It's a strange time to be a fan of superhero comics — you know, the kind made out of paper. Sure, there are still dozens of comic book series about caped crusaders and dark-night detectives, but the real money is in superhero movies, TV shows and video games.
And that's what makes Valiant Entertainment so odd. It's a tiny company with a simple goal: make comic books like they used to be made. That is, make them to be read, not seen or played. Vulture's Abe Riesman has this look at the resurrection of Valiant:
Valiant's CEO and co-founder, Dinesh Shamdasani, explains: "Everybody in this office loves comics more than anything else. No one in here wants to be a big-time movie producer or a big-time video game developer. Everyone in here wants to make comics."
The company began its first life in 1989, when Marvel's editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, jumped ship to start what he hoped would be the first real threat to Marvel and DC. But their superheroes were totally bizarre. There was Shadowman, a jazz musician possessed by a voodoo spirit. There was Rai, a samurai who protects Japan in the year 4001. And X-O Manowar, a 5th-Century Visigoth who gets abducted by aliens, steals a sentient suit of armor, and ends up in the present day.
Growing up in Hong Kong in the 1990s, Shamdasani had no idea that these characters weren't as popular as Superman or Spider-Man. So when a friend gave him his first issue of X-O Manowar, all he knew was that it blew his pre-teen mind.
"It had an awesome cover of X-O fighting a red-black version of X-O, and I looked at that and I was like, Oh my god. You can't get this in video games, you can't get this in movies, you can't get this in TV. You can't get this storytelling anywhere."
By 1993, Valiant had two of the year's 10 best-selling comics — millions of issues were sold. The company was also big on high-profile gimmicks such as free issues, trading cards, and covers that looked like they were made of gold.
But it didn't last. The whole comic book industry swelled into a bubble by the mid-'90s, and when the bubble burst, Valiant was crippled. They finally went bust in 2004, and by then comic enthusiasts thought of the company and their characters as campy relics of the '90s. Well, not all enthusiasts felt that way.
At that point, Shamdasani was living in California, doing executive work for Universal Studios. In his free time, he was an obsessive member of an online message board for hardcore Valiant fans, and one day he heard a rumor that the bankrupt company's characters were being sold for only $50,000.
Shamdasani says he "was so pissed off. $50,000? It's worth way more than that! X-O Manowar alone is worth more than that! I was so angry. Not that I had $50,000, but come hell or high water, I was going to get it if I had the chance."
And, somehow, he did get the chance. Despite having zero business experience, he abruptly dedicated his life to snagging the rights to his favorite comic book characters. Shamdasani raised the cash with the help of a childhood friend, quit his job, and threw himself into a two-year legal battle for the rights.
If that sounds crazy, it's because it basically is. But Shamdasani argues: "I knew that if I didn't do this, I would never see another Valiant comic in my life. I could kiss that goodbye. And that was just a sad scenario for the world."
After securing the rights to the characters came the real challenge: rebuilding a comic book company using characters no one had cared about in years. The company decided to follow in the footsteps of the Oakland Athletics and the lessons of Michael Lewis's famous book, Moneyball, opting to snatch up writers, artists and executives who were undervalued by the big comic publishers.
Finally, in 2012, the reborn Valiant began publishing comics, which were based on the original characters, but featured all-new stories. So, unlike stories in the Marvel and DC universes, you didn't need any prior knowledge in order to understand what was happening. It was a breath of fresh air unlike anything else on the stands.
They still use lighthearted gimmicks, which are a little silly, but their storytelling has made them a success. Valiant has published 18 different series, with more on the way this year. Critics admire Valiant's fresh, simple approach to superheroes, while fans obsess over the details of the shared universe in which all the Valiant characters live and interact.
Shamdasani knows that superhero success is hard to achieve without licensing the stories, and he says that we might see Valiant movies in the future. But he wants Valiant to always focus on comics first — everything else comes second. As he says: "We have the freedom to not have to follow in the wake of an upcoming media tie-in, like a big movie or video game, and we don't have to serve larger licensing goals. We can simply just make great comics."