Dump DC, Move Past Marvel… Viva Valiant? Yes! A Primer

Dump DC, Move Past Marvel… Viva Valiant? Yes! A Primer

Howdy, pals, it's your trusty ex-Ed Claire here. What have I been doing since I left the hallowed halls of authority? Well, I've watched a LOT of Criminal Minds. And guess what? I also went bonkers for Valiant. Yeah! Valiant! Let's talk about that, as my powerful heiress Nola Pfau, your WWAC managing editor, has

Howdy, pals, it’s your trusty ex-Ed Claire here. What have I been doing since I left the hallowed halls of authority? Well, I’ve watched a LOT of Criminal Minds. And guess what? I also went bonkers for Valiant. Yeah! Valiant! Let’s talk about that, as my powerful heiress Nola Pfau, your WWAC managing editor, has been so kind as to lay me out some trellising questions.

What is Valiant, anyway?

Well, what a question. “Valiant” is a comic book brand putting out superhero books in a “shared universe,” which means that separate superheroes can and do meet each other sometimes. Valiant has seen three main terms, with the first published by Voyager Communications in 1991. Founded in ’89 by ex-Marvel EiC Jim Shooter and a business partner, Valiant put out a number of inconsequential pop culture tie-in comics before doing what it originally intended. Voyager bought three licenses from Gold Key Comics: Magnus, Robot Fighter, Turok, Dinosaur Hunter, and Solar, Man of the Atom. And in 1991, with these three characters, Voyager Entertainment built the basis of their Valiant Universe.

This eventually expanded into numerous titles following numerous solo and team heroes, and became one of the most coherent, interconnected superhero worlds ever set to page. Impressively, both Magnus and Turok’s Valiant issues actually continued the stories told during their Gold Key and Dell publications, character wardrobe and all. Solar was a new Solar who had read the old Solar as a child. Shooter, though deeply involved in the creative management and creative rights side of things, was forced out of the company by the end of 1992, and Bob Layton took over as Editor in Chief. Left to keep up the standards Shooter had set, honestly, Layton did a great job. Valiant mark one is incredible.

A firey man throws fire at Solar

From this—

Solar struggles with a suited man

—To this (and yeah, his design beats out Cyclops AND Radioactive Man)

Due to the nature of the venture capitalism that had initially funded the company and seen the end of Shooter’s involvement, Valiant’s brand and characters were sold in 1994, and bought for IP by the video game company Acclaim. This sale doesn’t actually mark the end of the first term of Valiant. Many of the creatives already working on Valiant titles remained on their books, and most of them continued publication. The 1994 handover caused little initial disruption visible to the average reader, which isn’t to say that Acclaim didn’t show their owner’s hand in Valiant mark one at all. Late 1995’s “Birthquake” looks like an “event” (a crossover), but isn’t. What the 1994 handover marked was changes to the books at publication level: those books viewed as under-performing were cancelled, and those remaining were given a twice-monthly schedule. The old Valiant logo, a compass, was replaced with a very ugly V. Some big creative names were brought in to jazz up performance, but it didn’t work; the 1996 issues of almost any given original Valiant books are very poor showings (Turok, Dinosaur Hunter is an outlier), ending abruptly or without a sense of completion, disrespecting their characters’ histories, and in at least one case displaying some egregious typos.

Then, in 1997, came the real term two: the real Valiant at Acclaim Comics. Fabian Nicieza, coming off a brief stint at DC and some long years at Marvel, joined Valiant at Acclaim in 1996 as Editor in Chief and Senior Vice-President, and from 1997 oversaw absolute reboots of all remaining Valiant titles. Premises changed, and characters and character designs changed. They called it “VH2,” which retroactively termed the Shooter-defined Valiant history “VH1,” which is a stupid thing to do as that’s already a whole other thing. They did it anyway, which was “very Acclaim,” honestly.

History claims this continuity break was designed to make the characters “more video game friendly.” This is also said about the changes wrought by Birthquake (it depends where you’re reading), and in that case it seems to ring truer: Turok’s version 1’s new post-Birthquake villain The Campaigner appears in Turok’s first video game, but Turok version 2’s dinosaur-spying x-ray monocle, which screams “put me in a video game,” does not functionally appear in subsequent Turok games. He has a monocle—sure—but it does one thing in the comic and another in the game. That’s video game unfriendly; it’s confusing. To me, the 1997 reboot is most easily explained with the idea that Nicieza, having a different genre perspective on superheroes than Jim Shooter, simply found it easier to start everything again than to continue a complex, and specifically tuned world that had pretty much been crashed into the ground.

While Ennis’ Shadowman was pretty interesting, and Christopher Priest’s Quantum & Woody retains fandom interest today, and various other recognisable names did various other semi-experimental things that are probably worth reading if you feel like it, all I see when I look at Acclaim x Valiant is the Iron Man/X-O Man-O-War game and comic tie-in, which were rubbish, and VH2’s version of Faith Herbert, which is skinny and erotically presented.

Even with their worthwhile aspects, none of Acclaim’s Valiant retools retained enough of their original selves to please the readers out there who’d already heard of Valiant comics. Acclaim itself began a massive economic tailspin, and by 2003, Valiant version 2’s publication petered out entirely. Before that happened they did begin releasing a Shooter-penned six issue crossover event that aimed to tie the reboot universe to the original one, but gave up on it halfway through. This is a legitimate tragedy, as Unity 2000 was a Crisis-style event that’s funny, final, and lays Shooter’s feelings and principles pretty bare.

Many of 2012’s dramatis personae

Valiant mark three reared up from the dead in 2005, when Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari bought the name and character licenses following Acclaim’s bankruptcy. Their Valiant began with publishing reprint collections, both having been American comic book fans in Hong Kong in their youth and valuing the brand for its prior output rather than its potential. Nevertheless, in 2012, a new Valiant universe debuted: redesigned, occasionally reconceptualised (some of the male titles belong to women now!) versions of the original Valiant character properties, retaining many of their old relationships and joined by one or two of Acclaim’s Valiant IPs.

Unfortunately, Turok, Solar, and Magnus are currently licensed at Dynamite, and so cannot retain their cornerstone positions within the newly minted Valiant Universe. Nevertheless, the sense of history and gravitas that the original Valiant U gained with its reliance on these legacy publications now exists within the 1990s Valiant creations themselves.

In early 2018, DMG Entertainment purchased Valiant for its IP, this time for movies over video games. What kind of creative changes this will result in for comic book publication under the Valiant name has yet to be seen.

Where should one start when reading Valiant?

Um, let’s come back to this.

Do you prefer new or old Valiant, and why?

This is actually a hard thing to call. As a whole prospect, as a complete volume, I can only prefer Valiant 1. It’s finished, and it’s such a tremendously impressive achievement. Within five years they created a world full of superheroes, magic users, mystics, robots, cyborgs, dinosaurs, mercenaries, gods, and capitalism that wasn’t only technically shared by characters from separate publications but actually felt fully inhabited by a wide community of friends, allies, rivals, and enemies.

Cameos are never unrelated to what’s currently going on in the visitor’s own book; there is no wasted space in a Shooter-Layton Valiant comic. I’ve never read a cameo in a Marvel book that made me want to follow the character back to their own home ground and see what they were up to, but every time someone’s popped in anywhere from another corner of the Valiant U, every time, I’ve thought, “Ooh. I wonder what’s going on over there?” Shared universe as whole narrative—it’s just a fascinating approach and a delight to explore. I also really adore the founding aesthetic principles; Barry Windsor-Smith is a pillar of the Valiant style, ‘nuff said.

Current Valiant, on the other hand, has more stories both by and about girls. (Valiant 1 has women’s names in their credits, but they’re usually colourists or outside of creative, like Janet Jackson and Debbie Fix.) It’s also cheaper to navigate as a reader, as though it retains the extreme organisation of Valiant 1, but lacks the absolute interconnectedness. You can read one book without feeling like you need or want to go and read someone else’s. That’s good for the purse, but it also feels like less of a phenomenon.

The original Faith, a teenager

In both Valiant 1 and Valiant 3, I favour Faith Herbert specifically and X-Menish issues generally. Harbinger (which became The New Harbingers, and then changed back) was, in Marvel terms, a Runaways or Cloak & Dagger style book that became an Academy X one and was great in both forms. Harbinger was about Peter Stanchek, the only viable rival to businessman and Ultimate Psychic Toyo Harada. Peter’s a teenager who has the ability to awaken other harbingers (mutants); harbingers have the potential to command superpowers, but don’t until they’re activated by outside forces. Harada does this with control, to build an army, while Peter does it by knack, to build a peer group of rebel teens on the run. Faith is one of them.

Harbinger has a very “real teen problems” perspective, with insults and sex and teen pregnancy and death all getting in the way of these good kids’ basic love for one another. It’s exactly what I, an X-Fan, want from a superhero comic book. Faith is a grumpy nerd who abandons her whole life to become the superhero she’s always dreamt of being; she’s horrified when that means she sees death and causes bloody injury. She sticks with it, and with her friends, because she believes in combating evil and in the inspirational nature of the concepts “super” and “hero.”

In 1994, something important happens that I haven’t read yet, and Faith, having forgotten her friends, ends up at one of Harada’s Harbinger schools. There, young supers are sorted into training teams (familiar!). She joins the rejects (familiar!), and they manage their teen problems and who-am-I worries in a slightly different tone to that which defined the original cast’s book. Let’s be fair: I’ve been saying “familiar,” but the X-Men stories they’re reminding me of are all ones that came well after Valiant’s superteens.

Eventually, Faith is visited by Magnus, Robot Fighter (on a brief jaunt from the future), and told that she is the most vital leader in the coming Harbinger War. And during Harbinger War (a three-issue arc in Ivar, Timewalker), we see her as a General Leia style character, your Old Woman Faith, inspiring the masses and doing her best. Shooter, David Lapham, and Maurice Fontenot were all doing some really solid scripting work (Fontenot also worked on Daria; Lapham is famous for Stray Bullets), and Valiant’s unglamorous house-style (in the issues I have, by David Lapham, Howard Simpson and Sean Chen and a variety of painter colourists) allows the teenage characters to wear their teenage choices on their teenage bodies without misappropriation.

Valiant’s current Faith, a young career woman

Valiant 3’s Faith started out a little weakly, something of an object of mockery in the rebooted Harbinger book (which worked from the same basic premise as the original). But she got built up in subsequent issues, was allowed to make empowering choices that took her across the new Valiant U, and under Jody Houser’s direction (with Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage’s visuals), Faith, in Faith, has come into her own. (It’s notable that her book is named after the girl, not the superheroine persona. It’s Faith, not Zephyr, that we’re after.) She’s the most contemporary superhero, a fan who grew up into someone able to hold herself to the principles she found in the stories she loves, and a fat woman whose fatness is not allowed to narratively undermine her.

Houser has also given Faith something she lacked before in any term of Valiant’s existence: palpable intelligence. Her original appearance, scripted by Joshua Dysart, caused some dismay, presenting her as a foolish girl thought too silly to realise she shouldn’t call herself hot and wear tight dresses. Her time with the Harbinger kids (are also Dysart’s scripts) saw her valued as a friend and enthusiastic as a heroine and established her fandom and optimism. It gave her a pretty great, sweet “first sex” scene (In Oldest Valiant or in Newest, Faith Herbert fucks), but it also emphasised exclamation marks and woolly-headedness. She gets pushed around and is over keen; there’s a frictionlessness to her character that makes me nervous. She has no solid ground of power to rely on in the matter of social self-defence.

Dysart’s Harbinger: Faith one-shot bridges the gap between Harbinger and Faith’s two-issue appearance in the Avengers-style team book Unity, and while it treats Faith with tenderness and allows her to value herself, it’s not until our heroine gets out of Unity (script by Matt Kindt, prioritising pop-culture references over dignity), into her own adult life and solo series, that it feels safe to fully empathise with her. Fat, nice, and not clever is a combination that the rest of the Valiant Universe isn’t kind enough to make room for, making pre-Houser Faith scripts an adventure in uncomfortability.

With Houser at the wheel, Faith has the self-possession and self-awareness to dispel any worries about her being successfully patronised. That’s important, because when the heroine is patronised (as she is in Kindt’s Unity) so is the empathising reader. In Faith, Faith retains her goodness, her optimism, and her fandom, but she wears them. They do not wear her.

Valiant 3’s Secret Weapons are also unmissable. Valiant High is Valiant 3’s highschool AU, and it’s the most charming, most adorable thing. The most standalone of Valiant’s offerings, it’s also Valiant 3’s most reader-inspiring title. In Daniel Kibblesmith’s scripts, everyone is so precious you’ll want to go and see what they’re “really” like, and Derek Charm’s fantastic character designs only get better when you’re able to compare them to their source material. Ideally, for me, schooldays Faith is best friends with this Schooldays-version of Livewire (the leader of the Secret Weapons, and the protagonist of Valiant High)—two faves that go great together. It requires no prior knowledge to read, and was only four issues long. A print collection is out later this year.

I’m also crazy about Clay McHenry, Valiant 1’s second Geomancer. One of the best character designs I ever saw, and a redemption story that doesn’t make me furious, because he’s fully cognisant of how much of a fucko he’s been. That Fontenot—a real writer.

A Barry Windsor-Smith cover for Eternal Warrior, showing Master Darque

A Barry WIndsor-Smith cover for Eternal Warrior, showing Master Darque

Master Darque of Valiant 1 is perhaps my favourite supervillain ever, a Mister Sinister who’s nude and chill and a powerful necromancer, and surprisingly effective for, you know, a bad guy. He’s a Shadowman villain, he’s firmly situated within his house in New Orleans, but he created the Solar enemy Doctor Eclipse, and he made Doctor Mirage into the ghost that he is (thereby establishing the entire premise of the eighteen issue series The Second Life of Doctor Mirage), and he’s there at the evil centre of more than one world-threatening event. Always, always, there’s that interconnectedness. No wasted time, and no wasted space.

What was it that drew you to Valiant?

Two things at once! Funnily enough, my sweetie suddenly developed a powerful urge to replay Turok Rage Wars, the only shooting game he enjoyed in his youth. It simultaneously hit him, as these things sometimes do, that it would be a good idea to read all of the Turok comics that establish the story that that game was technically a part of. What we didn’t realise, until he was pretty well stuck in, was that the Acclaim video game Turok character is, comicswise, a minimally published reboot unrelated to Valiant’s Gold Key continuation. Oh well! These originals is good comics. No loss.

But at the same time as that, I was finding my interest in Old Valiant building because of my enjoyment of a few minor issues of New Valiant. Before he left the company, Hunter Gorinson’s incredibly active PR for Valiant had me feeling like if they were trying to do the whole superhero thing then I should at least give them the opportunity to be judged. I dipped a toe in with Faith, because I Want Fat Woman Heroes: it was good. I tried Secret Weapons (we’ve been over that). Tried a little Bloodshot, pretty good. More Secret Weapons—really beginning to love this! With my sweetie getting into Old Valiant, I began to be curious about what these titles were like in their original versions. I love a reimagining! I love a KNOCKOFF! I love to spot and ponder the differences between two versions of the same thing. Why were those choices made? What’s been gained, what’s lost? So off I went.

New Valiant has been making some apparent efforts to up the equality quotient, especially having lost Turok and his ward Andy, both Kiowa men written with Kiowa consultation, and having killed off Toyo Harada. Dr Mirage is a woman now; there’s a female Geomancer and a female Timewalker. Only one of these three is white, where initially two were. There’s a black female Ninjak now as well as the white male one. Livewire, their most prominent black heroine, was white in Old Valiant, although the current version of the character does seem to have been strongly inspired by Valiant 1’s X-O Man-O-War’s black chief of security Randy Cartier. Livewire’s Secret Weapons kids are a white girl, and two asian boys (one East, one South), and female b-stringers turn up in guys’ books once you’re reading them. The active Valiant landscape does still skew white and male; it’s by no means aproblematic. But you don’t have to read white lads’ books to read Valiant.

Faith, in her office disguise, is visited by the Timewalker

On the other hand, the death found early in original Harbinger happened, in reboot, to one of the team’s girls instead of the character it initially removed. It’s all very well to create someone who’s supposed to be sex positive and empowered, even if she’s supposed to be a teenager (it’s potentially alright), but it’s not very well to kill her. It’s traditional. The female Geomancer I mentioned has also died, and been resurrected, evil. Livewire is currently “the enemy” of Harbinger Wars 2. There have been steps forward and steps back.

Similarly, new Valiant retains the grounded seriousness of old Valiant, but it’s very serious about its seriousness. X-O Man-O-War is a little less fun than he used to be, never cracking a smile that I’ve seen. (Does he even still wear B.U.M. Equipment?) It’s unfortunate! Old Valiant was never morally uncomplicated. They never seemed to be invested in keeping their heroes and heroines unsullied or unbruised. Solar, their Superman, causes a reality-destroying crossover with the Image Universe (yes, really), because he’s too depressed and horny, for example, and that’s not the only time he’s been an agent of cosmic destruction. But current Valiant can edge toward the depressing if you don’t carefully prune your reading experience. The old one had deaths and heel turns, disappointments galore, but it also had too much momentum to really allow the reader’s feelings to sag. And a definite sense of humour.

I’m looking forward to Vita Ayala (whose work shouldn’t fall under my earlier “by and about girls” umbrella; they’re nonbinary), as well as Jody Houser’s Livewire and Faith scripts post-Harbinger Wars 2, I’ll say that much. Diversifying the writers’ pool is a priority, and continuing to diversify the keystone character brands a close second. But also I’d like some more funny bits.

What is it that you think makes Valiant unique? What does it have to offer that other companies fail to?

Valiant 1 boasts good crossover events. That’s something to shout about. Jim Shooter seems to have been the only man with a brain designed for the task, (note that once he arranged the Secret Wars toy licenses for Marvel in ‘84 and it turned out somebody needed to write the thing, he did it himself, though his job description was to edit. This is just a style of narrative he knew how to write), and Layton must have been taking notes. Unity is the Valiant U’s first crossover, and it’s seamlessly woven between titles. Valiant was also remarkably good at hitting print deadlines: a well run ship, and the proof really is in the pudding. Valiant 1 took superheroes very seriously, as a premise, and this won’t appeal directly to everyone but for me it’s a dream.

All three versions of the brand have manageable, small issue runs, and limited series are actually fairly normal. Currently, none of these shared universes have been around for more than six years, which means that while they’re a little daunting to begin with, once you get stuck in, it’s not at all hard to read everything. Or at least everything you’re interested in. The current Doctor Mirage, for example, has ten issues to her name: two mini series, each collected into one trade, as she first searches for her husband’s ghost and then tries to turn him solid. Originally Doctor Mirage, a ghost, and his living wife Carmen Ruiz had an eighteen issue run. Faith has a twelve issue solo run, a Faith and the Future Force mini (where she teams up with Doctor Neela Sethi and her friend the large dinosaur woman) that had four issues and a special or two. Original Harbinger only has forty-one issues to track down, or nab on comixology. These heroes and heroines come in manageable stacks, and, importantly, those stacks don’t feel abrupt or short once you’re reading. They feel like good stories. Good comics! Good comics.

So, where should one start when reading Valiant?

If you’re brave or curious or dedicated well enough to history that you’re down to try the original universe, I’d suggest starting with Unity. As I mentioned, Unity was Valiant’s first crossover event, and it laid out where every title was in context to all the others. It established how “the present” (1992) related to “the future”: Magnus, Robot Fighter’s fourth millennium. It connected Turok and his dinosaur enemies, both of whom had been in the Lost Land for countless years-out-of-time, back to the regular world. It let heroes make friends and alliances, and even explained some familial ties and legacies between timezones. It’s very easy to follow, and remains dramatic to read. As it was an event which happened within issues of regular titles, it also allows you to pick your favourites and easily follow them to their subsequent (or previous) issues. The Unity issues are listed here and should be available on comixology (Valiant Classic), if not in your local backissues longboxes.

The Unity #0 cover

A look inside—some gorgeous, trippy stuff

If you’re an Image-in-the-’90s fan (~ironic or pure), go for Deathmate, although please do be aware that there are a lot of misleading ideas about this series available online. The story of Deathmate is that Solar has some trouble in the future, has a bit of a moment, tears in half, and meets an other-worldly being from “the Image universe” (there’s really no such thing, but Top Cow, Wildstorm, and Extreme Studios characters feature). They “mate”—an unfortunately gross way to put it—but their extreme cosmic difference means that all reality starts to end. Before it does, the Valiant universe and the Top Cow/Wildstorm/Extreme worlds and characters all get ripped in half and smushed back together wrong, leaving two new realities, each featuring a handful of mash-up stories. It’s a fun bit of nonsense that culminates in a struggle between Master Darque (hurray!) and a team-up of Valiant’s Solar, Extreme’s Supreme, and the lesser known Wildstorm superhero Union (who had the best #1 of the early years of Image). In the end, everything’s put back to normal, and the event self-negates. A good Sunday afternoon read, with a delightful Rob Liefeld anecdote attached.

For present-day Valiant beginners, Valiant High has to be the best bet. (It’s been out digitally for an age, but single print issues should still be hanging around in your local. #4 hits shelves in August and a print collection is to follow.) Secret Weapons, Faith, and Doctor Mirage all have the aforementioned short, manageable, good runs to try out. Indeed, as the current Editorial Director Robert Meyers put it recently,

“I don’t want us to publish 75 different titles. It’s not worth it to us. We’ve got our fans so onboard with this tightly-knit universe without breaking anyone’s wallet. That’s key to me. I remember having to put books back at the shop when picking up my stack, and I get it.”

And while it’s determined distance wore me out after a while, if you enjoy seriousness in your superheroes (which is different from taking superheroes seriously) then the team book Unity is fairly diverting.

ADORABLE. I LOVE THEM

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Claire Napier
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