A brief history of VALIANT Comics: From birth to Bloodshot

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Mar 18, 2016, 2:49 PM EDT (Updated)

There are essentially three stories about the history of VALIANT Comics, and they’re all pretty good. The first is about Jim Shooter and the ramifications of him being fired by Marvel in 1987. He had previously served as editor-in-chief, as Stan Lee lived out in Los Angeles to oversee Marvel animation, television and film. That left Shooter in New York in charge of all things creative on the publishing side and, while his time as EIC brought such excellent series as Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Chris Claremont and John Bryne’s Uncanny X-Men, he ruffled enough feathers with his supposedly bullish style that his time came to an end in 1987. But there are two things to be known about Jim Shooter before going further: He was a writer (and a pretty darn good one) who had a set philosophy on how he believed the story arc of a comic to go, and, at over 6 feet tall, he is a hulk of a man.

So, 1987 happens and Shooter is out at Marvel. He tries to purchase Marvel with some investors, but that doesn’t go his way and, after another bid to purchase Harvey comics, Jim decides to make his own company, called Voyager Communications, with a group of investors, one being Steve Massarsky. Shooter met Steve at Marvel when Steve bought the rights to produce all Marvel live action characters for a meager 25,000 dollars. Let’s say that one more time so it doesn’t get lost: Steve Massarsky got the rights to all of Marvel’s characters for 25,000 dollars. Now Massarsky wasn’t a big time producer; he was, in fact, the manager of The Allman Bros band and he wanted to produce a children’s show. Originally, he wanted to get the Cabbage Patch Kids but, when that didn’t work, he showed up at Marvel.

The licensing people at Marvel introduced Shooter to Massarsky and Shooter wrote a script for his live-action show (it was supposed to be like a Wizard of Oz with Marvel characters). Sadly, Massarsky only bought the rights for two years and he was unable to get the funds needed to put the show together but, in pitching the show, Massarsky and Shooter became friends and, in 1989, they decided to start a comic book company together.

To do this, they needed money. They went to the International book fair in Frankfurt and secured investors from Triumph Capital, whom they talked to previously when attempting to purchase Marvel, who agreed to put up four million dollars for two seats on the board, held by Michael Nugent and Melanie Okun. They found another partner in Time Inc. publishing veteran Winston Fowlkes and split the company 20% to Jim, Steve, and Winston each with 40% going to Triumph. Jim felt like he had creative control again.

They gathered talent from Jim’s rolodex, including Bob Layton, an inker from Marvel that would later become Editor-in-Chief of VALIANT, Jayjay Jackson, Don Perlin and others that had faith in Shooter while feeling unappreciated by the folks at Marvel. The name VALIANT, which according to Jim should always be spelled in capital letters, came from a list of ideas from Jayjay, and a new comic book company was born.

Jim wanted to start to work on creating other superheroes and broaden the market as well as utilize characters like Turok and Solar that they bought from Gold Key comics. Steve, though, wanted to immediately enter the mass market, and he brokered a deal with Nintendo. During this time, Nintendo was incredibly hot, and agreed to share its 2,000,000-name subscriber database from their magazine, Nintendo Power. While this didn’t fit in with Shooter’s idea of the comics he wanted to create, the appeal of entering the mass market with ads in Nintendo’s magazine sounded appealing and, with Nintendo promising to help market the product, they agreed to a deal to publish for 300,000 dollars.

There’s a great moment in the video above in which the host asks Jim if the video game addict will want to pick up a book and he replies that he absolutely thinks they will because “we bring new insight to the characters.” Yet, video game addicts didn’t want new insight into Mario, especially at a price point of $9.95, and the books didn’t sell, causing VALIANT to lose 3.3 million dollars in two and a half years. Jim blames this on Nintendo bailing on giving them the list and not putting any push behind marketing, like they promised. Also, Jim heard that Steve was now in a relationship with Melanie Okun, a partner at Triumph Captial and a Voyager Board Member. This shifted the balance, as Steve now was easily persuaded by Melanie and the creative control that Jim wanted was in peril. Jim went to Winston, calling the relationship a conflict of interest, to which Winston agreed.  Winston complained heavily about the mismanagement and was fired for incompetence by a three-two vote, with Steve siding with his girlfriend, whom he would later marry. Triumph replaced Winston with their guy, Ted Pincus, and Jim was left with 20% of a company and no say on creative control.

The next plan by Steve and Triumph was to make comics for the World Wrestling Federation, but that sank quickly, as well, and after two failed ventures, Jim convinced Steve to go back to the original idea of creating superheroes. In 1992, the company finally returned a profit with new titles including Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Rai, and Shadowman, followed by the major crossover event Unity. VALIANT came up with the origin comic, the number 0, that is now used throughout the industry, and brought additional characters like Eternal Warrior and Archer & Armstrong into the VALIANT Universe. By the celebrated Diamond convention in June, VALIANT was voted by retailers as the publisher of the year and Jim Shooter won the Diamond Gemmi award for lifetime achievement alongside Stan Lee.

Within the next year, Jim would be fired.

The note for $600,000 held by Triumph Capital was overdue, and Triumph planned on selling some of their interest in Voyager to investors Charles Lazarus of Toys “R” Us, Michael Ovitz and Wayne Huizenga from Blockbuster Video. Shooter would no longer have a controlling interest in  this deal and would be offered an employment contract that would bind him for ten years with the ability to be fired. Jim wouldn’t agree to the deal and was immediately fired with Voyager being declared as default. Also, since he denied the deal and left the company, Voyager had a right to repurchase his 20% at face value for $16,000. After a long arbitration, Jim Shooter was awarded $500,000, much of which went to his lawyers, while his lawyers estimated the company was worth $15.5 million at the time.

A behind-the-scenes discussion with Valiant Comics the year they sold to Acclaim Entertainment. Listen especially to how confident Bob Layton was and how Steven J. Massarsky relates everything back to his work with the rock bands.

Steve became President at VALIANT, with Bob Layton as Editor-in-Chief. Look at the video above as Bob and the creative team talk about the universe while Steve, the president, frequently brings up the Allman Bros Band, Aerosmith and the difference between working with a rock band and being the head of comic book company. VALIANT comics continued to expand, but the comics industry bubble soon burst and VALIANT comics sold their brand in 1994 to Acclaim Entertainment, who planned on using the VALIANT characters in their video games, for 65 million dollars in stock.

Story number two: Enter Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari, fans of the VALIANT comic books as kids who hear that the company is being sold in an auction after Acclaim Entertainment and all its subsidiaries files for bankruptcy. Dinesh hears that the price of the company might be obtainable, and he gathers some investors with his longtime friend, Jason Kothari, to make a play for the company. Dinesh initially loses the bid but, when the winner learns that a company had filed intent to use trademarks to several VALIANT comic book trademarks, he decides against purchasing the rights and the rights to the characters are awarded to the second highest bid, Dinesh’s group, for just under one million dollars.

Then came the legal battle. In a rather absurd twist, the group claiming rights to the VALIANT characters name their company Valiant Intellectual Properties, as Dinesh names his group Valliant Entertainment. So, you have VALIANT vs. VALIANT to gain control over the rights to the characters. Valiant Intellectual Properties LLC (VIP) filed intent-to-use trademark applications for Valiant-related trademarks that were owned by Acclaim. These intent-to-use trademark applications included Harbinger, Eternal Warrior, Rai and the Future Force, Quantum & Woody, Outcast, Dr. Mirage, The Visitor, Dr. Mirage,  Ninjak, Deathmate, Bloodshot, Punx, and Secret Weapons.

At the time, as Dinesh told me last December, the “most powerful thing we had going for us is that we were incredibly stupid and didn’t realize exactly what we were getting into”. They rather smartly, though, negotiated with their lawyers “a very aggressive deal”  that “didn’t end up costing as much as it should have,” and they simply waited the other guy out. Valiant Intellectual Properties LLC hadn’t opted for the affordable lawyer package and instead hired well-known comic book lawyer who ended up costing them a fortune and forced them into a settlement two years later. Valiant Entertainment would get rights to all the VALIANT characters.

"The most powerful thing we had going for us is that we were incredibly stupid and didn't realize exactly what we were getting into."

So, you’re probably asking yourself the same question I asked. Who is Valiant Intellectual Properties? Were they vultures, artists or fans? Were they part of a corporation that thought they could wrestle away the rights through an intimidating lawyer. Truth is, I don’t know. And I’ve looked...a lot. Most forums I’ve read also ask the same question, but there’s one thing I do know: They didn’t have the fans backing them. The eruption of excitement that came in 2007 when Valiant Entertainment won over Valiant Intellectual Property was incredible and a demonstration of how, even after so long, how loyal the fanbase was for these characters.

In their first press release after securing the settlement, Valiant Entertainment announced a new “Origin of Harada” story by Jim Shooter, who would continue to write new stories for hardcover reprints. Jim would be hired as Editor-in-Chief of VALIANT again in late 2008, but that partnership would be short-lived when Valiant Entertainment sued Shooter for breach of contract.

If you ever get the chance of meeting Dinesh, either at a comic book convention or at a signing, I highly recommend it. The man is exactly the type of man you’d like to hear running your favorite comic book company. He’s smart, an intense fan of the characters, and wonderfully well-spoken. It’s easy to tell that this is someone who is in his dream job and is enjoying every bit of it. So, it makes sense that through the frustration of not being able to publish after gaining the publishing rights, he weathered the storm and as more obstacles showed up, he continued to do the same.

Third story: 2009. Dinesh bought the publishing rights four years ago. He and his partner Jason Kothari hired the previous Editor-in-Chief, sold some hardcover prints, fired the Editor-in-Chief due to breach of contract and were left with some major decisions to make. VALIANT hires Marvel veteran Warren Simons as Editor-in-Chief to revive a universe that has been dormant for the past decade after getting an investment from former Marvel CEO Peter Cuneo, who comes on as VALIANT's Chairman with his son, Gavin Cuneo, an experienced investment banker, serving as CFO. The very next year, we have our first Summer of VALIANT.

VALIANT “broke the characters down and redesigned them” in 2012 for the first four launches, beginning in May of 2012 and ending in August, named the Summer of VALIANT. The titles were, in order, X-O Manowar, Harbinger, Bloodshot, and Archer & Armstrong. They were joined by Shadowman in November. The X-O Manowar cover was by far the most ambitious. Not only was VALIANT relaunching a brand that hadn’t had, according to their Editor-in-Chief Warren Simons, a “robust publishing plan” in the past 15 years, but they created a cover that included a QR code so the reader could “Hear the Voice of War” from the smartphone.

it was about finding the "Guys and girls that were super talented but weren't necessarily famous."

Also, VALIANT employed some incredible comic book creators in Robert Venditti, Joshua Dysart, and Justin Jordan. In a recent interview with Dinesh and Warren, the word they tossed around repeatedly was, "Moneyball." They didn't want to pay high priced artists and creators, they knew that the game wasn’t won that way, and instead looked to do something different and fresh. It was about finding the “guys and girls that were super talented but weren’t necessarily famous.” These creators would have the time to “commit to the project and make this the most important thing that they’re working on and really put their hearts into it.” The other phrase that got said repeatedly was “what the company values more than anything else, and that’s a great story”.

The Summer of VALIANT 2012 was followed by the Summer of VALIANT 2013, and then VALIANT First. VALIANT kept expanding their universe and their fan base by not relying solely on nostalgia to generate interest. As Fred Pierce, VALIANT's publisher, says the most eloquently “you should be able to pick up any one of these books and get trapped in the VALIANT Universe”. And they’ve made enough complex changes to the characters that it is new and pretty exciting.

Take Bloodshot, for example, who originally started out as a mob hitman who is injected with nanites that give him great strength as well as the ability to heal quickly, but has lost his memory. In the most recent VALIANT issues, Bloodshot keeps the same personality and struggle for identity but instead of a mob hitman, he’s a former soldier who is essentially suffering from PTSD. It’s an intriguing twist on a loved character that has been greeted as one of the best reviewed titles in the VALIANT Universe and arguably the face of the franchise.

And VALIANT continues to create smart storylines while further expanding their universe. Because of their size and lack of corporate parents VALIANT is able to take risks without having to hit quarterly earnings. This puts an emphasis on the creative process over anything else, allowing innovation to be placed at the forefront of creation. Their latest series, Faith, an off-shoot from the Harbinger series, recently went into a fourth printing, becoming one of the fastest-selling female-fronted solo series in the history of comics. Also, what’s so intriguing is how distinctive Faith is as a character in comparison to the dark anti-heroes comics and comic book movies have been portraying. Faith, instead, is a beacon of optimism, someone who, as Warren Simons has noted, “believes in the just nature of man”. Faith takes a job as a journalist for a startup but, instead of doing investigative journalism, she is relegated to listicles in a clever reflection of the time. It’s a brilliant concept for a beloved character and an example on how VALIANT has been able to expand their loyal audience base by relying on smart storytelling.

In 2015, Sony announced that they optioned the film rights to Bloodshot, Harbinger, and the Harbinger Wars crossover films and, for the first time, the VALIANT Universe will finally make it to the big screen. Comics are a hot commodity in cinema today, but a new universe with characters that aren’t as well-known will be a test for an audience accustomed to big name draws like Batman or Spider-Man. VALIANT's loyal readership is there, though and, with John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch attached to the project, there’s a growing buzz surrounding the film.

Regardless, though, of how the conversion to film works out, VALIANT continues to grow in an industry that relies heavily on word-of-mouth, which they attribute to their “secret weapon,” the loyal VALIANT fans. Their latest crossover, Book of Death, topped 200,000 in sales and became “the most successful independent crossover event of the decade”. During the interview I had with the VALIANT crew, I told them how much I enjoyed Book of Death and wondered what they had in store for the fans in 2016. Dinesh and Warren rattled off events such as Savage, Deathmate, and StalinVerse before Hunter Gorinson, their director of marketing, reminded them that they those events haven’t yet been announced. Laughing, I asked what they could talk about. Warren replied that he could definitely tell me about 4001, Matt Kindt’s crossover story available in May that is perfect for anyone who wants “to see a giant robot fight a space dragon”. And that, I thought, is why VALIANT, the Moneyball comic book nerds who got the keys to the store, continues to grow in popularity: innovation, creativity and, well, willing to take risks on giant robots fighting space dragons.