A Valiant Attempt To Expand My Spec Universe
Like most speculators, I tend to fall into a bit of a groove when it comes to my spec preferences. We all have our system and most rarely deviate from it. Everyone has their publishers of choice, favorite online site to shop at, local honey hole to pillage, and diversification percentage (silver age vs. variant etc.) we feel comfortable with. Every now and then while on the G+ boards or some other collector community, you may see something that catches your eye, we have almost all done it, and been “tricked” into jumping on the next Archie gimmick or IDW character “death” to make short-term money but were left holding dead copies when the eBay dust settles. After a while, you try to avoid those type of moves. The trouble with that is that it limits you. You can become complacent and could be leaving profit on the table.
So over the last two years of spec on these boards, I have listened to the Valiant faithful champion their brand and may have chalked it up to one of those previously mentioned money pits. The one time I decided to dip my feet in the Valiant pool (other than buying underpriced flip books) was Book of Death #1. It was sold to me as “THE” book and story to change the Valiant Universe. Yeah well I still have a short box full a couple years later. Needless to say it felt more like I drowned in that pool rather than stuck my toe in. I am a big researcher so I have a decent working knowledge of Valiant and their characters but have never read a book and am admittedly no expert.
So last weekend when I had the opportunity to cover NC Comicon for the site, and saw the show was sponsored by Valiant, I knew this was my chance to see for myself. Is this an indy brand poised to do major things, or a small spec community propping itself up through a devout few rather than steady growth? Is Valiant a bad play or did I just make a bad move? Over a three day period, I got to: meet and talk spec with Valiant CEO and Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani, preview the new Ninjak Vs. The Valiant Universe digital 1st show, watch a Valiant Con variant fly out the door, attend a Valiant AMA (Ask Me Anything), and get schooled on how to jump in and become a reader by Valiant Salesman Matthew Kline. But would my opinion change from my Book of Death fiasco?
As soon as you walk into the convention hall at the Durham Convention Center, you immediately know who is supporting the show. The convention was split into two main rooms with the “Artist Alley” taking room 1 and the dealer room taking up room 2. As soon as you enter the first room you are standing at Valiant's booth. I was not impressed at first. Maybe it was the shape, opting for four long tables in a row rather than a “booth setup”. I made my way to the Convention Merch table to check out the Con Variant. They were offering a Bloodshot Salvation #1 Photo Variant featuring Artist Megan Hutchinson painting Valiant Characters during a performance at the final Van's Warped Tour. The back featured the virgin art of the painting itself. Usually, I would not be into photo variants but I was immediately intrigued by the print run of just 300. When checking back a day later on how sales were doing, the owner of the Ultimate Comics chain of stores in North Carolina and the promoter of the Con informed me that about 100 copies were damaged and returned, making the print run a mere 200. So while the book may have had two strikes against it being a photo and con variant, the print run was enough to sell me on it. The book sold out at the con.
I had arranged to talk with CEO Dinesh Shamdasani sometime Saturday and after walking the con in the morning, was able to grab some time with him prior to the screening of Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe starring Michael Rowe (who was also at the Con). Now going into talking with him, I knew a few things made this interview different. I knew that Dinesh is a speculator himself and that he had previously read our site based on some prior tweets he sent. I had figured this would make things a bit easier. Usually when interviewing creators, only a select few are even aware of their creations' performance on the secondary market. Creators love to talk about their work but pulling valuable spec info from them can be tough. Dinesh did not disappoint. He came off as “one of us.” The difference being, he actually gets to curate the legacies of his childhood heroes. I will spare you the biography; plenty of articles have touched on Dinesh's childhood fandom, pooling of finances to purchase the company from the wreckage Acclaim left it in, or the relaunch of the brand that took seven years to develop.
Armed with my variant number and distribution “gotcha” questions, I began with a softball and asked him how the con was going. “This is like home base for Valiant Comics!” Dinesh exclaimed. He then leaned in as if I was about to hear something secret, then told me something I found tough to believe but gave me pride at the same time: “We do as much here as we do at NYCC, in sales. Valiant is built on our relationship with retailers and their relationships with their customers. This area (North and South Carolina) is filled with great stores that we have great relationships with”, naming a few. We then discussed their position in the industry (sales wise) and what it takes to increase their presence. One thing immediately struck me: we see the industry the same way. He talked about there being multiple types of store owners. Some they will never reach, who have made their mind up about the type of product they want to carry in their store. But the ones who are willing to try things, carry new product, offer a variety of products in store, and are open to working with a publisher are the ones they are winning over and focusing on those relationships have helped the company build the small but growing, passionate fan base. He also acknowledged the different types of comic buyer from the reader, to collector, to speculator. Dinesh's goal is to reach all three and any type in-between. And he is not above using any means to educate himself on what is working on the secondary market from being active on eBay, to checking out all the relevant boards, to even viewing this very site. He talked about how he learned things like the importance of having a character's debut coincide with the character's first appearance on the variant cover.
Seeing this and implementing that into Valiant releases has proved fruitful. He himself is a collector and speculator, buying into his own properties and even others. He truly understands the game. So when it was finally time to talk variant numbers, I knew we could be blunt. If you read this site, specifically the Hot 10 Comics or Variant Heat Check articles (written by Ben Steiniger and Keith S, respectively), then you know that high ratio (1:40 and up) Valiant variants have had a history of taking off to astronomical heights after release and, once preliminary eBay sales are completed, copies drying up on the secondary market.
It has long been wondered by speculators how those variants are produced. Is it based on the total print run or how stores order? Meaning, in the simplest terms, if the print run is 10k, and a variant is available at a 1:100 ratio, are there 100 of these variants on the market or a more realistic number much lower to match the number of stores who actually ordered 100 copies of said book? He answered as if he knew the question was coming, indicating the latter. Yes, 100 copies would be printed and available to stores who met the requirement. After the release, Diamond and Valiant would hold the excess copies to cover damages, mostly handled through Diamond but sometimes handled directly through Valiant in some cases. Once a few months have passed and no copies are needed for replacements, the remaining copies are destroyed minus a few, maybe a copy or two, which are kept vaulted by Valiant. Dinesh understands the secondary market and how while it may not make a publisher, it can break one. We discussed the need for trust between those purchasing these variants for high figures and the believed scarcity inherent in them. I came away very satisfied with the notion that Valiant loves their customers and wants everyone to be a fan but won't take shortcuts to do so. It made me feel at ease about the idea of investing in one of these large ratio books in the future.
Nothing embodied the “no shortcuts” approach more than discussing Valiants foray into movie and TV. He acknowledged the negativity surrounding the lack of a release date for the Ninjak digital show or Sony Movies (they hope to start filming Bloodshot in March). He confirmed that Jared Leto reached out to them. As did Michael B. Jordan. And that it was true that they talked to other A-listers like Mark Walhberg. But the key for Dinesh isn't to release a movie, but to release a good movie. Everything at Valiant is about quality. From their paper stock to the passionate way Dinesh talks about the X-O Manowar trade dress, no detail is overlooked and quality always comes before speed. This does not always jive in Hollywood but Dinesh is determined to do it his way, the Valiant way. With a background in film, this is no stretch.
The issue of quality came back again and slapped me in the face as we then went into the Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe Bat in The Sun digital show screening. While the show may have the aesthetic of a typical Bat in the Sun production, I am not so sure that is a bad thing. Michael Rowe is badass as Ninjak and the show immediately hooks you in. The quality was never so evident as the moment that Aric's X-O armor appeared and he blasted off. That brought a roar to the crowd to close the panel. Walking out, my father who attended with me and has zero knowledge of anything Valiant, looked at me and said: “That was cool, I would watch that.” And just like that, another person was converted. We were then told to give the secret code given at the end of the panel to the Valiant booth to receive a free gift. I was stunned when we did so and each received Gold Variants to Valiant #1's. The famed gold variant was a staple to collectors in the early 90's and still bring cash even today. Apparently, that is how the Gold variants are distributed these days. This is an incredibly unique and fun way to cultivate a fan base. In fact, anyone who attends a panel and wears Valiant gear, has a Valiant tattoo, or cosplays as a Valiant character qualifies for a free Gold Variant at a show Valiant attends. I could feel myself being won over.
Sunday I returned to the Con for the Valiant AMA (ask me anything). I swung by the Merch Booth and saw that they were sold out on the Con Variants, a good sign for speculators. Then it was off to talk to the folks at the Valiant booth. I decided to kind of pose as a new perspective Valiant fan looking for info. I talked to Sales Director Atom Freeman. He immediately came off as the coolest kid at the nerd table. His attitude was infectious. Dinesh had previously described his role in cultivating the relationships with retailers that are so important to the company, so it was cool to talk to him. Then it was off to the AMA. Most of the questions strayed from spec but I did get to ask about cover artists. Dinesh had stated the day earlier that they could conceivably get anyone but the reason they hadn't brought in say a J Scott Campbell or Adam Hughes is that he can not guarantee them the kind of return on the original art that the big two can bring in. He then pivoted to talking about how proud he was of the art that they did have which is admittedly second to none visually if not in name recognition. When asked during the AMA, Atom answered with a similar pride for Valiant's current roster of artists. The AMA was a fun and insightful look into how the company makes decisions and who it is that makes those decisions. Had my posing as a prospective fan become reality?
While I was standing, as the con was closing, at the Valiant booth buying my first Valiant trades, salesman Matthew Kline effortlessly broke down each series and character Valiant had at their booth and gave me some must reads and the order to read them in. He was passionate and made me excited to check out my purchase. Valiant had won me over. I pulled my own $30 out and bought 5 trades, taking advantage of Valiant's wise deal to entice new readers by offering any 5 Vol 1 trades for $30. My picks were The Valiant, Archer and Armstrong, Bloodshot Reborn, Ninjak, and my old nemesis Book of Death. I was told I could jump right in and not feel overwhelmed. Only a few pages into The Valiant by Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt, I was shocked how on point Matthew was with his assertion. These characters that I was only vaguely familiar with felt welcoming and the story flowed quite simply. So am I convinced that we don't truly know if we will ever see a Valiant movie? I don't know, but if we do, when we do, it will be a good one. Walking out of the Con, I looked down and saw a notification on my phone. I had sold a few of the Bloodshot Salvation Con Variants while at the show. And just like that, the Valiant faithful added one more.
Dinesh's spec picks: Blue chip 1st Apps (Bloodshot, Ninjak, X-O Manowar, Harbinger etc), Livewire (Harbinger #3), Punk Mambo 1st Appearance Variant (Shadowman #13), Toyo Harada 1st (Solar #3)
Darkhorse: Solar #10 2nd Print