The Valiant Comics Introspective Part 1 (Originally Ran On 5/1/2015)

Something a little different from me this month, with the return of Valiant Comics to the shelves a few years down the line now. I wanted to take a closer look with a feature-length article at the company who once put fear into “The Big Two” and see where it’s at today. Part two of this story will be featured in an upcoming edition at IndieComiX.

Working as a reviewer, I guess some people believe must be fun. I mean “you get to read free comics”, right? It can be, but mostly you do it out of interest, a little of what apparently killed the proverbial feline. But above all, you do it out of love for the medium and what’s healthy for it. Particularly for independent Comics, because they’re the driving force behind taking the industry further.

It’s difficult to think of Valiant as an independent publisher, as I previously noted here. In their heyday, Valiant were matching sales against Marvel and DC, the first company outside of Marvel and DC to gain over a 5% share of the market. With Top Ten titles and a multitude of awards and various innovations, such as foil covers and zero issues, video games, and the draw of both veterans and exciting new blood to the industry. Some even believed there was a strong likelihood that Valiant would one day take the number one spot.

Then, and after being purchased in 2004 by Acclaim Entertainment and re-branded as Acclaim Comics. Suddenly, in 2004, it was over.

Or, at least, it very nearly could have been. In 2005, Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari raised financing and acquired the rights to Valiant from Acclaim Entertainment. What’s interesting is how that came about. After Acclaim folded, Shamdasani had heard the rights were up for sale and were being sold off to a film and video company, a long-time fan of Valiant, he feared if it happened, the books would be eventually shelved and become another casualty of the sequential art graveyard.

Now, while reasonably well-to-do, Shamdasani didn’t have the finances to secure the rights, but he wasn’t going to give up so quickly. Leading a group of entrepreneurs, he did the impossible. After securing the rights, Valiant Entertainment was born.

Then Valiant Entertainment got caught in legal Hell, when rival company, Valiant Intellectual Properties LLC challenged trademark ownership of some of the character library. Ultimately, Valiant Entertainment won, in short, Valiant Comics have never really gone away. Just instead having remained dormant for a while, then in May of 2012, regular publishing began again.

It’s been a relatively slow climb back for Valiant, but with strong orders and receiving the “Publisher Of The Year” and “Book Of The Year” awards (for X-O Manowar #1) from Diamond Distribution in 2012 at the Gem Awards. Earlier this year, it was announced that Valiant have signed a deal with DMG Entertainment to produce a series of film and TV projects.

Impressive, but the question I’m asking today is; do the current books stand up to the legacy, and where does Valiant go from here?

First, I’m going to start with reviews of some recent titles, then discuss some of the newer additions and then predict the future of Valiant.

Review: Ninjak #1

Now this is the book I’d been looking forward to the most, “so where is it?!”, I asked! Of course, there’s also a saying that goes “be careful of what you wish for” too. After all, when Ninjak first launched in 1994 from Mark Moretti and Joe Quesada, I went nuts for this book. It was the most exciting thing I’d seen in a while.

Then, after just a few issues, Quesada left and Moretti also took on art chores, as well as the writing. With the deepest of respect to Mr. Moretti, the “oomph” had gone for me. I’d got a taster of Colin King, who seemed like an interesting character with potential, but this was an action book. I never went to a James Bond flick for a deep and meaningful experience and I wasn’t looking for it with Ninjak either, I just wanted to see him kick boo-tay. Sometimes you just want something a little more straight-forward (hey, it was 1994, don’t judge me!)

Of course, your tastes change over the years, Comic Book audiences are now more discerning, it takes more to keep their interest, including mine. But hey, Ninjak is still a Guilty Pleasure for me. So… does it stand up to the book I went nuts for 20 years ago?

Put as gently as I can; IT KICKS BOTTOM!!!

Now, ok, I’d like to think I’ve grown some over time as well, so really is this a book I’d actually buy? Sorry, even an action-packed book will only go so far with me, so I’m going to need a bit of substance here too if it’s going to keep my attention.

So did I get what I came for? You bet I did. Matt Kindt knows this is what a book like Ninjak needs. When the original book came out, I’d get comments in my ear, likening him to a cheap knock-off of a certain caped crusader. I always got the feeling those people had never even read the book, or hadn’t read enough to pass any valid comment.

Colin King was more akin to the aforementioned James Bond, sure, he was wealthy, had a combat suit with multiple gadgets, and was popular with the ladies, but these comparisons are where the likenesses stopped. What I liked about Colin was that he was a dirty SOB, pretty much amoral, but a little cocky and charming, I just wished we’d had more time.

Moving forward to now, (mainly because the second series NEVER HAPPENED, okay?!), what are we getting?

Matt Kindt is one smart guy, what took several issues to establish on it’s first outing, Kindt delivers all in one issue. Sometimes you only get one shot at this, and if the reader is anything like me, I was going to need that impact if I was going to look at a second issue. And boy, did I get it.

This first issue introduces us to Roku, a very nasty and deadly woman, with genetically-tailored braided hair. She can garrotte or behead her target and cannot be contained for long, breaking out of every high-security holding facility she’s ever been held in within hours! She’s one deadly Dame! Now if this all seems a bit tongue-in-cheek, that’s exactly the point. Ninjak is a completely ridiculous and cool book, it’s fun and pretentious, channeling a feeling of 60’s action flicks, but with modern-day delivery.

King works on retainer to MI6, taking on the dirtiest jobs no other agent could, or would, touch. There’s something about King’s swagger that makes you realize he probably needs a bit of a slap, but man, he’s just so slick.

His mission: to infiltrate the Weaponeer organisation. It’s taken years and hundreds of agents to get the name of just one of the seven leaders of Weaponeer, and his name is KANNON!

If you’re currently rolling your eyes and smiling, that’s exactly what you should be doing, because unlike Donnie Brasco, where our eponymous character slowly wins trust over years and infiltrates to the highest levels, King’s initiation is somewhat more… Creative, in it’s approach. Honestly, we don’t have that kind of time, sure, I’m all for intelligently intricate characterisation and ingenious plot development, but occasionally, it’s good to cut to the chase and just take the fun approach.

Honestly, name the last time you remember some one infiltrating a covert organisation by having to perform Karaoke, strip butt-nekid, and turn up the next day for a meeting EXACTLY on time, however you’re dressed (or not)? In this case, it consists of bare-footed, with ill-fitting jeans, and a skinny woman’s tank top, and to finish off, you get welcomed with a beat-down. Well that’s one way to buy weapons of mass destruction on the Black Market.

On art duties, Kindt is joined by Clay Mann. Finally, Mann is being given the recognition he deserves. Like many of the additions Valiant have made, Mann was an under-appreciated talent prior to this book. It’s ironic that Mann steps into the shoes of the guy who was once his Editor-In-Chief, who started this very same book, which isn’t a swipe at Joey Q, but at an indicator that sometimes, if you don’t keep your eye on the ball enough, you can lose some serious talent. But in fairness, the same thing happened to Joe when he was at the original incarnation of Valiant. Doubly ironic.

Hopefully, this reminder will get everyone thinking a little more, history is circular, but I’ll end that thought with something positive; all of the above-mentioned people are now at the top of their game and far stronger for it, I think that ultimately, that’s a win for everyone.

Finally, in addition to the flashbacks to Kings clearly painful childhood, Matt Kindt also provides us with additional material in a back-up story, illustrated by a legend of the industry, Butch Guice. For me, this was just the icing on the cake. It’s good to see Guice back in the limelight, producing a very different story to the main one.

This is pure characterisation, a short story about Colin King when he first starts out as an agent for MI6. It’s a simple story, a young and far less confident King, transporting a beautiful witness, for a moment, they forget the parts they’re playing and King learns a very valuable lesson in what it means to lose perspective and the potential cost of it.

This short reminded me of when I was growing up, reading Classic X-Men, with those Claremont/Bolton stories. They were so different from their main stories, for once, time slowed and we got a chance to know those characters better. And we learned to love them a little more. Good call, Messrs Kindt and Guice.

And in case you were wondering.. Uh, yeah, I will definitely be buying this one!

Review: X-O Manowar #34 and #35

Since I’m coming to the party late on this series and this is the first time I’ve read it in it’s new incarnation, I’m left with a slightly daunting task of catching up with about 3 years of material. “Well this is going to be fun”, I hesitantly muttered to myself, finger hovering over the Wikipedia button.

Oh. Well that’s a nice surprise, a Publisher giving you a “story so far” in the frontispiece for the book? Smart move, Valiant. It’s been said many times before, but every single issue could be someone’s first time, and it’s important to remember that.

Being totally honest, I’d never had a single bit of interest in X-O before, apart from that original #0 back in the day – but that was just too cool a cover to pass up. So, if you’re a long-time fan of this book, you might be inclined to ask; “you don’t even know this character, who are you to judge?!”

Well, that’s actually the point. It’s now 10 years down the line, it had been around 7 years since we’d last seen X-O in print when this new book was released. That’s an entire new generation of readers and an entirely new Valiant, could the new Valiant do what the first and second realizations of the company couldn’t and convert me?

I’d always thought the X-O suit was one of the coolest designs I’ve seen, but back when the book was released in the 90’s, I’d given it a glance and it just wasn’t for me. There’s only so much room on the pull-list and it just didn’t make the cut. Then there was that second version in Acclaim Comics. >ahem< Moving on swiftly.

This was probably going to be X-O’s final bastion with me, so let’s take a look at the material that was going to maybe make or break that.

X-O Manowar’s current scribe, Robert Venditti, whom I’ve heard a lot of good press about. I don’t envy the man being picked to replace Geoff Johns on a book (over at the “Distinguished Competition”). I mean, considering Johns is my favourite writer in Comics today, that’s like being the guy who replaced Willie Mays in the New York Mets. I wouldn’t want to be that guy, however much I might believe in myself. You’d have to admire anyone willing to do that, so yes, I’m going to give this a chance.

And you know what? I can see why I’ve heard about him. Venditti is purely about characters and situations, had I been reading just #34 of this series, I doubt I would have got a full appreciation of the man’s ability as a writer, but by issue #35, I can see where his strengths lay.

There’s been a good number of space-based Superhero books out there, some good, some not so good, but it’s really not until recently that we’ve seen much of a concentration in that realm. You may be thinking of loads of examples of these books and on a knee-jerk reaction, you might be inclined to tell me I’m wrong, but how many of those books lasted for any real length of time, prior to the last 2 decades? Not many.

Okay, X-O isn’t entirely based in that territory, perhaps that’s even smart, but it’s in these two issues I’m reviewing, and Venditti and Artist, Diego Bernard have portrayed what most don’t; the sheer vastness, coldness and loneliness of space.

Now, I’ll be frank, I’m not sold on Bernard’s work, it’s adequate, I think is the best word to describe it. After being graced with stunning covers by Lewis LaRosa, it just feels pretty anti-climatic. He can tell a story just fine, but nothing inspiring either. That might seem a little rough at first, but when I personally know better artists consigned to lesser-known assignments, working every bit as hard and being paid far less, you’re really competing against that grade. So it might be time to step up, Mr. Bernard. Please understand these words are with good intentions, in the final analysis as critique, rather than an insult.

Over-all though, a good read, with emotion and personality. In the wake of the Armor Hunters comes Dead Hand, a fail-safe construct, built by the Armor Hunters to rid space sectors of traces of the X-O’s. As Aric of Dacia discovers he is not alone in the universe in being a wielder of such suits.

Expect tragedy, on an unprecedented scale in Aric’s life in these two issues, but this event also adds to defining the characters and purpose, which will give the series direction.

Despite any of my bitter-sweet thoughts, these two issues have confirmed two things; Venditti not only has confirmed why people are enjoying his work and why he’s been getting praise and, for me, it’s never too late to change a person’s mind about a book. Is it enough to make me want to pick it up? Not just yet, but it’s got me taking the time to learn more about the characters at the very least.

Review: Rai #7

And we’re back with Matt Kindt! This time with fan favourite artist Clayton Crain, unsurprisingly, this is a visual beauty. The detail and flow of Crain’s work is rarely seen in any medium, it’s like conceptual art, realized in full, on every page.

I must admit, walking in on issue 7 is like walking into a blazing row and being demanded to have an opinion almost as soon as you walk in, bit of a tough one. Alright, so, I know from reading the “story so far” section that Rai is New Japan’s protector, after a murder, a massacre of PTs – Positronic AI companions has happened, committed by anti-tech radicals, called Raddies, who are now hunting down PTs. Okay, got it, think ‘I Robot‘ with ‘Bladerunner‘ and you’re heading in the right direction.

Now I’ve got my basic grounding, I’m seeing a tale of one such PT, Momo, an AI companion who has broken their servitude programming and now has free-will. It’s nice to see character development like this. Momo accounts their life to Rai, while they wait for the arrival of the Raddies and the war to begin.

Without spilling everything, Momo is a PT that started as a companion to a boy, who, as they grew up, the boy, growing into a young man, grew bored of his companion and was seeking a different kind of companion now. Momo wakes up one morning, looking more than just a little different than before, it’s in this moment, we understand the life of an artificial Humanoid.

This is a wonderful moment of Humanity from Kindt, about how far technology can be taken, posing the question about Artificial Intelligence, how far is too far? When programming a machine that learns about it’s surroundings, where is the separating line between a programmed machine and a self-aware, sentient being, capable of independent thought and feeling? What rights should it have? Is it not alive?

I’ve seen this kind of question raised before, essentially in Sci-Fi, but rarely with such acuity and sensitivity. It got me thinking about the way Humans have enslaved other Human beings. When that was outlawed, we create machines to serve us, we make them to serve our needs. Is this the real danger of Artificial Intelligence? We mostly think about the nightmare Terminator-style future, but perhaps the monster will actually be us, the abominable oppressor, confident that what we’re doing is right, correcting a mistake. That’s a far scarier thought, potentially.

Over-view:

Now I know what the fuss is about over Valiant. This is just a small sample I’ve been reading here, but Valiant is definitely winning me over with these books and I’m interested in pursuing them further. Discovering more about the Valiant Universe in a way I never have in the past. There’s passion in these books, you really feel that creative freedom is afforded to the creative teams, that trust has been bestowed and that same trust has been rewarded. That voices are being heard and permitted to express themselves.

Sure, there’ll always be an Editorial line to follow at some point, but the individuality of these books speaks volumes. They’re what they are and what they want to be, like self-contained universes that can operate independently or collectively.

One aspect of modern Comics that has concerned me so much is the corporate line on them. Fine, we’re not naïve, it’s a business, understood. But I don’t want to have to buy 36 Comics in order to get one story, which, in my experience, the pay-off has yet to convince me it was worth the pay-out. It’s the reason I’ve cut back and become selective in my buying.

Rumble in the Valiant ‘Verse!

Valiant has moved back to a welcomed mentality, where not only can I buy a book that’s self-contained, but also knows what it is on an individual level. I’ve held that view for many years, watching the slow execution of the Comic Book genre, hopefully now, that can start changing.

I have nothing against the Big Guys, I still read their books too, but I see Comics moving back to individualism, I believe that’s where they’re strongest. If characters inter-mingle with each other too often, while it’s clear they’re in one universe, you also feel it’s just becoming one massive book you’re reading, a book I have neither the time nor money to be shelling out for. Worse yet, when I’ve got a Comic I’m content with, no sooner than I’ve settled in, I’m either required to buy another few books to find out the full story I’m reading, or get ready for another massive upheaval.

I don’t mind cross-overs, back when I first started reading Comics, it was a treat, because it was so rare, but now, you know it’s going to happen, whether you like it or not. Valiant is giving me that choice. It’s open-ended, I am not required to do anything, “just enjoy the book, and we’ll do our best to make sure we maintain that standard” is the attitude I’m getting.

And THAT is the reason I started reading Comics in the first place. When I said I’d speculate about the future for Valiant at the start of this article, maybe you thought I’d divulge my thoughts on the movies, where they should be going, what they should be doing, the point is, they’re already doing it.

In Valiant, I don’t feel the need to hypothesize, in just a few issues, they’ve won my respect and given me good reason to trust their judgement. So if you want to know what I think, I don’t think it matters what they do, it might not always be for me and my tastes, but they’re making smart moves. Whatever they choose to do, at this rate, will not be a truly bad idea.

So a better question might not be what Valiant will DO in the future, but whether they ARE the future. And you know what, they might just be.

Written by: Scott Mack

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