I am a rabid comic book fan and I’m not ashamed to say it. (Thank you, Hollywood.) One of the things comic book fans are often asked to do is recommend comics, and when I face that daunting task, whether it’s for a long-time comic geek or a first-time reader, I often find myself suggesting Valiant. I’ve got a pretty good speech going about exactly what the Valiant Universe is and why so many people love it, and to save myself from having to give it again, I wrote this F.A.Q.
What follows are my answers to some of the more popular questions. I hope you find this article helpful and that maybe it inspires you to pick up a Valiant book (whether it’s again or for the first time), because I can comfortably say you will not be disappointed.
What was Valiant Comics?
Valiant Comics was the independent comic book publisher started in the early ’90s by a group of ex-Marvel Comics employees who were sick of the way Marvel (and the comic industry in general) was producing comics, and Valiant was determined to do them better. At the head of this group were three men: Jim Shooter (who had just left the job of Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics), Bob Layton (creator of some of the most popular Iron Man stories) and Barry Windsor-Smith (one of the greatest illustrators of all time).
It could be said that Valiant was the only publisher to ever have successfully challenged the comic book monopoly of Marvel and DC. More importantly, Valiant and its characters are worthy of that statement.
Instead of publishing a few titles, each contained in its own universe, as Dark Horse does with Sin City, Hellboy, Star Wars etc., Valiant created a new cohesive universe which all its characters shared and one that directly competed with the Marvel and DC Universes. Within only two years, Valiant became the sensation of the comic industry — all the hottest titles were Valiant titles (think Marvel’s Ultimate line with 100 times the buzz); the earliest and rarest Valiant books were the most sought after books on the market, some reaching prices in the triple digits (think the Ultimate Spider-Man #1 white variant times 1,000). Jim Shooter was a living comic book god (think Brian Michael Bendis times 10,000). Valiant was reinventing comics and ushering Marvel out the door the same way Marvel had ushered DC out in the 1960s when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were creating the Marvel icons. Valiant became the third largest publisher and had built a stable of characters that people truly cared about and other publishers truly envied. The Valiant Era was born.
Why was Valiant special?
Just as Marvel reinvented the way comics were told, creating new types of characters and plots that the reader could relate to (no super-powered aliens from another world or millionaire playboy vigilantes of the night), Valiant was now changing all the rules and setting new standards of quality and storytelling.
Pure and simple, the writing in the Valiant books just outclassed everything that was around at the time, and, to be honest, most of what’s out today. Magnus: Steel Nation, Harbinger: Children of the Eighth Day, X-O Manowar: Retribution, Rai: Invasion are considered among the best of the lot (and definitely some of the best stories told in the 90s). Wizard Magazine ranked Steel Nation on their list of the greatest comic book trade paperbacks of all time. Every issue for Valiant Comics was the movie version — there were no shortcuts for motivation or credibility, everything was well-thought-out and well-written.
The Valiant stories, while commercially very successful, still explored deep themes. Solar explored the idea of God and science. Bloodshot dealt with identity and the human soul. Rai focused on tradition and modernity. X-O Manowar probed the idea of personal evolution and how it can alienate those most important to you.
Valiant adopted a writing style that was unheard of in comics; people in the books acted just as they do in real life. If a by-passer happened to look up and see someone flying they would run for their life, consult an optician or think it was some advertising stunt for a new movie. More importantly, acting real meant being flawed. The “good guys” didn’t do everything right because real people don’t do everything right. Sometimes they were lazy or selfish, other times they were immoral. And occasionally, they might make an unforgivable mistake. One that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the reader and forever imprints believability on the character that takes them out of the realm of fiction and into the real world.
In the Valiant Universe, characters were ambiguous; the bad guys were roguishly likable and their ideals frustratingly identifiable. You may have hated them, but you weren’t sure that they were wrong. And that was truly scary because it meant that you weren’t sure the heroes were right. Even when their intentions seemed noble, their actions were questionable.
I’m going to use Harbinger as an example, because it’s one of my favorite titles. In Harbinger, 17-year-old Pete Stanchek wanted to stop Toyo Harada from taking over the world and changing what Toyo felt was wrong with it, but Pete was often forced to lie, steal and sometimes (albeit accidentally) kill to do this. That was exactly what Harada feared someone of Pete’s immaturity would do with such powers and was the very reason Harada felt forced to try and stop Pete. When Harada attempted to kill Pete, he didn’t plan a trap for him or challenge him to a super-powered fight at an exotic location, he simply sent someone Pete trusted to shoot him in the back of the head… just like you would do in reality. Valiant took existing cliches from comic book genres and reinvented them, creating new conventions that are still the standard today.
Valiant made it their business to give comic book cliches an early retirement by pointing out just how contrived and ill-thought-through they were. In Harbinger, one of Pete’s gang is able to fly and dons a cape as part of her costume. In her first major fight she tries to make a quick getaway by flying but is yanked by the cape back to the ground. The other character remarks “no one who flies should ever have a cape!”
And not only were the characters ambiguous but so were their situations. When was the last time you read a comic where the hero does what he thinks is right and everyone loves him for it? Yeah, I know, Superman has been doing that since the 1930s. Okay, now when was the last time you read a comic where the hero does what he thinks is right and everyone hates him for it? Yup, and Spider-Man has been doing that since the 1960s. But real life isn’t so black and white…it’s ambiguous, and so are the best stories. Valiant shows us this ambiguous world.
In Rai, when Grandmother (the robot who governs Japan and created Rai) leaves, Rai is forced to continue protecting his people without her guidance. He continues to save lives and help his people, but the new political climate has split the people into two — those who want Grandmother to return and those who believe humans should be self-reliant. And both want Rai on their side. So when Rai saves a group of anti-grannies from a giant robot, the anti-grannies adore him, but the others detest him and even throw rocks at him. In Rai, the people he protects (the nation of Japan) are split by their beliefs, and every action Rai makes endears him to one side and vilifies him to the other. (Sounds like our current political climate doesn’t it?)
I’ve already mentioned that the Valiant Universe was one universe that all their characters shared but, unlike the Marvel and DC Universes, the actions of one Valiant character had visible and lasting effects on another. Often, these effects would be seen in another character’s title. In some cases, the actions of one character directly affected a character in another book, even to the extent that they play a part in the creation of that second character. But you never needed to read anything more than the title you were already reading. There were no editorial footnotes telling you to “buy another issue or the one you just bought would make no sense.” (In fact, there were no footnotes of any kind.) Everything you needed to know about the book you were reading and the characters it featured was explained to you within that book, and it was explained during the story, as opposed to a page-long summary before the book started.
Here’s the best part: if you were reading two titles, the world would open up and you would find layers to the story that go beyond anything that comics had ever seen before or has seen since. For instance, when Solar appears in the year 4001 AD to help Magus and Rai defeat an alien invasion, those who were just reading Magnus: Robot Fighter were treated to an incredible all-out space battle (incidentally involving the entire machinery-covered nation of Japan rising into space as a giant dragon shaped battle ship — jaw dropping stuff). But those who were also reading Solar: Man of the Atom were seeing the end of a story that was 2000 years in the making with the first attempted alien invasion taking place in 1992. This made Solar’s reappearance that much more meaningful and the stories’ ends that much more poignant. (I won’t ruin either with spoilers.)
The attention to continuity added incredible depth and reality to the Valiant Universe. It was something the comic world hadn’t seen since the earliest days of the Marvel Universe, and it was something we had never seen done with such great effect.
The Valiant characters are often called the most important of those created after the Marvel revolution in the 1960s (when Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four etc. were created), and one of the major justifications is their startling uniqueness. There was no big hulking character, no dark avenging knight, no guy with claws, and no teenager bitten by a radioactive insect. All the Valiant characters were startlingly original. This was even more evident in the 1990s when the new Image Comics characters had just come onto the scene, each a blatant rip off of an existing character. At a time when readers and creators alike were beginning to believe that all the good ideas had been used up, Valiant was showing us that with enough talent and care, originality was more than possible, it was repeatable. Each character and story was a unique blend of iconic characteristics and originality so potent that Valiant was producing a string of hit properties akin to Pixar’s incredible run of hit animated films.
And when Valiant killed a character (by the way, Valiant characters stayed dead — and not just for a little while either, for good) or changed a core concept (like revealing Superman’s identity to the world or Spider-Man getting married), readers didn’t lament the loss. Instead, they looked forward with even more enthusiasm to the next book. Valiant didn’t treat every creative right step like a magical gift from God or a chance mixing of elements that (for some, unknown to the creators) worked. No, they knew what they were doing. They knew how to create original stories and characters and place them in first-rate narratives. And it was this knowledge that enabled Valiant to take the big chances with their stories and benefit from the big successes.
Rai #0 is the perfect example of the originality of Valiant Comics (and a book I received a stack of hate mail for only giving an honorable mention in my last article, The Ten Most Important Comic Books of the 1990s). This is a book that introduced who was to become a major character in the Valiant Universe, Bloodshot, and showed readers how, where, why and by whom he would be killed some 30 years later. That’s right: the introduction of a major character is in the same book as the depiction of his future death. Rai #0 also showed readers the deaths of a number of other important characters (X-O Manowar, Harada, and Archer) as well as introducing a few new ones (Bloodshot, the last Rai, and the H.A.R.D. Corps).
Does it seem like they were giving away all the best parts of their upcoming stories? Absolutely not. In fact, Rai #0 involved the reader in the progression of the Valiant Universe by offering snippets of future events that could be interpreted in a number of ways. The events would happen in future issues but maybe not for the reasons we assumed they did while reading the one or two panels that showed them. Think of the old adage, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Okay, so Bloodshot dies, but what happened to the Blood of Heroes that gave him his powers? And even though we see Ax defeating Bloodshot in one panel and the Geomancer finding him dead in the next, there is a substantial space of time that was skipped in-between. We never actually see Ax kill Bloodshot. Did someone else turn up in that time and kill him? Did Bloodshot commit suicide? The plethora of possibilities served only to further the anticipation of the event and send readers into wild discussions whenever newly released stories provided clues.
Elevating Comics to an Art Form
Valiant didn’t just take its cue from previous comic books but from great novels, movies, and plays. The writers and artists looked at what made art in any form a masterpiece and brought what they learned to comics. There are no sound effects in Valiant books, sound effects destroy the illusion of reality and take the reader out of the story. When we see a car crash in real life, there is a sound but the words “CRUNCH” or “SMASH” don’t appear. Similarly, in Valiant stories sound effects don’t appear. There are still sounds, but they are heard in the readers mind. Additionally, visually communicative story telling is employed — windows are smashed because they communicate sound and effect, the size of a panel is used to get across the immensity of an explosion. Footnotes are another example; they too are never used because, like sound effects, they pull a reader out of the story. Each chapter of a story is named, as are entire arcs — this helps to get across themes. Framing within a panel and lighting and color changes over time are used to evoke characters’ mental states and how they change. Incredible care and detail went into each Valiant book, and just like a great movie, when you go back and relive the stories again, they are just as enjoyable if not more so.
The Valiant Universe is grounded in science fact not science fantasy. By this I mean that science was used to explain almost everything, and that those explanations were based on accepted scientific principals or commonly accepted theories. If someone was exposed to the detonation of a Gamma Bomb, they wouldn’t turn into a hulking green monster, they would be vaporized or at least get cancer and slowly die. Solar #0: Alpha & Omega provided the Valiant Universe with a believable reason as to why super-powered humans existed, which was based on real life science fact and human psychology. When Solar loses control of his powers, the universe is destroyed by a black hole. It is then subconsciously recreated from his memory, however, certain anomalies become present such as immortals, time travel, genetically super-powered humans, the power of mind over matter etc. These anomalies are present because of Solar’s psychological penchant for the fantastic, which stems from his having read comic books as child.
Every character’s origin and powers were grounded in real-life science. Bloodshot, for instance, could control every aspect of his body (oxygen intake, blood flow, adrenaline etc.) to maximize his physical attributes because of the nanotech robots coursing through his blood — something real science is coming eerily close to today.
The Valiant writers went to great lengths to stay true to this idea. All the characters in the universe can be approximately placed in one of three categories depending on where their powers originate:
- Energy-Based: characters and powers based on energy, usually created as a direct result of the recreation of the universe by Solar. These vary from beings with powers that resemble magic to immortals. The destruction of the original universe let loose a vast amount of death energy known as Darque Power. A number of characters utilize this energy in a form of magic. Examples of energy based characters include Erica Pierce, the Eternal Warrior, and Master Darque.
- Harbingers: characters with psionically based powers (mind based powers). These powers never make a person furry, cover them in metal, or give them a tail but instead are representative of the characters’ mental traits. Examples include mind control, telekinesis, and telepathy. Rare instances have occurred where a character can command a number of different psionic powers — these Harbingers are known as Omega Harbingers. Examples of Harbingers include Toyo Harada, Pete Stanchek, and Archer.
- Technologically Enhanced: characters and powers that were created by technology. Examples of technologically enhanced characters include Bloodshot (though he also posses limited Harbinger powers), Rai, and X-O Manowar.
Dead is Dead
Just like real life, people die. In the Valiant Universe people stay dead, just like real life. Over the years, a number of important and popular characters have died, and unlike Marvel and DC (who bring back characters every time sales are low), these important and popular characters remain dead. That doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to have an impact. In some cases, the effects of their deaths on other characters had a greater effect than those characters ever had when they were alive.
The Valiant Universe was in full swing and gaining popularity just as the Unity crossover began. All the Valiant titles converged, and two new ones were added, in an epic crossover that is a seminal work for the comic book crossover. Unity #0 is the first of 18 chapters and was given out free to readers (a first in the comics industry). The crossover spans all the titles, but it’s not necessary for readers to read anything more than the title they are already reading to understand Unity. Reading all 18 chapters gives even the newest reader a great foothold on the ideas, characters, and titles in the Valiant Universe, and it provides one of the greatest stories told in comics. Unity has serious and long-lasting effects on the rest of the Valiant Universe and resulted in a number of big name casualties. Because of the immense preparation undertaken, none of the existing titles storylines are “put on hold” while the crossover takes place. All the storylines flow seamlessly in and out of Unity. Doesn’t this sound like what you always wanted out of a Marvel or DC crossover? That’s what comic fans of the world thought when Unity was released. The crossover took Valiant from popular independent to the third major publisher and remains a pinnacle of comic book storytelling.
So what happened to Valiant after that?
Greed and video games.
Right after the Unity crossover, one of the architects and major creators, Jim Shooter, was fired. It’s been speculated that Shooter didn’t want to sell the company, as the private investors who provided the start up money were demanding. The other creators, inspired by the lure of millions, conspired and ousted Shooter. This was a major blow, but there was still an incredible amount of creative talent left, and in the next year Valiant continued its march to the top, becoming even more popular.
Shortly thereafter, the comic book market began to contract, and all publishers across the board began losing sales. Valiant was no exception, and by the end of the downturn the comic book market was less than half its original size.
Around this time, Acclaim Entertainment, one of the top video game developers and publishers of the 90s, bought Valiant for $65 million. Not a bad price when you consider the tremendous success of Acclaim’s video games based on the Valiant characters. Acclaim saw in Valiant a treasure chest of unique and popular intellectual properties that they could mine for video games… and mine they did. Acclaim produced a number of video games based on the Valiant characters including the blockbuster successes of the Turok and Shadowman franchises.
Unfortunately, Acclaim also revamped the comic book characters and books, making them more easily transferable to video games. In other words, they dumbed them down. A company famous for its writing and originality was suddenly derivative and formulaic. In the end, after severe losses from its sports video game division, Acclaim filed for bankruptcy.
Although the Valiant library has new owners today, it’s unclear which direction these characters will take. Fans wait with bated breath for the proper return one of the best and most popular comic book universes of all time.
Which are the best stories?
There is an incredible amount to cover here, so I’m going to have to be selective. I’ve split the very best books into two categories — Essentials and Great Reads.
Archer & Armstrong #0-12
Armed & Dangerous: Hells Slaughterhouse #1-4
Bloodshot Vol. 2 #1-4
Eternal Warrior #1-8
Magnus: Robot Fighter Vol. 1 #0-8
Ninjak Vol. 2 #1-4
Quantum & Woody #0-10
Shadowman Vol. 1 #1-12
Solar: Man of the Atom Vol. 1 #1-10
X-O Manowar Vol. 1 #0-9
Armed & Dangerous #1-4
Bloodshot Vol. 1 #1-10
Bloodshot Vol. 2 #5-9
Doctor Tomorrow #1-12
H.A.R.D. Corps #1-4
Magnus Vol. 1 #9-20
Ninjak Vol. 1 #1-4
Ninjak Vol. 2 #5-12
Predator Vs. Magnus #1-2
Quantum & Woody #11-21, 32
Second Life of Dr. Mirage #1-10
Turok: Dinosaur Hunter Vol. 1 #1-4
X-O Manowar Vol. 1 #10-25
Are there any trades, collections or graphic novels available?
Yes, but they were not made for reading on their own. Most were produced at the height of Valiant’s popularity and were created to allow new fans to read the stories that had become too expensive to go back and buy. Here is a quick rundown of the trades and their usefulness in terms of reading:
Harbinger: Children of the Eighth Day (collects #1-4): an incomplete collection of one of the best Valiant story arcs. If you do get this, make sure to get #5-6 as well; without those two issues, the story is nowhere near as powerful. It comes packaged with #0 which can be an expensive book if you get the regular version, and it is essential to the first story arc.
Magnus: Steel Nation (collects #1-4): fantastic story and well-collected.
Magnus: Invasion (collects #5-8): almost as good a story as Steel Nation, just as good a collection.
Quantum & Woody: Director’s Cut (collects #1-4): incredible story, nicely collected.
Quantum & Woody: Kiss Your Ass Goodbye (collects #5-8): just as good as the last trade and, again, a good collection.
Quantum & Woody: Holy S-Word We’re Cancelled (collects #9-12): another great collection.
Quantum & Woody: Magnum Force (collects #13-16): again a great collection. The only problem is that these Quantum & Woody trades should be longer.
Rai (collects #1-4): a decent collection, although it’s missing #5 which rounds out the arc. If you get this, be sure to read Magnus: Invasion first. Comes packaged with a companion to Rai #0 that is really just a glorified deleted scene.
Shadowman (collects #1-3 & 6): the story is split here as the Unity chapters are excised. The result is a trade that is of no more use than as a supplement for those who can’t find a particular issue. Stay away from this one. Comes packaged with a book of character information called Darque Passages.
Solar: Alpha & Omega (collects the issue #0 inserts), also available as a hardcover. Fantastic story and a great trade. Do yourself a favor and get the hardcover version.
Solar: Second Death (collects #1-4): another great story and trade.
Unity Saga #1-4 (four trades collect all 18 chapters): fantastic story and well collected, but make sure to snag all four chapters.
X-O Manowar: Retribution (collects #1-4): the story is cut in half here. If you get this trade, make sure to pick up issues #0 & 5-9. Comes packaged with a nice book of character information called the X-O Manowar Database.