Some might remember Valiant Comics for their rich storytelling and astonishing artwork. Others might remember Valiant for their innovations like issue zeros, chromium covers, and free comics. One thing for certain is that the nineties wouldn’t have been nineties without comic books like Bloodshot, Eternal Warrior, and Harbinger. Friends were made, careers were launched, and politics were always prevalent as the small company grew to the third most powerful comic company only to cease publishing a few years later. This is Valiant’s story.
Jim Shooter has always been a man with a plan and his plan in the late 1980′s was the purchasing of Marvel Comics. After working for many years as both Editor-In-Chief and writer for Marvel, Shooter had a chance to purchase the company and welcomed the idea to own the company he had called home for so many years. Over the course of a year, Shooter would raise millions upon millions of dollars, finally putting in an 81 million dollar bid for the company. Much to Shooter’s surprise, the company was sold to another bidder. Even with the failed bid, Shooter realized his abilities to raise funds and possibly start a company. Luckily for Shooter he would find a friend in Steve Massarsky.
Shooter first met Steve Massarsky when Massarsky wanted to put together a live action show together featuring Marvel Comics characters. Massarsky, a legend in the music field known for managing such groups as the Allman Brothers had optioned all the live action rights from Marvel for just $25,000 and hired Shooter to write the show for him. Before the show could be produced, the two-year option that Massarsky had on the Marvel characters ran out, leaving Massarsky without his project when he was unable to re-secure the option. Shooter and Massarsky would soon decide to become partners and the two went off in search of financing, finally securing a deal with Triumph Capital, a private equity firm. Their finances locked in place; the two began looking at ideas to produce for their new venture. Buying Harvey Comics, well-known for characters like Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost, was first looked into, but the men decided to go ahead and start their own comic book company.
Gold Key comics had been a favorite of Shooter’s from his younger years, Magnus Robot Fighter 4000AD being a comic book he had remembered fondly. Shooter would go to the owners of the Gold Key characters and make a deal for the rights to the entire stable of Gold Key characters. The owners liked Shooter and soon enough Shooter found himself the proprietor of such Gold Key characters as Magnus, Turok, and Solar. Now with Massarsky, a third partner named Winston Fowlkes, Triumph Capital, and the Gold Key characters in hand, Shooter would bring aboard such talent as Don Perlin, Janet Jackson, and Barry Windsor-Smith to help launch the new comic company named Valiant Comics.
In 1989, Valiant would open their offices in a fifth floor loft in downtown Manhattan. The Valiant office in the early days had a small staff consisting of just about ten people to start the production of Valiant Comics. The offices are described as being crummy and space heaters were brought to heat the staff since the office was so cold. One day Jim Shooter would discover that a rat gave birth to a litter of babies inside a pocket of a sports jacket he left lying on his desk.
As Valiant began their quest to join the ranks as a comic book publisher, a deal was struck between Valiant and video game giant Nintendo. Valiant decided to buy the rights to publish several Nintendo characters including Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. The thoughts behind these video game comics and the wrestling comics that would soon follow was the marketing that could come with their production. Nintendo had a massive database of subscribers for their own magazine, Nintendo Power. With some many fans reading Nintendo’s magazine a month and Nintendo helping to market and promote the comics, Valiant’s comics could conceivably reach millions of potential readers. The new comic company would pay a huge sum of money and secure the rights. Valiant would release its first comic book, Super Mario Brothers Special Edition #1, in early 1990 only to find the help they thought they would have from Nintendo to market their products not there as promised.
Bob Layton, known from co-creating X-Factor and his legendary Iron Man run at Marvel Comics, would come onboard at Valiant as a co-founder and later assume the mantle of Editor-In-Chief. Layton was bought in to handle the production of the Gold Key characters, but found himself knee-deep in Mario Brothers. “This was an interesting point in Valiant history,” says Layton. “I was brought in to handle the superhero line only to find out that we were going to sit on those properties and pursue Nintendo and WWF. I argued that those two audiences are notorious for not reading–period. But upper management had dollar signs in their eyes and thought they could pull serious numbers from both franchises. It was a major miscalculation.” The comics would end up featuring some artwork by legend Steve Ditko while also launching the first professional works by David Lapham and Joe Quesada. However, the comics would never find their niche with the comic buying public.
Valiant found that not only were the books not selling, but video game fans themselves would loathe the books. Millions of dollars were lost in acquiring and publishing the game comics and Triumph, Valiant’s investors, were upset that the money they had invested in the company was quickly disappearing while there wasn’t much to show for it. Triumph moved quickly to make some changes, removing Chief Financial Officer Winston Folkes and replacing him with Fred Pierce.
While Valiant would produce Nintendo comics until late 1991, they decided to distance themselves from their failure and focus on publishing the Gold Key properties. Finding most of their money squandered, the comic publisher sat down to produce their superhero line with nearly no money available. The staff found themselves living under a threat of closure at a moment’s notice. With the pressure on, Jim Shooter would sit down and write a story-arc titled “Steel Nation” for Valiant’s first book, Magnus Robot Fighter.
Magnus Robot Fighter would premiere in early 1991, parlaying the story of a man raised from infancy by a robot named 1-A. It was a futuristic tale in which the citizens of North America (now called North Am) have become too dependent on their robot work force. When robots, known as Freewills, rebel against humanity it’s up to Magnus to save the day by destroying these Freewill robots. While numbers of sales cooled a bit after the first issue, the comic remained steady at about 60,000 copies per issue in those early months, a number considered a low print run by early 90′s standards, but a number that would place Magnus in the top 25 in today’s market. Solar, Man of the Atom, another superhero book based on another Gold Key comic, would premiere three months later, to the same sort of critical success. The company found themselves not garnering much attention at first with their superhero line as many chose to ignore the small publisher.
From the start, Valiant would cater more to the everyday comic fan. Magnus #1, along with the next seven issues, would contain a coupon. When all the coupons were collected a reader could send in those coupons and receive a limited edition zero issue from Valiant. It wasn’t the first time a zero issue had ever been produced, but at this time zero issues were still nearly unheard of in the industry. On top of that, who would ever give away a free comic?
“I look back at this and marvel at the incredible lunacy of the publishing plan, we were literally making it up as we went along,” says Layton of these early days. “Because we worked under the constant deadline threat, so much of the company’s title expansion was done totally on the fly, usually over dinner at Volare’, Jim (Shooter)’s favorite restaurant in the Village. We pasted up the lettering from overlays because it was always the last thing to be completed. One needs only to look at any Valiant art page to see the pasted-up balloons.”
The Valiant line would continue to expand their superhero line, starting with Magnus Robot Fighter #5. The book became a flip-book with the other story premiering the adventures of a Japanese superhero named Rai. The mini-series within a series quickly became a fan favorite and would quickly jump to his own book once the mini-series held within Magnus ended.
The first Valiant comic to feature non-Gold Key characters would not be Rai however but a book titled Harbinger, premiering four months after Solar #1. Harbinger would tell the tale of Peter Stanchek, a young boy with extraordinary powers who goes renegade from his former mentor Toyo Harada, who runs the evil Harbinger Corporation. Peter gathers together a group of young teens and goes on the offensive against Harada, hoping to bring down his evil organization once and for all. The title would have a three-fold meaning as kids with powers would be labeled as ‘Harbingers’, Harada, being a ‘Omega Harbinger’, names his corporation after that label, and the word’s actual definition meaning ‘one that foreshadows what is coming’. As the story played out and Peter’s gang of renegade Harbingers barely escape Harada time and time again, you get the feeling that Harada must be stopped, because the reader realizes Harada himself is the foreshadow, a powerful man who could realistically take over the world. The first six Harbinger comics would also come with coupons, redeemable for Harbinger’s own zero issue.
New readers began jumping on as Valiant continued to add new titles like X-O Manowar (the story of a barbarian in a robotic suit) and Shadowman (a musician from New Orleans with a mystical power). Those new readers then started to look for the earliest issues at their local shops and conventions. Wizard Magazine, which had just begun publishing would take note with its fifth issue, asking, “Has anyone noticed that all of the Valiant titles are slowly climbing up the price charts?” A mere two issues later, Barry Windsor-Smith’s artwork would grace the magazine’s cover with X-O Manowar. The issue featured a Barry Windsor-Smith and a Jim Shooter interview, while sporting some of the first print ads for the company.
Magnus #12 would celebrate its first full year by premiering another update of a classic Gold Key character, fan favorite Turok whose long lasting Gold Key series was published for a staggering 130 issues. The next month, Solar #10 would introduce a new hero, an immortal known as the Eternal Warrior. It would also prove to be Valiant’s first gimmick comic cover, for fans were clamoring for the all black cover issue. “When I arrived (at Valiant), the average title did 25 to 30,000 copies,” says Kevin VanHook, a former writer and editor at Valiant. “The day I met Jon Hartz of Marketing, I learned that the orders for Solar #10 was 40,000 copies and that was their biggest sale yet.” Sales on Solar #10 was so in demand that Valiant would issue a second printing to meet fans’ demands.
Though the company was starting to find success with their books, the company’s staff still remained small and tight-knit. “Jim (Shooter) and Bob (Layton) editorially,” remember VanHook. “Fred Pierce heading operations, (Steve) Massarsky publishing, Seymour Miles selling ads and Ed Dupre heading accounting. Jim had Janet Jackson running the coloring department and an assistant, Debbie Fix. Scott Friedlander, John Kelly and Randy Brozen worked in production. That was the staff. There were a few freelance production guys, like Harry Eisenstein (who later joined me in visual effects), and Joe Albelo, but that was pretty much it. All the artists were freelance.”
Print runs began to leap thousands of issues from each subsequent month and readers were wondering, as May 1992 quickly approached, what exactly was this upcoming crossover titled ‘Unity’. Retailers were wondering also, but with fans buying more and more Valiants’, they ordered heavy and the comics print runs began to reach hundreds of thousands per each Valiant title.
Though success in the comic book world was finally upon Valiant, the company still found themselves seriously in debt to their investors. “We were desperate to make an impact on the Direct Market,” says Layton. “We were deeply in debt to Triumph and need to turn things around quickly. Unity was the simplest answer to the problem.” The Unity crossover would cross into every Valiant comic, eight in total to include the newly added Eternal Warrior title and Archer & Armstrong, a book featuring the Eternal Warrior’s brother.
The crossover would begin with a Unity #0 issue and the storyline would conclude with Unity #1. Fans and retailers alike were surprised by the news that the lead-off Unity #0 wouldn’t cost them a dime as the cover price said it all: FREE. “We were operating under the ‘school yard pusher’ theory: give (the readers) the first one free and once they’re hooked, make ‘em pay,” says Layton on the stunt.
Pay the fans did. Valiant found print numbers as high as 150,000 copies per issue and for good reason. The crossover featured characters from Valiant’s present and future teamed up to stop a woman with amazing powers trying to reinvent the world in her own way. The heroes of Valiant are brought to ‘the Lost Land’ to fight this menace only to find themselves out manned against troops, dinosaurs, and Erica Pierce, the woman who rivals Valiant hero Solar’s own power. Even the covers would draw in fans thanks to artwork by legends Frank Miller and Walter Simonson. Valiant history was made as fans learned the true origin of Magnus Robot Fighter and saw the death of Rai (whose book was cancelled one issue after the Unity crossover).
The Valiant heroes would defeat the villain, and Valiant itself won over the public with the crossover. Sales would continue to skyrocket and Valiant would reach a momentous moment when, at the yearly Diamond Convention, they were named by retailers as “Publisher of the Year”. Shooter would also receive an award for lifetime achievement, along with Bob Overstreet and Stan Lee.
Even with all of its successes, Valiant would unbelievably still be in debt. “After Unity, the sales figures were still not enough to make up for the huge debt load we owed Triumph. The initial investment by Triumph was for only two million dollars. By Unity, we owed them over four million and they were not happy with us –not one bit,” Layton recollected.
“The initial artistic chemistry at Valiant, when Jim Shooter and Barry Windsor-Smith were spearheading the direction of the superhero universe, was a rare flashpoint in the history of comics,” remembers former Valiant editor Jeff Gomez. “Those were unique, personal and passionately-told stories. Shooter was doing everything he ever wanted to do at Marvel, but had been hampered at doing. Although it’s a common take today to have superheroes interacting with an ‘everyday world’ where no one had ever seen flying people, alien spacecraft and magical powers, the concept was fairly new back then. An incredible amount of attention was being given to detail, continuity, science, and graphic presentation.”
The vision of Valiant was very prevalent when Rai #0 was released two months after Unity, a book that left fans in awe. The issue was less a story and more of a Valiant universe bible, foretelling events anywhere from one to ten to a thousand years away. The book would start off introducing a new Valiant character, a bald man named Bloodshot, who would kill his captors and escape thanks to a Geomancer. The book would go quickly move on to 1999, where readers would learn that fan favorite Shadowman would die fighting a villain named Master Darque. Years in the book leaped quickly as the reader moved panel to panel, nearly learning the demise of most of Valiant’s famous characters before moving to the year 4002, introducing a new Rai and leading into a new Rai series. The issue was a quick success, selling out nearly immediately.
The issue would also be a departure and another dark moment for Valiant, a moment that found Jim Shooter leaving the company he had founded. Janet Jackson and Debbie Fix would leave with him, and David Lapham would follow shortly behind. The removal of Shooter was an internal struggle in regards to the management of the company, with multiple versions of what exactly lead to his ousting coming out over the years. Fans however were left in complete shock upon learning of Shooter’s exile and the writers and artists of Valiant tried hard to press on without him. Kevin VanHook remembers, “I called Jim the night he left and asked him how he felt, since I was being asked to write Solar and Eternal Warrior and he said that he felt it was the smartest thing (Valiant) could do. I know since then, that Jim may have felt that I turned against him by staying and developing the titles I did, but there was never any animosity there for me. I respected what he had done and for a long time, tried to take the characters where I thought he wanted them to go.”
Even with the internal problems, Valiant would quickly become profitable and the debt to Triumph Capital quickly wiped out. The staff would grow to nearly two hundred employees overall, with eighteen artists working in. Former writer and editor Tony Bedard recollects, “Valiant was a magical place to work for a while there. It seemed like we could do no wrong and the sky was the limit. I think a lot of that success was really set up by the solid, basic storytelling Jim Shooter demanded in the early days, and the more we got away from that, the more the company lost its way over time. There was a real tight-knit family atmosphere there, and I’m still close friends with a lot of Valiant folks to this day.”
“After Unity was successful and really after H.A.R.D. Corps, we grew a bit,” explains VanHook. “I brought on Cliff VanMeter, Darren Sanchez, Simon Erich, Jesse Berdinka, etc. I stopped being Production Manager in the fall of that year and started editing. By January, I was Executive Editor and Vice President. Many of our multi-talented colorists were also writers and editors. Maurice Fontenot and Jorge Gonzalez were prime examples. Most of our growth was in having multiple editors and an influx of creators as well as expanding our production department to do trading cards and special projects.” H.A.R.D. Corps premiered to big numbers with the help of a beautiful Jim Lee gatefold cover.
“Shortly after Shooter departed,” says Layton. “And our sales began to skyrocket, I recall sitting in a meeting with (Jon) Hartz and (Steve) Massarsky where we mutually agreed never to print over 500,000 copies of any of our titles. I harped on the fact that the numbers that Marvel was drawing on the X-Men were not reflective of the number of actual readers in the comics market. Of course, greed is a bitch. Eventually, the temptation became simply too great to resist and we started printing to speculator demands. That proved to have huge negative repercussions down the road.”
That number was quickly passed a few short months later when VanHook’s new book was released. Originally titled ‘Rising Spirit’, Bloodshot now had his own comic with a premiere that no one could expect. The issue would carry a $3.50 cover price but the cover was a beauty to behold, a chromium cover penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith. The issue, featuring a massive 742,000 print run, would come out on November 12, 1992, the same day Superman #75 killed off the Man of Steel. Vanhook remembers, “At Forbidden Planet in NYC, there were two lines around the block. One for each mega-hit selling book.”
When the new series titled Rai and the Future Force premiered six months after Rai #0, a staggering 900,000 copies was produced. The issue would also provide a huge milestone for Valiant, as it was the first time a Valiant book was listed in the Top 10 best-selling list, landing on the list as the number 4 comic of the month. Each subsequent month after would feature a Valiant comic in that top 10 list, as the following months would see Magnus #25 at number 7, X-O Manowar #0 at number 4, and the Image crossover Deathmate reach the number one spot. Turok would see his own title premiere to massive results as an overwhelming 1,750,000 copies of the book would be produced. Even at nearly two million copies, Turok would only reach #4 on the top ten list that month.
Let that sink in – two million copies landed it at #4.
During these months, Valiant would see fourteen of their books in the top 100, with Wizard Magazine listing a staggering seven Valiant books in their Top 10 books around the country list. As current Valiant comics were being snatched off the shelves by readers the rarer “pre-Unity” issues were selling like hot cakes. Thanks to tiny print runs and boost in books’ popularity, Harbinger #1 would reach a staggering $125, the send-away Magnus #0 would attain a $110 price tag, while Solar and X-O #1′s would remain in the mid $30′s. Some issues would rise dramatically in price not because it was popular, but because of the (relatively) minute print runs. Rai #3 and #4 would rise to upwards of a hundred dollars apiece because less then 25,000 copies were published of each book.
Near the end of 1993 it was noted that demand for Valiant has reached a plateau as many dealers starting to sell books at 50% off. It was also a time where Valiant’s investors, having made a fortune off their investment, wanted to throw their hand in and cash out.
VanHook remembers the great energy that was abundant around the Valiant offices, “When I got there, a lot of the colorists were pulling all-nighters. There was no good sense of scheduling. Initially, that’s what I brought to the table. I was also unusual, because I was ‘a suit’ and an artist. Both sides could talk with me. It sounds pompous, but the fact is that I brought a calming influence to the situation, because I understood both sides of the equation. That’s why, quite literally, my desk was on the corner of, “Knob Row” (the nickname of the Valiant artists) and “Park Avenue” where the execs sat. There were nerf fights and zaniness. And hard work. I think I earned my wings with everyone the week Shooter left. Massarsky came to me and said, “We understand if books don’t ship to the printer this week.” I told him that I felt that would be unacceptable. If we were moving on without Jim, we could not miss a beat. I was the suit who didn’t sleep and who never asked anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. It makes a difference when you ask somebody to go above and beyond if they see you’re right there with them.”
“Knob Row itself were several rows of artists desks originally built to house nearly all of Valiant’s freelancers,” says Jeff Gomez. “I believe Bob Layton coined the term, because of how young and new most of the talent was. They were like “doorknobs” waiting to be turned. Another wonderful thing about Knob Row is that Bob would give weekly lessons in penciling and inking to the freelancers there. It was the warmest and most fulfilled I’d ever seen Bob and he really did pass on a lot of talent to the kids. The whole place would stop and there was a hush as they watched him inking a comic book page. That was magic!”
“I also noticed that Bob Layton was a very strong personality and that the editors/writers tended to be demure around him,” Gomez notes. “They tended to default to ideas that they knew he liked and concepts that he’d given a thumbs up to previously, so we were seeing a whole lot of stories featuring Spider Aliens, Dr. Eclipse, and Solar splitting in half. Things were starting to get repetitive. That’s not to say that Bob didn’t recognize this and demand fresh ideas. He certainly did. But he could be imposing and critical of stuff he didn’t like, and a lot of the staff was pretty thin-skinned.”
As Valiant tried to work their groove internally, a comic book phenomenon called the ‘Spectator’s Bubble’ was reaching its peak thanks to Valiant. Earliest issues were still bringing in massive amounts of dollars per issue, Unity was considered THE comic books crossover event, and zero issues, chromium covers, gold logos, and signature-series books were debuting month after month as Valiant continued to push the envelope. DC and Marvel would jump quickly onto this bandwagon and each month some different book cover would premiere another new innovation, trying to best whatever the competitor was coming up with. Collectors were in a frenzy with this simple thought process, ‘Buy as many of these covers as I can. Then I can sell them later for a huge profit and put my kids through college.’
Collectors weren’t the only ones taking advantage of these special covers. “Funny story,” relays Jeff Gomez. “At the time I came to Valiant, I wasn’t doing very well financially. My wife and I had just moved, and money was tight. I wouldn’t see my first paycheck for a couple of weeks. So, I actually took my copy of Bloodshot #0 Gold and sold it to a comic book store that first week for $50. I bought groceries with that money! Sorry Kevin!”
“Among the things that set apart the Valiant line were the hand coloring, which looked great until computer coloring blew it out of the water, and the Gold Logo program,” says Bedard. “We used to give out limited edition gold logo books to readers out there who did something to promote our books in their area. It was a great way to do a sort of ‘viral marketing.’ But the special logos and holograph covers and such were also an unhealthy sign, a reflection of the speculator mentality that both inflated our sales artificially, then left us high and dry when the bubble collapsed.” Valiant wasn’t without some of failures in their innovations. “Far and away my least favorite Valiant innovation was Valiant Vision. That silly 3-D effect was achieved by coloring near items in warm colors and distant items in cool colors. The results looked awful without the glasses on, and it was a huge distraction from the story to see the art colored so garishly. I still can’t look at an issue of Psi-Lords without cringing,” says Bedard.
Valiant would continue to pump out new and old books alike. Armorines, Secret Weapons (Valiant’s answer to Justice League), and Ninjak, the story of a top espionage expert who wore a Kevlar armored body-suit that could change colors, would premiere to massive print runs. Former Ninjak penciller Joe Quesada remembers his work at Valiant, “I was just going through a pile of original art the other day trying to figure out what I was going to be selling and I came upon that old Ninjak stuff. Man, that was just a great concept for a comic and a fun character all around.” On the company’s next crossover Quesada states, “Now the Deathmate crossover with Image was just a stunt so it wasn’t one of those things that I was hyper excited about, I still forget I did that book until people bring it to me at cons to sign.”
Deathmate was a crossover that would team Valiant’s characters with those of the Image universe. Bringing the characters into one collaborative universe, both the Image and the Valiant staffs would have full reign over the characters. There would be a prologue and a epilogue and both companies would produce two center books each, featuring a color scheme instead of an issue number. Valiant’s issues, Blue and Yellow, came out on time. Image’s Black would follow a few months later, but months would then pass by as readers waited for Deathmate Red, to be published by Rob Liefeld.
“Here’s what you don’t know about that time at Valiant,” says Bob Layton. “I literally had nothing to do with most of those projects. Deathmate was thrust upon us because (Steve) Massarsky and Jim Lee were best buddies at the time and had privately arranged the crossover. The project was jammed down our throats and we did our best to comply, although most Valiant creators thought it was a bad idea. On top of that, Image couldn’t make a deadline with a gun to their head. At one point, I wound-up flying to L.A. and sitting on Rob Leifield’s doorstep literally refusing to leave until he penciled his part of the Deathmate Prologue. I had to ink that chapter of the book in a hotel room in Anaheim. What a pain in the ass that was! There I was, with my own company to manage, and I was in California, managing someone else’s people. I look back at it and can’t believe some of the ____ I had to put up with as E.I.C. of Valiant. As far as failures, Deathmate and [Valiant promotion] Birthquake were unmitigated disasters. Not necessarily in the numbers, but in the consequences of their release.”
Liefeld’s Deathmate Red would eventually be released to a non-caring audience.
Valiant, along with many comic companies across the board, were starting to feel the sharp sting of many spectators who began to realize that buying so many of one book probably wasn’t the best idea. “We went from selling 300,000 copies of our best-selling titles a month to 75,000 across the course of the summer,” says VanHook. “I think that Deathmate sounded the beginning of the problems and when Image couldn’t get their side of the cross-over out on time, it hurt everyone. I think [Valiant crossover] Chaos Effect the next summer was a decent idea, but there wasn’t anything new to capture the audience’s imagination. We made a specific mistake in choosing not to advertise during the summer of ’93. Our books were almost too hot and we wanted to get more realistic numbers. Remember, we were the collectible company. That meant wealthier speculators buying cases of the stuff, hoping to sell it for ten times what they paid for it within a year. In some cases, they did! That’s why there’s so much of our output from that era on the market.”
On top of the sales drop, Triumph Capital decided that now might be the best time to cash in their chips.
“I’m going to tell you exactly what happened and why we had no control over the sale of the company,” Layton says candidly about the sale, “Triumph, by the end of ’93, had made a small fortune off of Valiant. We were netting around 30 million a year and they had more than satisfied their investors. If you understand how venture capital works, they are always short-term investors. Once Triumph had made sufficient profits, they ordered Massarsky to sell the company. They wanted out. They were in the venture capital business, not the publishing biz. They didn’t give us a choice.”
“Steve and I met with a variety of potential new owners. Unfortunately, the highest bidder was Acclaim. The ‘geniuses’ at Acclaim paid 65 million for us–although, if they had done their homework, they would have discovered that we were only valued at around 30 million. Only after they acquired us did we find out that they had attempted to buy Image, who Acclaim felt matched their video game demographics, but were laughed out of their offices. Then, someone at Acclaim got the idea to buy Valiant. Since Steve, Jon (Hartz) and I were the major private stockholders of Valiant, we all got millions from the sale of the company. However, the way the deal was setup, the money was placed in escrow and paid out in one/fifth increments over the five year term of our employment agreements. Of course, as you know from history, they mismanaged our company into ruin.”
With its new owner’s in tow, Valiant realized that something had to happen quick to bring back readers and try to get their numbers back up. The answer was to land some big name talent for an event titled Birthquake.
With the buyout by Acclaim now complete, Acclaim was now willing to give the Valiant line some money. The first thing that was done was to bring in some top-level artists to pencil the books, paying top dollar to these new artists. To usher in the new artists, Valiant would promote their arrival in a marketing promotion titled ‘Birthquake’. Before Birthquake hit the entire Valiant line, eight of the Valiant books would be cancelled including mainstays like Harbinger and Rai. Massarsky would contract artists like Keith Giffen, Norm Breyfogle and Bart Sears, some receiving as much as 20,000 dollars to pencil a single issue. On top of the salaries, the decision was made to publish two books a month for two months as part of the Birthquake event. With only ten books left to the Valiant line, Birthquake was released to bring fans back to Valiant. The result was quite the opposite.
“The idea that if you went into a comic shop and your favorite title wasn’t there, you were steered to try something else,” says VanHook on the event. “What if a new issue came out every two weeks? Twice as often as before? That was the genesis for our frequency. I think that the crux of our problem and the ultimate reason that the books are no longer published, is that we/the company was too quick on multiple equations to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I genuinely believe that it would’ve been better to keep doing what we had done and not re-invent everything over and over again.”
VanHook notes, “In the case of Birthquake, we brought in some really expensive talent to write and draw titles that sold 3-5 percent more than they had with, “Homegrown” talent like Maurice and Jorge. Or myself for that matter. When you pay $40,000 more an issue for a big name to do a book and it sells 5,000 more copies, it doesn’t take a genius to see that it wasn’t the talent that was hurting sales. It may have had more to do with the anti-collectible backlash than anything else. And we had become a fad. People hate fads when they’re over. I was the biggest Miami Vice fan in the world for the first season when nobody else watched it. The next year when my neighbor wore pink shirts and white pants and the show was plastered all over creation, I wanted nothing to do with it.”
The two-month event did nothing to bolster Valiant’s sales. All ten books would continue to see a sales slide with Timewalker, Shadowman, and the Visitor soon meeting their demise. Jeff Gomez adds in about the event, “Why did VH1 [the common name for the first wave of Valiant comics] fail, despite the Birthquake effort? I think there were a lot of reasons, but the most important one, I feel, is that the launch had no creative visionary at the helm. We had some good talent on the books, writers and artists who had not been interns six months before, but by that point, Bob Layton had become disenchanted with the company, and seemed to feel that he was not allowed to impose his vision on the books. It would have been fine, had that vision been turned over to someone with a strong enough will to continue to cultivate and back up the editors, grapple with these hotshot creators and a focused vision to boot, but truth to tell, no one was driving the locomotive. The train was going to crash.”
Layton himself adds in, “The numbers remained abysmal. The company was losing its shirt big time over Birthquake. It was supposed to be an instant fix to lowering unit sales by simply putting out twice as many units a month. Real bad move.” With a massive amount of money spent on the crossover with no sales increase to speak of, an inevitable part of the business world came crashing into the Valiant offices: layoffs.
“The layoffs were six months or so after Birthquake hit,” VanHook remembers. “Morale was down. I had already left NYC to pursue writing full-time and had moved to San Diego. I was asked to come back and Managing Editor at triple my salary and a house. I said yes, then called Massarsky an hour later and had to take it back. I knew that for me and my family it was the worst decision I could make. We loved our new home in California and it would’ve been a stress-filled job for me. There were people in the company that felt that my decision not to return spelled the end of things for them. The day that most of the old guard were laid off, they played Darth Vader’s theme on the stereo at full blast. A sweet comment that was passed on to me was that someone commented, ‘Where’s Luke Skywalker? Isn’t he coming in after the Darth Vader theme to save us?’ The response was, ‘Nope. Luke moved to San Diego.’”
“I was laid off along with much of the staff a few months after our horrible Birthquake effort,” says Bedard. “I was a big part of the Birthquake recruiting effort, so I share in that failure. As for Birthquake thing, we just felt that we were sliding badly, and needed some new blood and popular creators in there. All we accomplished was to alienate our old fans and repel any new readers.”
“Steve (Massarsky) was interviewing replacements for my (Editor-In-Chief) position, but he needed someone who could act as a deal-breaker on the costly Birthquake creator deals,” says Layton. “A revamp of the entire line gave them the ability to cancel those expensive contracts.”
A decision was made upon hiring new Editor-In-Chief Fabian Nicieza, to cancel the remaining Valiant titles and launch all new issues of titles, revamped with all new talent to come aboard. The Valiant era, the VH1 era, would slip away to make way for the Valiant Heroes comics by Acclaim Comics, which would become known as VH2.
“Opportunities at Acclaim were first broached in 1995, but the fit wasn’t comfortable at that time. A year later we were able to work things out, so I started in 1996,” says Fabian Nicieza, a mainstay of Marvel Comics, writer of such books as X-Men, New Warriors, and X-Force) who replaced Layton as EIC of the new Valiant line. “The decisions on how to approach the titles were pretty open. It wasn’t an autocratic decision-making system. I presented my thoughts on relaunching the ‘new universe’ for a variety of reasons. For every argument I had in favor of doing that, of course there were equally valid arguments against. It wasn’t an ego-thing, it was a business decision. How can we make the most noise? How can we get fresh creative voices on our books? How can we best reposition our properties for the marketplace and for the needs of our parent company? Ultimately, the three decision-makers, Steve Massarsky, Jon Hartz and myself, with input from editors agreed to proceed with VH2.”
The decision was to launch some new books along with reimagining of some of the older Valiant books. Bloodshot, Magnus, Ninjak, Shadowman, and X-O Manowar would all come back, along with new series like Trinity Angels, Troublemakers, and Quantum & Woody. There would also be quarterly specials of some old favorites like Turok and Eternal Warriors which would feature the characters from the old books Timewalker, Eternal Warrior, and Archer & Armstrong. Nicieza would also bring aboard some of the biggest names in writing to help boost the relaunch. Kurt Busiek, Garth Ennis, Brian Augustyn, and Mark Waid were just a few of the writers brought on to relaunch the Valiant universe.
“Fabian Nicieza invited Mark Waid and I to join up soon after he conceived of relaunching the line. I’m pretty sure I got to come along because I was Mark’s writing partner at the time, but we had a bunch of fun,” says Brian Augustyn who teamed with Waid to write the new X-O Manowar. “Mark and I had pretty much total freedom to “reinvent” X-O and his cast and surroundings. All of that was ours, with input and kibitzing from Fabe and his staff. I think the only thing we were handed was that the armor had to have some sort of continuity to the previous incarnation. And that at in the past the armor had fallen into the hands of Nazis who used it in WWII. We were fine with that.”
“A cross between Captain America and Iron Man was all that was handed to us and that the rest was our invention,” adds Mark Waid. “To be brutally honest, in order not to accidentally rip anything off from earlier creators, I remember specifically avoiding reading any of the previous X-O run – a record I hold to this day. We knew we wanted to write a super-smart guy–they’re always fun, and a maverick loner is an interesting character to put under the U.S. military’s thumb. We also came up with the idea that fear was what activated the suit and its defenses, so ‘fear’ and ‘discomfort’ became the theme and undercurrent for the entire run. In fact, and this was too subtle because no one ever noticed it, that’s why we deliberately made the book’s supporting cast almost 100% female, because Brian and I are terrified of beautiful women and made a pretty educated guess that most of our readers were, too.”
The books would debut in 1997 to numbers that fell below the final issue numbers of the VH1 series. With the exception of X-O Manowar, most of the print runs per book fell somewhere in the ballpark of 12,000 copies per issue. Some of the fans liked the new spins on the characters, others would reject these new versions straight out, refusing to acknowledge the characters and the books.
“I think Quantum & Woody was our A+ book, head and shoulders above not just our publishing line, but those of most other companies as well,” notes Nicieza. “I thought the Turok Quarterly book was some of the best work I’ve ever done. I thought the first four issues and the last four issues of X-O were really, really fun comics and Magnus and Shadowman all had some very good moments. I think Ninjak was underrated, probably because it was such a radical departure from the previous incarnation, but also because it was intended as an ‘all-ages constructive’ comic book at the dawn of a period when if you weren’t deconstructing superheroes, then obviously you just weren’t cool.”
Jeff Gomez would look at Ninjak another way, “I edited Kurt Busiek on Ninjak, and I found the story sweet, well-crafted and sometimes delightful. But this was Kurt Friggin Busiek, superstar creator of Marvels and Astro City. With all of the freedom granted to him by Fabian, why did he turn Quesada’s hyper-cool Ninjak into a kid who fights monsters that come to life out of a video game? Well, in the end it didn’t matter all that much, because the initial set of writers on the VH2 books were almost entirely gone from them before the first year was out. I think the sales on the books reflected this lack of focus, and after some initial interest, less and less books were being purchased at retail.”
Gomez also felt the burden as an editor as different visions and lack of communication between editors started to unravel continuity almost immediately. “In X-O Manowar there was a massive alien invasion of Earth, but because I didn’t know it was happening until weeks before that issue hit the stands, my characters – Bloodshot, Ninjak, Trinity Angels, Eternal Warriors – could not be involved, and my books didn’t acknowledge it. As a sucker for continuity, and one of the founders of the new universe, I was horrified,” Gomez says while also adding, “Frankly, I also believed that as a company, Acclaim Comics was not getting the very best from this new cadre of writers.”
“I’d only signed on for the short term to begin with, and I do remember specifically being burned out when I was dialoguing issue five,” notes Waid on his VH2 time. “It wasn’t because of the material, but because that was a point in my life where I was caretaking for my terminally ill mother, and despite my best efforts, I wasn’t exactly at the top of my writing game. Again, this may not be the way Brian remembers it, but my recollection is that I had to make a conscious decision around that time to pare my workload down and I ended up leaving X-O a little earlier than planned. Still, it wasn’t like Brian needed me, as the quality of the next dozen issues attest.” Waid’s last issue would be X-O Manowar #5, while Garth Ennis would leave Shadowman after issue 4. Kurt Busiek would stay onboard Ninjak to nearly its last issue.
“One of the smartest re-dos was Fabian’s take on Turok. Acclaim got the most mileage out of that one, because the new universe I helped Fabian to create in Turok’s new Lost Land, Galyanna formed the basis for a couple of big-selling video games,” notes Gomez. “The first character they were thinking about was Turok. Valiant wanted to lead with a character that was considered ‘second string’ at the time, so that we could work the bugs out of our relationship with the parent company without necessarily burning a top tier character out on it. So I took everything that I thought was cool about the character and started putting together a presentation document. Acclaim Entertainment also showed me some technology code named Project Reality that would become a new 64-bit gaming platform with a full 3D graphics engine. It was incredible. Of course, that would become Nintendo 64, and Turok, Dinosaur Hunter boasting my storyline of Turok’s search for and assembly of the Chronoscepter, The game’s first day gross sales in dollars exceeded most blockbuster movies! It was huge! I would wind up creating an even more elaborate storyline for the sequel, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil.”
The games’ successes would not parlay into bigger sales for the comic books. By the time the first Turok game came out, the comics were selling in the 20,000 to 40,000 range. By the time the second game came out, they were selling in the teens. “Acclaim and its product developers were no longer incentivized to make video games based on characters nobody seemed to care about. The comics brass couldn’t convince Acclaim to make games that would bring the characters new prominence and help to sell them into Hollywood,” Gomez notes. “It was all a downward spiral.”
“I took the X-O Manowar character as far as I had planned too. Also, I managed, to drift a bit from the goals in my later issues, and lost focus unfortunately, apologies to the fans. My departure – one mutually agreed upon by me and the company – came before the inevitability of the book’s demise, so I suspect that they had originally intended to revamp X-O, but I’m not certain of that. The last issues were fine, but pretty much in line with what I’d been doing. Valiant had some great stuff going on and it was a lot of fun while it lasted,” Augustyn notes on his departure. “And, of course, Fabian is a genius.”
“I think the company had burned a lot of bridges with fans, retailers and the comics press,” Nicieza comments. “I honestly, probably stupidly, wasn’t aware of how scorched that Earth was. There was less web-site outlets available at that time for the kind of daily publicity you see now aimed at a hardcore target audience. Wizard was the big comic book publicity machine back then and we were pretty much gum under their shoes at that time. I think if we’d had as many on-line publicity outlets available as there are now, we might have had a better chance of building more word of mouth on some of our titles. Ultimately, the simple truth is we were good, but not good enough. In order to reclaim lost readers, lost retailers and new readers, we had to be great, and we weren’t. Not even close.”
Pressure mounted constantly from Acclaim Publishing’s parent company, Acclaim Entertainment. Still facing the loss of a massive amount of dollars spent during the failed Birthquake event, Acclaim Entertainment would saddle Nicieza with finding different ways to generate income for the company. The Editor-In-Chief found himself having to create a program for licensing out Acclaim’s superhero characters to Hollywood while trying to generate income by publishing Classics Illustrated books and licensed Universal Studios properties like Baywatch and Waterworld. Once again Valiant had gone full circle as Nicieza was stretched thin while higher management yearned for greenbacks.
Production of the VH2 line would soon cease. Many of the titles would end very abruptly due to this sudden decision to stop production of all of the Acclaim comic books. The decision was made that Acclaim would continue to produce comics, but focus on mini-series and one-shots instead of ongoing titles. “I initiated the cessation of our NYC operations,” says Nicieza. “I probably could have worked to massage the budgets and maybe gotten another year out of the publishing program, but then I wouldn’t have been honest to my responsibilities. I basically went to the officers of our parent company and said, “We can’t keep going like this anymore.”
“I do believe that the best was yet to come with the second version of the characters,” Gomez says. “There was a massive storyline we were cooking up with the working title “The Final Solution,” which would have addressed many of the problems VH2 was experiencing, and brought back many of the elements that made VH1 special. Fabian sort of summarized it in the last couple of issues of Troublemakers, but it came nowhere near the glory it could have been.”
“We had to reduce the staff from 24 to 7 and relocate our operations to Glen Cove, Long Island which is where Acclaim Entertainment is,” Nicieza adds. “I knew that I wouldn’t stay long after that, since it was a 3 hour commute each way from my home, I had just had my second child and I was pretty burned out by the failure of it all. I hoped the relocated employees would have an opportunity to acclimate themselves to their new surroundings, see if things would work out for them, then have the chance to make decisions on their own.”
Four months after the relocation, Nicieza would resign his Editor-In-Chief position.
The cease of publication didn’t last long. Under the guidance of new Editor-In-Chief Walter Black, new mini-series did start to come out of the woodwork. N.I.O. was released, loosely based on the Rai, and Deadside, from the Shadowman comics, would find their way to shelves. Quantum and Woody would be resurrected, starting off at issue 32 (where the comic would have been should there not have been a break) then continuing on with issue 18. Shadowman would see its second resurrection, this time at the hands of the writing duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, known for their VH1 Ninjak run.
“We had a lot of freedom to create,” says Abnett on his time with Shadowman. “We worked closely with the UK based game company, incorporating their ideas into the strip as much as they worked our ideas into the game. You must remember that Chris Priest had reworked Shadowman significantly just prior to our involvement. He set up a lot of the new ideas – quite brilliantly, we thought and we were able to run with his set up and develop it. Unfortunately, things went exactly the same way as they did the first time [with Ninjak]. Editorial changes. We carried on working with a different editor, but hardly ever spoke to him. We were working from a pre-approved plot. One day we discovered the editor had been sacked a month before and we were e-mailing and leaving messages for no one.”
In its last month, Acclaim would release Shadowman #6, Armorines #4, and Unity 2000 #3. The last issue of the Armorines mini-series would close the door on that series, but Shadowman and Unity 2000 would remain unfinished. A note from the Acclaim solicitation of Shadowman #7 claimed that the issue would be the last of the title as the ‘series was going on hiatus’, but this issue would never be released. Series writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning were paid for the entire twelve issues they had written, the twelfth issue being the wrap-up of the entire arc. “(Six) of them were published? Andy and I only ever saw copies of the first three issues,” Abnett says.
Unity 2000 was an attempt to tie together the storylines and characters from the older Valiant universe and the newer Acclaim universe. The mini-series would serve as a set-up as future Acclaim comics would continue in explaining the relationship between the Valiant and Acclaim characters in future books. Brought back into the fold to write the series was none other then Jim Shooter, bringing with him Jim Starlin of Silver Surfer and Warlock fame. Starting with an idea presented way back in Rai #0, evil-doer Master Darque sets the entire mini-series in motion when he finally kills Shadowman Jack Boniface, foretold to happen when Rai #0 (published in 1992) and happening right on time in 1999. Planned for six issues, three issues would sputter out before Acclaim decided to cease publication of their titles.
“I’m also sorry about the mess James Perham ran into with Unity 2000,” says Gomez. “He was really trying to relaunch the Valiant universe one final time, based out of Acclaim Entertainment headquarters, long after the demise of the comic company’s New York offices. There were so many expenses involved with bringing the books back that Acclaim just dropped it.” Perham, the very last employee from the Valiant/Acclaim Comics era, would stay onboard at Acclaim until early 2003.
Plots and artwork for Unity 2000, just like Shadowman and Quantum and Woody (which would cease publication just a scant few months before), were completed for remaining issues, though they would never see the light of day, allowing resolutions of all the plots. One of the final issues produced by Acclaim would be the end of the Armorines series. Released in January 2000, the issue barely hit stands as only 2,500 copies were released. Compare that to the early Valiant craze where issues Rai #3 and #4 were being called rare because of their 25,000 copy print run and it’s easy to see how rare the final Acclaim comics are.
Solicitations for new books would keep reappearing in Previews for the remaining issues of Unity 2000 and some newer titles. Acclaim Comics Web Anthology, two self-contained 22 (web) page stories were announced, bringing to the web new stories each month featuring characters from across the Valiant Universe. Those stories would later be reproduced into comic book form later in a series simply entitled Acclaim Comics. With the Unity 2000 resolicitaion, the Acclaim schedule would also include new one-shots for fan favorite Doctor Mirage, Harbinger, Bloodshot, Magnus, and a Shadowman comic that would tie into the newest Shadowman game. It was also announced in a post by Perham that, “The remaining issues of Quantum and Woody #22 – #27 haven’t been listed because we still don’t know the exact month(s) they will appear, and in what format (single issues, compilations, on the web, etc.). But there will most definitely be some Quantum &Woody products hitting the stands during the period.”
Time went by and soon the solicitations, and subsequent resolicitations, came to a halt. No new issues were ever released, Unity 2000 never finished, and the Acclaim Comics Web Anthology would never surface on Acclaim’s website. The comic company that had given Marvel and DC a run for their money was suddenly out of the comic business, not with a bang, but a barely audible whisper.
As Valiant comic books faded into oblivion, fans like Greg Holland and “Sonic” Dan Moler would take matters into his own hands to keep Valiant Comics alive, at least in the memories of those that loved them. Moler would start his ‘SonicDan Valiant’ website devoted to original artwork, promotions, and Valiant rarities. Holland purchased the Valiant Comics URL and started a site that has become a meeting ground for Valiant fans worldwide. The site is host to all sorts of reference material including covers to every Valiant comic every produced, news and rumors, original art, a bulletin board, and price guides so web-surfers can find out what their Valiant Comics are worth. The site tracks approximately 45,000 visitors a month with nearly 994,000 monthly hits.
Movement on Pre-Unity books and final issues have begun sweeping up big dollars on online auction sites like E-Bay, while rare variant covers bring in huge dollars, as a recent bidder paid as high as 250 dollars for an X-O #½ Gold issue. The rarer trade paperbacks issued at a time when print runs were lower on books also have been going for a high price as they have proven harder to find. While online collecting has seen Valiant prices rise, most comics can still be bought at stores or conventions for a fraction of their early 90′s prices.
Acclaim Entertainment continues to release videogames based on the Valiant characters. Turok, Shadowman, and Armorines have graced such consoles as Sega Dreamcast, Sony Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube, though only the Turok series would attain immense success. Acclaim Publishing has also released comic book tie-ins to its Turok games from time to time, but the last time such a tie-in was published was September of 2002. Dimension Films, the genre division of Miramax Films, still looks to produce a Shadowman film, though no announcements have been made on Shadowman’s progress for some time.
A Bloodshot movie, based on the VH2 character, has also continued in development hell. Bloodshot creator Kevin VanHook notes, “Brian Azzarello wrote a draft, [wrestler] Triple H was rumored to star, but the years have gone by and nothing. I don’t own the character, so I had no involvement.” VanHook does note, “I have spoken several times over the last few years about my writing and producing a Bloodshot script based on the original character.”
Acclaim allowed the characters of both Magnus Robot Fighter and Solar to be relinquished back to original owners Random House / Golden Books (Western Publishing) in January 2002, while also holding onto the Turok license). Months later, two different studios would being work on “mystery projects” which were revealed to be resurrections of the two characters that launched the Valiant era. However contract issues stalled the projects and neither studios were able to license the usage of the characters from Random House, killing both endeavors.
Jeff Gomez, now CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment which actively develops new toy lines as well as original animated and live-action feature films and television programs, adds, “I get calls sometimes from entertainment industry parties interested in the possibility of licensing or purchasing the characters outright. I know there’s been a both a Turok and Shadowman movie in development hell, bouncing around Tinseltown for years now. Which proves Fabian’s point, by the way, that the characters who became video games would be the ones that Hollywood would be most interested in.”
When Wizard Magazine recently put together a list of the top hundred trade paperbacks of all time, many were not surprised to see that Valiant was not forgotten, as the Solar Man of the Atom: Alpha & Omega TPB came in at number 26, while the Magnus Robot Fighter: Steel Nation TPB roared in at number 17. Though the company might be gone, the memory of two of the best storylines of all time still reign on.
While Acclaim Entertainment continues to publish video game, the company has seen its stock prices slide year after year. With the future of the company uncertain, the possibility of any new Valiant comic books being produced in the upcoming years seems slim to none.
TRULY THE END?
Today Valiant Comics are easy quarter bin fodder, especially easy to find issues when Valiant was publishing 400,000 copies of each title a month. Will Acclaim ever begin production of their world famous comic book line? Will a person or another company buy the rights to the characters and publish new adventures under their banner?
“Intellectual properties are a tangible asset,” notes Layton. As long as they have some intrinsic value, there’s always a possibility that they may surface again. Look at Gold Key’s influence on the Valiant line as an example. Given that Acclaim Entertainment is inevitably doomed to failure, it’s possible that those characters will go onto the auction block one day.”
“There was this incredible ‘we’re going to conquer the comic’s world’ energy,” says Joe Quesada on the company. “They were loud, energetic and hyper-creative. Anything was possible; it was just a great place to be. They had been as down as they could go and they were raising themselves from the ashes. I think Valiant showed and proved what many thought was impossible. That you could start a new Universe of characters and go head to head with Marvel and DC.”
“It held the biggest group of friends I’ve made in my life before or since,” adds in VanHook on his time. “I stay in touch with a lot of them. It’s cliche to say we were like family, but we really were. Some of us got married during those few years. Others had kids. New careers, royalties for some people that equaled yearly salaries in other times. There was also the sense that we were creating something that people genuinely enjoyed. I was stopped on the subway once while I was going over photocopies of the Eternal Warrior pencils and asked if I was Kevin VanHook. They’d seen my picture in the back of the comics! It was crazy.”
Jeff Gomez concludes with, “There was some incredible talent at the company, and I work with people like Fabian to this day. Some fine stories were told in those comics, and the depth and richness of those universes is something in which everyone involved could take pride. Jim Shooter once called the whole thing, ‘Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory,’ and though he himself is not without sin in this affair, I might agree.”
From its humble Nintendo beginnings, Valiant certainly created a vast library of characters that made readers truly care about storytelling and the characters therein. Its successes were many with the reimagining of Solar and Magnus, its triumphs with favorites like Harbinger, Bloodshot, and Rai. Noting on Quantum and Woody, Nicieza is quick to mention, “And we made a star out of a goat with a cape.”
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This article is reprinted here with the permission of both the author and its original publisher, Newsarama.