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Valiant and the Rise of the Independents

The Longbox Theory

Casual comic book fans are only vaguely familiar with what exists beyond the borders of the DC and Marvel empires—with many likely unaware that their favorite niche TV show (The Walking Dead, for example) is based on a book from a smaller independent publisher (Image Comics in the case of the aforementioned hit show from AMC). Independent publishers produce some of the best comics available, but unless these titles cross over into other media, they tend to fly under the radar.

That’s just fine for the majority of creators who simply want to craft great stories in their chosen medium, but many of these books deserve the largest audience they can get—as do the publishers who take a risk on these unknown commodities (be it the talent creating them, or the stories they’re marketing) in this ever-shrinking and competitive marketplace. IDW, Image and Valiant are all stand out examples of what can be achieved if the only goal one has is creating the best story possible, licensing potential be damned.

The original Unity crossover came out of Solar's origin story, which were both great reads.

The original Unity crossover came out of Solar’s origin story, both of which were great reads.

I came back on board the Valiant bandwagon fairly recently. In the late eighties and early nineties, I’d been early to the party. Back then, former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, coming off a failed attempt to purchase Marvel, launched Valiant with the help of entertainment lawyer, Steve Massarsky. They hired established talent (Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton) and promoted new artists as well (Joe Quesada, David Lapham) who’d go on to great things. Shooter combined the characters they’d licensed from Gold Key/Western Publishing (Solar, Man of the Atom; Magnus, Robot Fighter; and Turok, Son of Stone) with original creations to fashion a unique, interconnected universe.

In short order, they also produced one of the greatest comics crossover events, Unity.

Despite the Valiant universe encompassing multiple disparate time and storylines, Shooter was able to thread them all together and reveal how and why they were interrelated. The central story of Unity, emerging from the reimagined origin of the classic Gold Key character, Solar—a unique and philosophically profound story in and of itself—dealt with weighty issues related to the concepts of good and evil, and whether our definitions of those terms change in different circumstances. There was true pathos in these comics, and the stakes were real.
Beloved characters could (and did) die without warning.
The line was popular with critics and fans alike… until it all unraveled.

Shooter, always a controversial figure, left the company. There was an ill-fated cross-company crossover with Image Comics that exacerbated the best and worst of what the great experiment known as “Valiant Comics” had become at that point: Fancy covers the fans didn’t really care all that much about, chronically delayed books and uneven storytelling (the latter two were ongoing issues for Image back then), summed up the state of affairs.

When video game developer and publisher, Acclaim Entertainment (who’d bought the company in 1994) filed for bankruptcy in 2004, they auctioned off the rights to the Valiant roster of characters: The rights to the licensed Gold Key characters had reverted back to their original owners. A new company, Valiant Entertainment, bought the rights and in 2012 started publishing new comics based on a reconfigured Valiant universe.

Since then, the publisher has steadily gone from strength to strength, garnering industry awards and, inevitably drawing the attention of Hollywood. Efforts to bring the Valiant characters to the screen have been ongoing since 2015. Watch this space.

As for the comics, I returned to the fold reluctantly, picking up an issue here and there, following what was going on, albeit from a distance. Though the work has always been strong, polished and professional throughout the slate, I still feel a nostalgic pull for the original stories that has kept me from fully embracing the new versions. That isn’t to say readers won’t be swept up in the current storylines—far from it. The stories and art offered in the current Valiant universe of books are diverse, always engaging, and often thought-provoking. A strong case can be made that from top to bottom, taking all books into account, Valiant publishes the strongest roster of comics available on a monthly basis. You can’t go wrong, picking up a Valiant title to read.

I just can’t help wistfully remembering those stories that once flashed across the sky like a comet—or an atomic man—and wishing they’d lasted longer.

You may truly love the one you’re with, but first loves are always hard to forget.

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