Jim Valentino: Broadening the Base and Raising the Bar

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Jim Valentino is one of the most thoughtful and interesting comics publishers around. I had a chance to catch up with him at February's Image Expo, where Jim and I had a chance to talk about the amazing early days of Image, what sets Image Comics and Jim's Shadowline apart from other comics companies and a few other interesting topics.

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So, I've just been interested in hearing everyone’s stories about how Image was founded, how you got involved with it and how the company kind of evolved over time.

Jim Valentino: It started with Rob [Liefeld]. Rob wanted to create his own comics; it actually started at a dinner in 1991 in San Diego. Rob, Erik and I were out to dinner with Dave Olbrich, who was the editor and chief of Malibu at the time. And Rob asked Dave if he would publish a book by him. Dave said, "Yeah, of course." He said, "Would you publish a book by me and Erik [Larsen]?" He goes, "Yeah, of course," "A book by me and Erik and Jim Valentino?" "Yeah, of course." And throughout the rest of the summer, Rob was talking to the three people that he was closest with: Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane and me, and trying to convince us to join him in this venture. Rob and Todd then went to New York, they ran into Marc Silvestri in a hotel and told him what we were doing, [then] Marc's in. They had a couple of talks with Jim Lee and, after a bit of hesitation, Jim Lee's in, boom.

CB: What was your motivation for wanting to leave Marvel at the time? Everyone was doing really well financially, selling a lot of books. Your Guardians was really popular.

Valentino: You know, I actually wanted to finish the story that I was writing on Guardians. I didn't actually want to leave Marvel until I was done with my story. That was really important to me, but that wasn't in the cards. I started doing underground and alternative comics, so to me driving my own ship was just a natural force of events. It wasn't an anti-Marvel thing, it was more a pro-comics thing. It just made more sense to invest in myself.

CB:  Now, there's a great story about Marvel getting in the middle of people's comics, coming in with crazy suggestions that made no sense. Did you have a lot of that or did you have some freedom at Marvel too?   

Valentino: I had a lot of freedom because my book was outside of Marvel continuity, but perversely, the editor told me that the colorist was more important to the book than I was, and I was writing and drawing the book. I basically created the milieu. I didn't create the characters, but I created the milieu under which they were revamped. So the lack of respect was there, certainly.

CB: Right, that's what Image is all about, taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and doing something you felt like you could respect and be happy with.

Valentino: Yeah, and respect in others and their right to own their own creations.

CB: Because one of the key things is: you guys are partners, you don't overlap, you really are your own, you don't interfere with each other. Was that a big part of the company when you started thinking about it?

Valentino: At the very first meeting, we had two rules that we had all agreed on. Despite all rumors to the contrary, most of the time, the meetings between the partners were fun and very funny. We cracked each other up, mostly making fun of other people.  Okay, I’ll do a Todd McFarlane because everyone has to, "Bud, let me tell you bud." Yeah, so we'd do that, too. Actually, everyone does Rob doing Todd, not Todd himself. That’s a distinction; Rob is a great impressionist.

The two rules were: number one, Image Comics, Inc. would never own anything, except the Image "I," and number two was that each partner would be fully autonomous, one from the next, and we would never interfere with one another. So what that means is [that] I could start Shadowline and Erik could do Savage Dragon untill the day he dies, and it's perfectly OK. No partner interferes with each other. Image became the umbrella co-op, if you will, under which we would be buying power. It gave us absolute freedom and the power of a unified whole, so we had the best of both worlds.

Jim Valentino Interview - Image Founders

CB: You took off in the first few years. The books were more popular than the Marvel books. You only had seven books and you outsold DC's entire line?

Valentino: Yeah. That's true.

CB: That must have been amazing times, rock star days.

Valentino: Yeah, it was pretty heavy times. I mean, we were in the eye of the hurricane, but we saw the hurricane. That was sort of the hidden clue, books were selling out, people were lining up. We kind of thought something was going on.  

CB: Yeah, something going on. Like the time you got to Chicago and you had to be outside the convention floor.

Valentino: We didn't do that, they did that.

CB: Because the lines were so insanely ridiculous that if you were inside, no one else would have gotten anyone to come to their table.

Valentino: Yeah, we got a lot of crap for that, but really it wasn't our deal. We didn't do that, the organizers did that. And I think there were like 2,500 people who walked past us a day. So all we saw was an endless stream of belt buckles and that was it. You sign your name, look up, "Hi, how you're doing?" Sign your name, look up, "Hi, how you're doing?"

CB: So how was that?

Valentino: I got a kink in my neck.

CB: I mean, I always wonder, first of all, why people stand in line just to get a signature.

Valentino: I don't know, you have to ask them.

CB: Did you really feel like you were in the eye of the hurricane? Literally, it sounds like you were rock stars.

Valentino: Yeah, it was very much. Yeah.

CB: Okay, Jim.

Valentino: Well, I don't like to, but for the record, that's cool. Yeah, we were like rock stars and we knew it. Todd is still a rock star; Jim is still a rock star.

Jim Valentino Interview - Image Founders

CB: In those early years, did you feel like it would keep going forever? That you were gonna keep selling through the roof, or did you have a feeling that, eventually, the market would correct itself?

Valentino: You know, I think that all of us were so busy doing so many different things. Don't forget, we were trying to do our books, we were trying to build a company. We were all trying to build our own companies, we were being pulled in a hundred different directions constantly.

I don't know that anybody really gave much thought to that. Not any real conscious thought. I think we all knew that we had something special, and part of that was timing. Part of the reason the books sold like they did is that we were in the middle of a speculation boom. We had Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee leading, and they were the three most popular creators in comics at the time. So we knew we were onto something special, but we were also busy and running around like heads with our chickens cut off.

CB: It must have been just awesome, though. How was the transition from just being a guy who created a comic to being a guy who's suddenly co-managing a company and really managing his own line inside it? The level of stuff you had to deal with on a day to day basis had to be a whole level of different.

Valentino: Yeah. I think everybody just kind of grew into it. You just sort of handle things as they come to you, and I think we were all able to do that. I think everybody in the company, all the Image partners, have an entrepreneurial spirit. There are guys who only want to write or guys who only want to pencil or ink or color or whatever it is, and that's fine. They specialize in that. There are other guys that just have to do it all, and I think you had six guys who just had to do it all, everything.

CB: Todd put it something like, he was one of the people who really pushed you guys to -- as he put it in the panel yesterday [at Image Expo] -- jump off a cliff together.

Valentino: Yeah, Todd always says that. It wasn't Todd, no. It was Rob. Yeah. In the Todd universe, yeah, but it's Rashomon, basically; everybody has their own version of the story.

CB: So, it was Rob. How did Rob persuade everyone to join him?

Valentino: Well, you know Rob is one of those people with infectious enthusiasm. And Rob was 22 years old, I think, at the time, and he was bouncing off of walls. It's a good thing he didn't drink coffee, because if he did, I think his atoms would have just gone in different directions. He just has this infectious enthusiasm, and he kept hammering everybody for an entire summer, "We gotta do this, we gotta do it. This is gonna be cool."

CB: Do you feel like everyone was brought in to the idea of going solo, or did you have to be persuaded to join in? It sounds like almost right away, from that fateful meeting at the hotel with Silvestri and the X-Men summit, that there was huge enthusiasm, but were people still afraid? Was it hard to make that big leap, you think?

Valentino: Well, I think everybody was different. I mean, Rob wanted to do it, obviously, because he started the whole thing. Erik signed on immediately. I was a bit hesitant because I wasn't on a million selling book; I wasn't a millionaire. I had five children and a mortgage. I wanted to do, it but it was a risk, and Todd was retired at the time. So I got a call from Todd before they left for New York, Todd said he was in, and once Todd said he was in, that was it for me. Because I knew at that point, I wasn't sure about me and Rob and Erik, but with Todd being in on it I went, "Okay." It was the return of the biggest creator in comics, finally doing books again.

CB: Right, I forgot about that. So he was back. You guys launched and you did great and then immediately started grabbing other creators, too, to work with you guys. I guess for them, being the second generation made it a lot easier to grab all those people.

Valentino: Well, again, it depended on the person. There were guys that were just like, "OK, I get it and I'm willing to", as Todd always puts it, "jump of that cliff."  And there were other guys that didn't get it and couldn't jump of the cliff, for whatever reason; they didn't have the business acumen, they didn't want to deal with it, they didn't understand that this wasn't Marvel or DC where a whole production department would do it. It meant that you do it, you do it all, and they were a bunch of guys that either (a) didn't want to do it or (b) didn't know how to do it.

CB:  But they were stuck with the middle-men then at Marvel and  DC.

Valentino: That was their choice. And it's a legitimate choice. You had the option and you still have the option -- everybody has the option. You can work for one of those companies and have a guarantee that you're gonna get a paycheck and somebody else is gonna take care of production and trafficking and advertising and promotion and all that, or you have the choice of owning everything and doing all of that yourself. And the thing is that there isn't a guarantee; you could fail miserably or succeed spectacularly. So I've seen a lot of guys that have done really great books that didn't make any money, , but then again you have your Robert Kirkmans who come in with several different ideas, one of them takes off and that's really all you need.

CB: That's what the Image Expo is all about. It’s you guys really lined up to your promise and your dream twenty years ago.

Valentino: That's the thing I am most proud of, the fact that Image Comics still owns nothing. We have never taken a property from anyone; we've allowed creator ownership straight down the line and I'm really proud of that.

CB: It has been a tremendous achievement. You're actually kind of unique in that you're about the only line that has such a wide diversity under one umbrella, everything from Morning Glories to Green Wake. What's your philosophy for Shadowline?

Valentino: It's basically diversity. I want to see either an original idea or an original take on an idea. There's no philosophy other than good comics. It's not genre-oriented, just whatever is cool. Green Wake's a horror story, Twenty-Seven is about rock and roll, Bomb Queen is a sociopolitical sexual satire and it just goes on and on like that.

CB: So what do creators get for working for Shadowline versus working for Image Central?

Valentino: It's a lot. Shadowline's a lot more hands on because it's a lot smaller. I do no more than five books in any given month. So they get a lot of hands on attention, they get as much as they need. If it's a creator like Ted McKeever, he just does whatever he wants to do and we stay out of his way. We have an editor that comes in and makes sure that words are spelled correctly and commas are in the right place so no one gets arrested for comma abuse.

CB: That's a big crime.

Valentino: It is -- a crime against humanity. I've been arrested for it a couple of times. So they have that, an editor who will hopefully make them look good. And when they send in emails or questions or stuff like that, they get answered immediately because Shadowline is so small. That's the biggest difference.

CB: So I'm sure the question you get more that anything is, "Tell us how to submit."

Valentino: What I ask for is a very brief, one paragraph story synopsis, not the plot, the story. Tell me what happens; why am I interested in this story? And then I want to see five finished pages, and only five. Not six, not twelve, not 472, just five, and I want to see a cover. Some people think it's too little to judge something on. No, because if you don't know your story well enough to break it down to a paragraph, if you can't interest me in those first five pages… And I want to see page one through five -- not the back of the book, not the most exciting thing of the book -- one through five. I am a firm believer that the first rule of journalism also applies to every other creative medium -- don't bury your lead. Bring people in: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," you understand exactly what he means, but you don't know how he got there. That's what pulls a reader in. Pull the reader in, pull me in, with the idea, the execution, and then we start talking.

CB: So, I've been closing all the interviews with the question that I'm positive that I know the answer to: when you see what you're able to accomplish 20 years ago and then you look to see where you are now, how do you fell about it? Do you feel like you've accomplished what you hoped to accomplish?

Valentino: I think we're still doing that; I think we're still on the road. I feel very vindicated. The pundits were predicting twenty years ago that we wouldn't last for six months. And here we are, 20 years later, sticking to our guns, doing what we said we would do. I don't think we're done by any means; I think we're still progressing and growing and changing. And I think for me, especially right now, for the last couple of years, every studio, every partner, Image Central -- all the components that make up Image -- have just been knocking [it] out of the park, left and right. We've all got incredible books of the widest range, I think, of any publisher ever in terms of the kind of books that we're publishing and that we're willing to publish; the formats, the genres, just everything.

And it's not a line that's meant to appeal to one reader, in other words, kind of like Marvel. It's sort of the anti-Marvel, if you will. Not that there's anything wrong with Marvel, but Marvel has a specific kind of book, and most people who are buying Marvel buy the whole line -- the X-Men line, the Avengers line or whatever. Image is the exact opposite of that, not every single book that Image publishes is going to appeal to any one person. But any one person should be able to find at least one book in our line that they can get behind and enjoy, and I think that's cooler.

I'd rather have it so when you go into a store, you’re not looking for an Image book, necessarily. You’re looking for a good book, and Image happens to publish it.

CB: What you're getting from an Image comic is something from a creator’s heart that they own, that they manage, therefore you know it's not going to be...

Valentino: Manufactured.

CB: Manufactured.

Valentino: Yeah, it's a creator's vision, and that's the coolest thing in the world. Not all creators are going to appeal to all people, so by having a wide range, there are people who are gonna absolutely love Ted McKeever, people who're gonna love Jimmie Robinson or Kurtis Wiebe or whomever, and that's great. That's awesome, in my opinion, so hopefully we can broaden the base a little bit and raise the bar a little bit.

Don't miss the rest of our series of interviews with the Image founders!

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