Valiant Comics is perhaps the best-edited line of mainstream comics available these days. With smart and unique stories and art by some of the most idiosyncratic creators working in comics, Valiant presents work that is both innovative and traditional, full of bold creators presenting bold creations.
Editor-in-chief Warren Simons helped formulate the plan for Valiant half a decade ago and is now helping to oversee the latest wave of Valiant innovation.
I sat down with Warren at this year’s Emerald City Comicon to talk Valiant’s future and a bit about its past.
Download an mp3 of this interview here.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin:. Five years ago, when you were imagining what the line would look like, did you imagine being where you are now?
Warren Simons: I hoped. I hoped. I’m very happy with what we have here. I think five years ago, I was looking at how to redesign X-O, and who might write that book. Starting it slowly but surely.
In some ways, it feels a lot like five years ago because we’re constantly trying to do new things and build and create new stuff. In other ways, look at this pile of trades behind us. Look at the body of work we’ve put together in five years. It’s a pretty remarkable thing that the company has done.
CB: You built a great baseline to build on but also gave your creators a lot of space to do their work.
Simons: I think that is the key. We have all the books behind us. We’re sitting at a Valiant booth at a convention right now. This company was built by creators. We’ve seen that the creators that come to Valiant are some of the best in the industry.
They’re creators who really care about the work. This is not the fourth or fifth project that they’re taking. They’re not rushing through stuff. They’re really putting their hearts into the books. It’s made a big difference in the line overall.
CB: How much leeway do you give your creators versus having editorial control? Do you plant seeds you want to have pay off? And at the same time, do you want to give them a certain amount of freedom?
Simons: The real key is to have open lines of communication with them – and if something isn’t working, then you talk to them about it and listen to what they say. It has the potential to get incredibly complex. But, for the most part, if you’re all approaching things just trying to get the best possible story in mind done, you’d be amazed by how open most freelancers are to collaborating.
Most freelancers want someone who’s going to watch their back. The comic book industry is very fast-moving environment. Most of the guys are juggling a number of projects, and for most of them, if you throw out a good idea, they’ll run with it. They want to make it better. If you throw out an idea they don’t like, you have to premise it with the understanding that if they don’t like it, they don’t have to run with it.
It’s a free-flowing exchange of ideas, trying to respect the discipline that your creator brings to the table. I’m hiring Matt Kindt to give me what Matt Kindt gives me. I’m hiring Jeff Lemire to give me what Jeff Lemire gives me. I’m hiring Rafer Roberts or Jody Houser so they can bring their voice to the table. I’m not hiring them for them to execute what I want them to do. There’s less joy in that process for me. I want to be wowed by their scripts and marvel at the beauty of the ideas that they’re bring to the table – what they’re doing with the characters.
I have enormous joy in the day-to-day of my job because first of all, I’m really a fan. I want to build the stories and enjoy the stories. We provide a great flexibility for our creators. That doesn’t mean that we’re on autopilot. We watch over everything carefully. We read everything, and we give strong feedback. We manage continuity tightly. But we try not to have too heavy a hand. That’s for certain.
CB: It’s a great combination of allowing your people to be free versus having some control over things, too. Which allows for you to have books come out of nowhere. My favorite book that came out of the blue was Bloodshot: Reborn.
Simons: It’s fantastic work.
CB: It’s a great extrapolation of the character. But at the same time, I was not expecting that type of story.
Simons: We examined where Bloodshot was at before in the universe, and then we weighed what Jeff wanted to do with it, and where he had to be for that to happen – to fit into the continuity.
So it’s all managed as to where the character goes. But we’re weighing that against the story that Jeff came to us with, which is essentially the story of a soldier dealing with PTSD. Bloodshot is a character who’s been on hundreds of missions. They’re brutal black ops missions, and the toll that takes on the human psyche – on a person. And Jeff looked at Ray through that guise – which came out in Bloodshot: Reborn. You have Bloodshot self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. At another company, they might say that characters can’t do that.
But at our company, we say, ‘Well, that’s what a soldier who’s lost his way might do. What someone who has experienced PTSD may do when they’re not healthy.’ We felt that was an honest thing to do. Not saying that all soldiers are like that, of course. But saying that people do self-medicate, and that’s real – and we want our stories to reflect that.
CB: Why don’t you give us a little tease about what we can expect from the new X-O Manowar, and how you see the character having moved ahead in the months between X-O #50 and the new X-O #1.
Simons: Some time has passed between X-O #50 and X-O #1. Something traumatic has happened to Aric. We don’t get into it right away. We open on issue 1, and he’s basically living the life of a farmer on an alien planet. We don’t know how he got here or why he’s here.
Butt it’s a little bit like Unforgiven and a little bit like Braveheart, where, if you remember those two movies, the protagonist has regressed to a period where they’re just looking for a little bit of peace. They’re looking for a little bit of quiet. In Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s character has retreated to a little farm, and he has the opportunity to engage in an insurrection. He says ‘I’m not interested – I’m just here to grow my crops.’ And then one of the guys, ‘Well, if you can prove that to me, you can have my daughter’s hand in marriage.’ So we see him as a guy who’s looking for a little bit of peace.
In Unforgiven, William Munny’s retreated to being a pig farmer – a man who’s killed everything that’s walked or crawled at one point in time.
CB: I love that line.
Simons: It’s the best – one of my favorite movies. And we meet Aric, who is living this quiet life. Then he gets conscripted into this alien army, and we see what a force of nature he is when he’s at home on the battlefield – which is really where Aric is most alive. He’s a good character; He’s a noble character, an honorable character. But it’s a little bit like Maximus in Gladiator. When that guy’s on the battlefield, he’s doing what he’s meant to be doing.
CB: It’s the core of what he is. It informs everything else that he does.
Simons: Absolutely, it’s the core of the character.
CB: It’s why he was so tribal with his group in Romania. Why he was so attached to his wife. One of the things that I enjoyed about X-O #1, is that there’s things that hint at what happened between #50 and #1 that point to trauma.
Simons: We see that he’s got an antagonistic relationship with the armor. They’ve developed what’s essentially an antagonistic relationship. The armor essentially looks at Aric as a monkey. He’s a Visigoth from the 5th century. This is alien armor that has seen all different kinds of species and technologies, and it’s essentially bonded to a man who has no concept of technology or medicine or germs or antibiotics, at least when he first got here. So it’s a very primitive person that it’s bonded to.
Then the story goes from there. We’re going to see that the first two issues are about Aric as a soldier, and then the next two are Aric as a general, and then Aric as an emperor. It’s very tightly plotted from there, and then, past the first year, we’ll begin to see what happens – what brought him to the planet, eventually.
It’s a little bit of Unforgiven and a little bit of Saving Private Ryan is the first issue. We’ll see his evolution and his journey from basically a soldier to an emperor. It’s similar, perhaps, to the way Maximus may have gone in Gladiator.
CB: Speaking of the hero’s journey, Livewire in Secret Weapons seems to have gone through a real journey to get where she is at the beginning of that series.
Simons: Yeah – I should note X-O Manowar is by Tomas Giorello and Mico Suayan, and is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever had the opportunity to work on. It’s stunning.
Secret Weapons is by Eric Heisserer and Raul Allen. Raul did Eternal Warrior and Bloodshot for us, and the work he is doing for us here is magnificent. I think he is one of the emerging voices in the medium, as far as talent goes. He’s an absolute monster. Eric Heisserer, who received an Academy Award nomination for Adapted Screenplay for Arrival, is writing it. Eric’s been an absolute gem to work with – a real sweetheart. His ideas are magnificent; it’s really been a fantastic opportunity to work with him.
He has the ability to really dig on characterization right away. You meet these characters on page one, two or three, and you feel like you’ve known them for years. You really see what an extraordinarily talented guy he is. It’s been a real gem to have the opportunity to work with him.
The basic plot of the story is that Toya Harada, who ran Harbinger Global Conglomerates, had a place where he stashed the kids who were activated whose powers were not great. For example, someone could talk to birds. Someone has the ability to make objects appear, and they don’t know how or why the objects are appearing.
They have all these castoffs whose powers are kind of strange, and Harada stashed them at this place called The Willows. Livewire finds out about The Willows and it almost breaks her heart. She had no idea about it. Then she goes on a journey to protect these kids. It’s wonderful.
CB: What’s intriguing about that is it feels like it touches on a lot of cultural touchstones, especially as a comic fan. Like the lesser heroes at Xavier’s mansion. But, at the same time, you’re giving it a different twist. One of the hallmarks of Valiant Comics is that you present character arcs in which characters grow and change.
Simons: One of the great things about our books is that we don’t have Xavier Mansion. I love the X-Men; I grew up a Marvel kid. But there’s no place for the kids with powers to retreat to be tutored. It’s very much a real world where everyone’s on their own. They’re living by their own guts and their own instincts. It’s little bit like our world.
There’s no angel who’s going to come down and protect you and take care of you. Even when, after a couple issues, Livewire meets these kids, and the kids go, ‘Didn’t you work for Harada? The guy who kicked us all out? Why are we gonna trust you?’ It’s a pretty interesting, complex story that Eric has worked out.
CB: What else is coming out over the next few months that you want to highlight?
Simons: Rapture will be our next launch. Before Secret Weapons, we’ve got Rapture, a Forager limited series – a self-contained event which features Tom the Geomancer teaming up with Shadowman, Punk Mambo, and Ninjak to go into the Deadside to stop an impending world problem. These are all highly damaged characters, and they’re all going to team up together to stop a character called Babel from piercing the heavens and reaching the Aliveside, which causes all kinds of problems for humanity.
Matt Kindt is one of our favorite writers. He works on a ton of stuff for us, and he’s creating a beautiful architecture here.
Britannia the sequel is coming out with Peter Milligan and Juan Jose Ryp. Peter’s put together a great story here. We’ve got X-O coming out in March. We just announced that Jeff Lemire is going to be relaunching Bloodshot in September. He’s going to do a bunch of damage to a bunch of white supremacists – it’s going to be awesome. I’m pretty excited about what we’ve got coming out.
Then there’s Harbinger Wars 2 coming out in 2018. We’re building the road to that in the next volume of Harbinger. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. The story’s getting bigger every day.
CB: What’s your take on the cinematic universe?
Simons: I think the sky’s the limit. Eric has written a bunch of screenplays for us. He’s one of the best writers in the industry – an absolutely brilliant talent. I generally like to build myself as much of Jack Kirby firewall as possible, so I’m focusing mostly on the pub side. But I think the sky’s the limit on that stuff.
We’ve got a five picture deal with Sony. They seem extremely excited about what we’re doing over there. We’ve got a bunch of stuff clicking up, which I don’t know if [Valiant CEO] Dinesh [Shamdashani] has announced yet. But it’s all really exciting stuff.
The smart thing about the company and the guys that I work for is that we’re building for ten years from now. We’re trying to build something where we obviously pay attention to the month-to-month stuff, but we’re always focusing on how this will affect the character. Not just this month, but next month, in six months from now, in five years from now. We try to build slowly and surely. Our line may not be the biggest line in comics, but, I do feel, pound for pound, it’s one of the best.
We obviously inherited an extraordinary universe from some of the best comic book creators of all time: Jim Shooter, David Lapham, Joe Quesada, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton. We have an enormous amount of material to draw from, but we’ve also innovated and done a lot of great stuff – or tried to innovate where we’re building on top of stuff.
Comics is a character driven medium. We’re trying to not make it plot after plot after plot after plot. That stuff starts to feel pretty artificial. When the world is in jeopardy every 30 days, it doesn’t feel that worrisome. It’s like the opening for that trailer for Tropic Thunder – ‘When the world froze for the fifth time!’ We feel like, organically, if we can focus on the characters, that’s a good way to go.
CB: What do you consider the core of what makes Valiant stand out?
Simons: Teamwork, characters, creators. Those three. I think. We don’t try to land the biggest creators, but we try to land the creators that have the best voices. We’re not chasing after famous people. We’re content to work with people who are relatively unknown if we feel like they’re doing great work.
We love our creators. We respect them enormously. We understand how difficult it is to do what they do. We walk into every project with that understanding – that enormous respect for what they do. And then, characters. We really try to focus on characters. And then teamwork. Making sure that we’re all working to support each other. That’s an incredibly important and under-utilized aspect of our company and successful comics in general.
CB: When you have a synergy between the artist, the writer and the editor, you tend to have something that’s really special.
Simons: Also between the editor and the sales team and the marketing team and the corporate team and guys who are encouraging us to do good story. That’s a rare thing in this medium – No one is coming into the office, saying ‘This has got to sell this’ or ‘We need to move this here for a movie.’ They’re saying, ‘Just tell great stories.’ And it’s a real lucky position to be in.