hiring after buying the rights to the characters and such, they say:
First came a crop of editors and executives who left Marvel after Disney bought it in 2009. Ever the salesman and fanboy, Shamdasani persuaded them that Valiant could offer more creative freedom than they’d ever had. Then came the creators. The early artist and writer recruits — people like Robert Venditti, Josh Dysart, Patrick Zircher, and Clayton Henry — weren’t household names, and they’d been slaving away at Marvel and DC.
IIRC, they recently published a new crossover based on an older one called Unity, and I'm not sure that proves serious creative freedom. What it does prove is that they're hoping for more dollar bills to put in their wallets. But company wide crossovers, in this age of 4 dollar cover prices, does no favors for consumers, so if they're smart, they'll end the mega-events now, and not act as though Marvel and DC's MO is a healthy way to do business.
Astoundingly, the Summer of Valiant campaign worked. X-O Manowar No. 1 sold more than 42,000 copies, making it the second-biggest-selling independent comic of the month (the first, as is always true, was Image’s The Walking Dead). The other debuts were all among the top three indie comics of their respective months. For a brand that hadn’t put out a comic in a decade, those numbers were incredible.
42,000 is still pretty weak compared to the numbers a movie made by small studios turns out. Even movies and music tapes make millions compared to the new X-O Manowar, so why tout those paltry numbers as a true victory?
What’s more, the comics press ate it up. “It has to be said, as someone who read and loved the original X-O Manowar series: this is better,” IGN wrote in its review of the first issue. Comic Book Resources said Harbinger No. 1 was “exciting and feels new in a way that few comics about characters with superpowers manage these days.” The reviewers seemed as surprised as they were delighted.
This leaves out an important query: did they give positive reviews because they really do think they're written well, or, is it just "diplomacy" and a feeling they have to be automatically favorable to every company in business because the industry's survival is crucial above all else? Say, why didn't the Vulture reporter give his opinions here about the new output?
And perhaps most important, Valiant is dependable. As of this month, it's put out 18 different comics series, comprising 202 individual comics issues, and every single one of them has shipped on time — something unheard of for the Big Two. Valiant tries to offer comics that match any potential reader’s preferences: There are team books, solo books, sci-fi books, supernatural books, and so on.
In modern times, this is true. DC and Marvel have had cases of late books, with Kevin Smith's disastrous Black Cat miniseries a notorious example, for more reasons than one. But there was a time when both companies did turn out their books on time, and delays were very rare. Why couldn't Vulture be more specific?
“I know when I pick up a Valiant book I'm going to get my $3.99's worth out of the story,” Dan Pittman, a longtime comics reader, told me. “I think [there’s] a focus more on just the comics themselves and less on marketing pushes for movies and big events and other things that DC and Marvel are guilty of.”
Interestingly enough, I think the guy's right. There may have been talk of hopes to become movie material a few years ago, but that's faded away, so there's one plus, and if they refrain from the tug of merchandise and movie mania, they'll prove it's the storytelling that matters and not toys and video games, like the original company sank into.
However, he thinks Valiant still has a big hurdle to overcome: “The only knock I have against them right now is the lack of diversity that is cropping up in their line, both in terms of characters and the creatives behind them.” He has a point: Few of its titles star women (and the ones that do are either team books or limited series), and its creative staff is overwhelmingly male.

Even Kindt, who’s currently writing three Valiant series, thinks his company has catching up to do on diversity. He recalled going to his first Valiant writers’ retreat, which was “maybe six or seven guys, and the first thing we said was, ‘We need to get a woman in here, it's ridiculous.’”

Shamdasani agrees that gender diversity is a concern. “We don’t have an equal split of male and female creatives or male and female talent [in the comics industry],” he said. “And I think because certain publishers are owned by large corporations, there are certain demands on them from an optics point of view. They value more highly female talent, and so they pay more for female talent, and they more aggressively court them. So it’s been very difficult.”
Well I'm glad they didn't start complaining that more characters with an emphasis on skin color or being LGBT are needed in this new universe they're setting up, because that's all the mainstream seems to care about now, and it's overshadowed the debates about writing quality tremendously.
Valiant may still lag behind the Big Two in sales, but Shamdasani says he’s playing the long game. Standing in his office, surrounded by the piles of documents and comics that litter his train wreck of a desk space, he told me his ambition: “Being the third-biggest publisher in the business is our goal. Hopefully in five, ten years, whatever it takes, we'll get there.”

“We have yet to have a big flop,” he said, beaming. “It’ll come. I’m sure it’ll come. But it hasn’t come yet.”
They may not have had a title that flopped per se yet, but their sales receipts are nothing to write home about. Last November, they had a number of titles selling for less than 10,000 copies. Whatever buzz they generated since their revival a few years ago, it's worn off pretty quick. They don't just lag behind Big Two sales, they crawl.

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Obadiah Archer ran away from murderous, child-molesting, "religious" (i.e., Christian) parents. But don't hold your breath waiting for Kamala Khan to run away from an arranged marriage, Sharia law, or "jihad by sex."

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