When Valiant Comics officially relaunched last year, they did so with intentions of being more than just a cheap nostalgia act. Although the publisher has been trafficking exclusively in the original properties they did twenty-something years ago, they are, for all intents and purposes, a brand new company. Valiant has truly found new, modern spins on their old characters and concepts, showing that they do have something to contribute in the current comic book marketplace. Indicative of that fact, Valiant is about to publish its first crossover of this new era, entitled Harbinger Wars. This crossover event between Bloodshot and Harbinger sets the forces of Project: Rising Spirit (the intelligence organization responsible for creating the titular nigh-unkillable mercenary Bloodshot, who's looking for answers about his past) and the incredibly powerful Toyo Harada and his Harbinger Foundation against each other. Both factions have also vied with the young super-powered Peter Stanchek and his group of Renegades, who will also play a part in the crossover.
Harbinger Wars is being promoted by Valiant as a particularly explosive event, and the company invited The Outhouse up to their offices on the west side of Manhattan to talk about the story. There, we encounted a close-knit group of about fifteen employees in a cozy office decorated by artwork from Valiant's past and future, comics arranged wherever there's a bit of shelfspace, and a palpable sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm. Sitting down for an interview with The Outhouse were Publisher Fred Pierce, Director of Marketing and Communication Hunter Gorinson, the pink sweater-clad Head of Sales Atom! Freeman ("It's more of a salmon...it does wonders for my skin tone"), and Assistant Editor Josh Johns. The four staffers talked about the process of putting Harbinger Wars together, as well as the big picture of the Valiant Universe, and why retailers wanted to give them an award.
Note: This interview was conducted before Valiant's recent announcement of a new ongoing title, Quantum & Woody, launching this July. Quantum & Woody Editor Jody LeHeup was unavailable to participate in this interview.
Fred Pierce, Publisher (FP): I think that it was sort of decided from the beginning. When we did the overarching beats of what's going to happen, it was obvious that these two titles were on a collision course. We wanted, from a publishing point of view, that everyone could read the titles on their own for a while, but it made no sense that these characters, in the universe they are [in], looking for the resources they are looking for, wouldn't clash. It had to happen about now, and it was working well, now that we've been around for about a year.
Josh Johns, Assistant Editor (JJ): From a storytelling standpoint, it was completely organic. If you look at the first page, I believe Page 1 Panel 1 of Bloodshot #1, there's the inciting incident of this whole Harbinger Wars thing. I believe Project: Rising Spirit comes in at the end of Harbinger #1. So starting from the first issues of both Harbinger and Bloodshot, we laid a clear track, putting them on a collision course. It was always inevitable that these two would meet from the first page of both books.
Hunter Gorinson, Director of Marketing and Communication (HG): And [Harbinger writer] Josh [Dysart] and [Bloodshot writer] Duane [Swierczynski] hatched the story with [Valiant Executive Editor] Warren [Simons], and they knew that they were building towards something, and they fleshed it out at our editorial retreat last year.
JJ: We have an embarrassment of riches with our writers up here. Joshua and Duane are both awesome. They've worked very close together in planning out Harbinger Wars, and the two books, and how they would all coincide. It's fantastic to work with them, and when they're working together, they're really cooking.
OH: On the subject of the creative team, it's obvious why Josh and Duane are writing the crossover story together, but how was it decided that the two Claytons, Clayton Henry and Clayton Crain, would be drawing it?
Atom! Freeman, Director of Sales (AF): We had a hard time finding artists who had the same first name, and Clayton won out. Once we had that, everything else fell into place.
HG: That really falls to our Executive Editor having an extremely clear idea of what the tone of Harbinger Wars should be, and who best works with those artists, but Clayton Henry is someone we obviously loved working with, and he did a phenomenal job on Archer & Armstrong. He draws fantastic no matter what subject matter you give him, so even though Harbinger Wars is a dramatic change in tone from Archer & Armstrong, I think you'll see he's nailed it. Clayton Crain was someone whom Warren first got doing covers for us; he did a bunch of stuff on X-O Manowar and some other books...
JJ: He's just a sensational talent. When we had that opening scene, that takes place as a flashback and we had the opportunity to use a different artist for that, and Clayton Crain was...if you can use Clayton Crain, you better, because he's an amazing, amazing talent. I should also add that Mico Suayan did some work on Harbinger Wars #1. He's done a lot of work for us, from Harbinger #0 to a ton of covers. He's been someone we've been very privileged to have here.
OH: Clayton Crain is doing the flashback in Harbinger Wars #1, is that how you plan to divide the artistic duties throughout the story, with him doing flashbacks...
JJ: Stay tuned. I don't want to give away too much, but stay tuned. We have very clever ways to use our artists.
OH: How will Harbinger Wars, or even crossovers going forward at Valiant, stand out from the pack of comic book crossovers and mega-events at other companies?
FP: We don't compare ourselves to other companies. Our crossovers will be organic. There will be reasons in the universe that these characters will be meeting and will have to do things, and for whatever reason that's when you'll have the crossover. The way the Harbinger Wars crossover is designed, you can just read Harbinger Wars, or you can read just Harbinger, or you can read just Bloodshot. It's not a crossover in the classic sense, where you have to read all the issues. It's like if you were studying World War II, and you were looking at only the Japanese theater or only the European theater, you can get to know the war, but you'd know the war better if you read all of it. It will always come organically from the editorial, and at some point in time, the readers will want to see a crossover. They want to see how these characters react to each other.
JJ: I just want to say that from the company's standpoint, the story is first. Everything we do is with an eye toward telling a great story. There's no mandate of "this character needs to meet this character, and that needs to happen." A good example: Robert Venditti was telling a fantastic story in X-O Manowar, and Aric came to earth and it made sense that the agents of Earth, MI-6 and whatnot, would send out their top operative, Ninjak. So in that case, Rob Venditti had an incredible story to tell about Ninjak in X-O Manowar, and we ran with that. That was an immensely fun arc to read and to work on. The story drives it to where these two characters can meet in this shared universe. That's always fun.
FP: If you think about it, when things happen in a shared universe, you're going to reflect on it in the other books in some way or another. Ninjak being in X-O #5 made perfect sense. No government is going to ignore someone like X-O coming to earth.
OH: On the subject of bringing the classic characters from Valiant back, how do you decide when you're going to do that. Obviously, there's no set formula but –
FP: Basically, there are characters we want to bring out, and then Warren will ask for pitches from the writers. We're probably looking at four or five or six characters to bring out now, and Warren is looking at pitches. One pitch will rise above the crowd, will strike a sympathetic chord, and that's the one we'll go with. It's not really about the old Valiant Universe per se. It's about, we have these really great characters, and if we thought about a character that's greater than those characters, then that's the character we're going to do. Valiant today is not about what was, Valiant really is about what's going to be. The beauty of what editorial has done, Josh, Jody, Warren, and the writers and artists, is that they've been able to strip down the characters to what made people care about them twenty years later, and freshened them up in a way that we believe you'll care about five, ten, twenty years from now.
JJ: Yeah, Warren Simons, our Executive Editor, and Jody LeHeup, our Associate Editor (who rounds out our editorial department), work day and night getting pitches, and shooting stories off of each other, stuff like that. We're interested in pursuing all of our characters. We have an incredibly rich pot of characters. The bench is deep. We're always interested in bringing some back, or doing different things with them. We just brought Dr. Mirage back recently in a totally new form that hasn't been done before. We're always interested in doing that, it's just that when a good story is being told with one of them, we're ready to go. Warren has done an incredible job with that, since day one, with X-O Manowar and Harbinger...he's been an incredible asset to us.
FP: And understand, when we say "working day and night," it literally means "day and night." We're exchanging emails at three o'clock in the morning, we're approving books at three o'clock in the morning. It literally is day and night. I think Warren just came in today and said "I finally got six hours of sleep!" That's really the way it works.
JJ: And he looks great. He's glowing.
FP: He looks pregnant he's glowing so much.
AF: He looks radiant!
JJ: This office at 5 pm looks the way it does at 8, 9 10 pm a lot of nights of the week. We're all very dedicated to making this work and telling great stories.
HG: Our families all hate us.
FP: And the company.
OH: How much are the events of Harbinger Wars going to be reflected in the three books in your line that aren't participating in the crossover?
JJ: I don't know if that's something we want to tip our hand [about] yet. Harbinger Wars and what happens with Project: Rising Spirit and Harada and Bloodshot will have a lasting impact in the Valiant Universe. There's no doubt about that. Whether or not we're going to see X-O, Shadowman, and some of our other characters, stay tuned. That has yet to be seen, but this is going to have a very real impact on the map of the Valiant Universe going forward.
AF: I think the biggest impact is going to be when Aric discovers that his suit allows him to play the Harbinger Wars video game while he's in the suit. That's going to take up an entire issue.
HG: It's a double page splash.
JJ: It's a double page splash, and I'm the reference model for X-O.
FP: You're laughing, but we have pictures of him wearing the X-O suit.
OH: What should people know going into Harbinger Wars if they've missed out on Valiant so far?
FP: You can jump into Harbinger Wars...we like to believe, though people don't believe it, that you can jump into any issue of any Valiant comic book and get a good story. We see that true in almost any medium. If you see Iron Man 3, it'll be just fine, even if you didn't see Iron Man 1 or 2. See any James Bond movie, they're fine. We believe that anything well-written like that, and we believe our comics are that well-written, you really can jump on. Nobody's going to believe that, but it's true. You can jump into Harbinger Wars #1 not knowing anything, and it'll be a great ride and a great story. You can jump onto Bloodshot #10 and it'll be the same thing, or Harbinger #11. They're also designed to be good jumping on points. Even though every point is a good jumping on point, these specifically we're telling everybody "jump on here." We're hoping retailers will say "look, you've been hearing about the Valiant Universe for nine or ten months, it's really time for you to get involved, here's the perfect place for you to get involved." Every month we like to have in one or two of our books a good jumping-on point to get involved. Really, we want it to be like a drug. Once you start with a Valiant book, you're going to want all of the Valiant books.
JJ: The accessibility is on all of our minds, through every book we create. All of our writers are super-talented, and they think about that too, and they want new people to pick up their books all the time, and that's the way we've grown and spread. Even with all of the press we've been getting and how well we've done this year, with the Publisher of the Year Under 4% and everything like that, there are still a lot of people who haven't heard of the Valiant brand name, and we can't get all of those people if we have a line that's too inaccessible. In terms of Harbinger Wars, Rian Hughes did an incredible infographic that lays out the playing field of the Valiant Universe. I would say it's an incredibly accessible comic book, from a reader's standpoint. I think Joshua Dysart did an incredible job with that.
FP: And it's a lot of fun, which comics are supposed to be.
OH: Speaking of the award from Diamond, what does that do for the company at large?
JJ: Other than my tattoo? The big UNDER 4% on my back? [all laugh]
AF: The Gem Award, the thing about it that is so special for a company like us is that it is awarded by retailers. Diamond puts together the ballot, and retailers vote, and they decide who is going to get it. It's above and below a certain point on the map, which is 4% market share, which doesn't sound like a lot, but there are a whole lot of us who are competing underneath that 4% mark, and very few competing above it. The fact that we were able to get that in our first year – in the first seven months! – of our publication is huge. That means that the retailers really got behind it. They got behind our launch and believed in what we were doing going forward.
FP: And the most important thing about it is that it happened the day before a board meeting, so when I had to report to the board about publishing, they could not yell at me because we just won Publisher of the Year. Not that they have any reason, but they're a board, they're supposed to find reasons. [laughs]
JJ: It should also be noted, though he won't note it himself, but Atom! called, and he spoke to every single retailer in America this year.
AF: Not quite, but I tried.
JJ: But you got very close.
JJ: Atom has a great relationship with many, many retailers across the United States, and we have our ear open to them at all times. Anything that they need, anything that we can do to help them, we are all about the stores and anything that we can do to make their business better. We're only going to succeed if our comics are doing it for them.
FP: And also we have to make it clear: over the past years, the quality of comic books in both story and art has gotten significantly better. Most companies are doing great work today, and most every company is doing better work today than they were a few years ago, so the fact that you can have Dynamite, Boom!, IDW, all the Image stuff, everybody's doing such great work. It's a testament to the fact that marketing, sales, and editorial have been doing such a good job –
HG: In that order [all laugh]
FP: I wasn't really putting them in that order...the other thing about it is that we're a reliable company. We're shipping on time, the stories are good, the art is good. When you show up for a Valiant book, it'll be there, and when you get it, you'll get the quality you're looking for, and Atom! and Hunter will pitch it so that people will know about it.
AF: And honestly, my cell phone number is on damn near everything that goes out to retailers, and it does ring in the middle of the night occasionally, usually due to time zone differences, and any request we ever get from a retailer, my instinct is "can I say yes?" We've done everything we can to make sure –
FP: And if any retailers are reading this, you really should call Atom! at two, three, or four o'clock in the morning, and actually, if you called him at 6:30 or 7:00 New York time, it would actually help me in a lot of ways too.
AF: Thank you, thank you Fred. I appreciate that.
FP: I'm sorry, is that not what I'm supposed to say? But really, call him. He really loves getting phone calls at 3:35 in the morning.
AT: Yeah, 3:35. That's the magic hour.
OH: Since Fred put marketing in front of sales...
FP: It was in ascending order, of course,
OH: ...Hunter, how do you approach fostering your relationships with the comics press?
FP: He lies a lot.
HG: That's not true!
HG: Just by being open; by making sure that everyone has the most information readily available at any time, and by making sure that channel of communication is always open, so that if anyone has any questions, they can be put in contact with someone who's the best possible source to answer them at any time.
AF: Also, bar tabs.
HG: Bar tabs, yes.
FP: Also, I hear Hunter on the phone, and a lot of the difference is that Hunter is excited about what we're doing. Hunter spends all of his money on comic books, he loves comic books, and when Hunter's talking to you about our books, he's excited. He gets you excited about them. How many phone calls do you get where people feel like they're bored when they call you? Hunter's never bored when he calls you.That's a good reason. Atom!'s never bored when he calls, Josh is very excited about being here, and Jody's very excited about being here, and Warren's very excited about being here, except deadline time, like today. But other than that, we love what we're doing.
HG: And I was a reporter before this too, so I know your pain.
OH: How do you know when you're giving too much or too little information to the press? Is that an instinctual thing?
HG: That just comes from being in the industry both as a professional and as a fan. I was a fan of comics my entire life before this, and I knew what got me excited about this stuff, and as an intern at Marvel, I got to see how they did it from the inside. You just learn to have a natural intuition, and how that ebb and flow of new stuff should work. And it also helps that people generally remember the awesome stuff, and forget about stuff that's either too much or too little. It's all part of the process.
OH: Atom!, with con season coming up, what kind of a presence with Valiant have this year, and with Harbinger Wars specifically?
AF: We're getting ready for WonderCon, which really gets the ball rolling on con season.
FP: Also, it's both Passover and Easter weekend. Comic books, Judaism, and Christianity.
AF: That's right. As for what to expect, I think you can expect what you've seen from us so far. We go in like Navy SEALS, we don't go in like big Sherman tanks. We go in fast and quick, and we set up and break down...each of us is doing three or four jobs here. Our display is big visually, but it packs up to nothing, and it's all very lightweight, but it makes a huge impact because we focus on the characters and we focus on the art. We also will be continuing our program of giving away free comics. We like to make sure that everybody who wants a sample of Valiant gets one, and that's where my, some would say annoyingly loud, voice comes into it. You can expect a lot more of that. Me hollering "FREE COMICS" and getting them out to the public. At this point, we've given out probably, I don't know Fred, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 - 30,000 free comics at these shows...
FP: Much more than that.
AF: Much more than that. It's hard to say. Probably 5,000 - 10,000 per show. We make great stuff here; we want to make sure that everybody who gets a chance to see it, does. The nature of advertising and marketing is that you have to continually pound on people and make impressions, and if this is the first impression, we want to make sure you're seeing story first.
We'll also have many of our creators at different shows, and carrying around our entire line so that if you're missing something at your local shop, you can pick it up where you see us, but we want to support our local retailers at any city we're in, so we try our best to hit all of those buttons.
OH: How many cons do you think you'll be at this year?
AF: It's probably going to be around twenty or so for 2013, but we'll see. We're evaluating. We're only locked in for the next three or four months at any given time. We're constantly evaluating which shows we want to do and which shows we don't want to do. The problem is these days, there are so many great shows that I end up saying "no" more than I say "yes." It's about evaluating where the most fans are going to be, where the most comic book fans are going to be, what are the big cities where our stuff is sold the most. That's how we evaluate. We're very small. You can see it. You can walk around this office in thirty seconds and see everybody who works here, so we do play everything pretty fast and loose; we have to make sure that we can turn on a dime, and that goes for conventions too. Nothing's ever locked in until we're there. That part is a lot of fun, but it is also exhausting.
We have the "away" team, which usually consists of Fred and Hunter, myself and Dinesh [Shamdasani], our CEO and CCO, and our creative driving force.
JJ: We haven't mentioned him enough. He is the lifeblood of everything that has gone on here, everything from getting a hold of the Valiant characters, to day-to-day operations, big picture stuff, marketing, sales, editorial. His presence is felt everywhere and so are his energy and enthusiasm, and that really drives us to be our best. He is extremely driven.
FP: And he doesn't sleep.
HG: He does not sleep. We talk about how we're all here in the office until nine or ten 'clock at night. You will leave the office, and he will still be at his computer working, and you'll wake up to a dozen emails, because while you were sleeping, he was still working. This stuff is his passion. It is inspiring to be led by him.
FP: He's been working on this for seven or eight years at this point in time. He's invested pretty much his whole adult life into this.
JJ: There's no one else I'd rather follow into this.
OH: As for your con presence specifically in terms of Harbinger Wars...
AF: We were just discussing this today. We're looking at different signage and stuff, and we'll be doing our freebie handouts, which will be focused on Harbinger Wars. We'll of course have our creators. Josh Dysart will be doing the panel and at our booth [at WonderCon]. That's always fun because you never know what he's going to say, but it's always good.
FP: He's not always good, but he's always exciting.
AF: [laughs] You can start the clock when we sit down at a panel that Josh is on, and it's always good to note the exact time when someone from our office is going "oh, please don't."
FP: You do know, because Josh gets a wry smile on his face because he knows what he's saying is wrong, and he'll [look at] whichever one of us he thinks he's pissing off the most, and then say it. Usually it's Hunter [all laugh].
HG: No comment. But he's a brilliant man, and he definitely has his opinions, and they're fun to channel.
OH: Shifting focus to your digital distribution, were you affected negatively by the recent ComiXology outage in terms of your sales?
AF: Looking at those sales numbers, my translation of them is that it was...part of the reason that Valiant did so well was because of the New 52 [at DC]. It brought people into comic shops who hadn't been there in so long. It brought money into comic book shops that could be spent on us. In the same way, when Marvel does a huge event on ComiXology, well we had an event going on at the exact same time, so it brought attention to that. And then, because of the outage, ComiXology said "we'll give you this value again this next weekend." These things are all good. Attention to comics is always a good thing. We are friendly competitors, but at the end of the day, we all just want to be selling comics. We all want to be telling stories. Bringing eyeballs is always a good thing.
OH: How far ahead are you looking at digital distribution? How much planning do you do for that marketplace?
FP: We have a publishing schedule. We don't have a paper publishing schedule and a digital publishing schedule. We're telling stories. The day the books are at the stores, they're available on ComiXology. ComiXology does have some of the older books from twenty years ago that you can't get in stores today, but to answer that, we're doing the Valiant Masters series where, every few months, we'll be doing books on the old stories. We're really more about tomorrow than we are about that. It's just publishing, it's just telling great stories. The writers come up with great stories, the artists draw great stories, and the editors polish it and make it better, and Atom! and Hunter make sure people hear about them.
OH: How do you think you can be a leader in digital distribution going forward?
HG: Each one of our new releases comes with exclusive content built into it, whether it be character designs, or process art like inks or colors or pencils already appended to the original version. That's a standard product for us on ComiXology. The hope is, because Dinesh has access to a whole bunch of original art from the original Valiant days, is to someday, when we have time, which we don't right now, is to append that stuff to the original Valiant books as well. So for all those classic runs of Harbinger, Archer & Armstrong, and X-O, the original runs, to go back and add bonus features for those as well.
[At this point, Fred Pierce excuses himself from the interview]
OH: We haven't talked too much about Harbinger Wars the story much. Can you talk about the motivations of the different factions in the story?
JJ: Obviously, Harada has a worldview, and he wants to make the world a better place, no matter what the cost. Harbingers like Peter aren't just born, they're activated, so we're not talking about millions of Harbingers out there. Harada has been trying to make a plan against Project: Rising Spirit for years. We find out that this isn't the first time they've crossed paths. When all of these kids get released into the wild, so to speak, it's obviously in his interest to get this Harbinger army on his side and trained under his supervision. Bloodshot, on the other hand, went into this facility thinking he was going to find his name. What he found was this incredible responsibility. These kids, whom everyone is trying to claw at for their own purposes, some good some bad, he's protecting them. He's the one who hunted most of them and captured most of them. He's trying to get redemption for the sins of his past, and he's doing that by caring for these children. Then we have Peter and the Renegades, and Peter just escaped from the clutches of Harada, and he knows that Harada's way of making the world better is not the same thing he wants to do. He wants to stop Harada from achieving his ends. So we have all of these people, and Project: Rising Spirit has attacked all of these groups at different times. So you have these four different factions vying for these children converging in one place. What happens from there is great fun. But everyone has their reasons for wanting all these insanely powerful children, and we'll see how it all plays out in Las Vegas.
OH: How did you decide that Las Vegas would be the setting, and the city in the Valiant Universe to get blown up (one assumes)?
JJ: Las Vegas does appear in the Harbinger series. I don't want to give away too much, but there is a very good reason why we chose Las Vegas. It's been a lot of fun watching Josh write a story there, and watching Duane bring Bloodshot there.
JJ: One thing I've learned since coming here, I'm here over a year now, I graduated from the University of Georgia last January, and I think in the time I've been at Valiant, I've learned that if you can concentrate on making good stories and keep your head down and work hard, this thing that a year ago seemed impossible can become very achievable. It's through everyone's continued hard work and a complete dedication to telling a good story everyday you walk into this office. What excites me is getting to do that for a very long time.
HG: I learned that making comics is very hard. It's not as easy as people would think, but it is a lot of fun, as people would imagine. And that we have a great group of guys and gals up here. I'm looking forward to the second half of the year. We have a ton more exciting things to talk about that we can't announce just yet but trust us, there's some very cool things coming up from Valiant.
AF: I learned that...
HG: "Pink is my color!"
Yeah, I learned that I look awesome in pink! No, I learned that we could not have done this without a team. This team is very motivated and works as a cohesive unit and only occasionally hates each other. There's a lot of power there, both on the editorial side and on the publishing side, and on the sales and marketing side. We kind of move around as unit, and I think that's part of where the power came from. As for what I'm looking for, I'm looking forward to Valiant being an even more important part of the comic book industry than it is today. If you look at the history of the publisher, it was one of the top three publishers in comics, and I really do believe that this is a group that can get that back. I'm really looking forward to seeing that.