Valiant’s cinematic universe began in a quiet meeting room at the Javits Center during New York Comic Con this year.
On Friday of the Manhattan extravaganza, comics publisher Valiant announced its first effort into live-action: the creation of a new film division, Valiant Digital, and its first web series Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe, to be released online in 2017. Hours before it became public, CEO Dinesh Shamdasani sat with Inverse to walk through Valiant’s grand plans. Specifically, why launch on YouTube?
Last spring, Valiant entered a nine-figure deal with Sony to get into TV and films, and yet Hollywood still isn’t an option. To Shamdasani, YouTube is the new Saturday morning cartoon. “There’s a whole generation that came to comic book superheroes, and eventually came to comic books, through animated shows,” Shamdasani says, partly describing himself. “I think our generation very much is [like that]. We looked at the landscape today, there isn’t really that medium.”
In 2014, pop culture saw the first Saturday morning in decades without televised cartoons signaling a shift in media consumption. But pre-Netflix, Saturday mornings were holy, with superheroes earning the most reverence: X-Men, Batman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man, Justice League, Static Shock, and more. ‘90s youths witnessed a renaissance of comic heroes on TV, and years later those kids grew up into today’s web-savvy, young adult audience.
But is it disadvantageous that most people don’t have a clue what Valiant is? What’s a Bloodshot, and who the heck is Ninjak? When Valiant relaunched after years of hiatus, it was by design that the New York-based publisher aimed to over-perform for a few months. It’s worked out, as Valiant’s booth is always “ravaged at the end of every day,” according to Shamdasani, but beyond the halls of the Javits Center? “Valiant is even less known,” the CEO admits.
Here’s Valiant in a nutshell: Founded in 1989 by Marvel editor Jim Shooter and businessman Steven Massarsky, Valiant was the third-best selling publisher in the ‘90s behind Marvel and DC. In 1994, Valiant was sold to video game publisher Acclaim, which went bankrupt a decade later, leading Shamdasani to buy Valiant. Following a few legal scuffles, Valiant relaunched in 2012 in the “Summer of Valiant,” a publishing event that began a new continuity for a new audience.
The accessibility of the relaunch, plus the bizarro appeal of its characters (the superhero duo Quantum and Woody’s pet sidekick is a murderous goat), the “Summer of Valiant” sold like gangbusters, cementing Valiant its place in 21st century comics. In 2015, Valiant entered a deal with Sony to produce Bloodshot and Harbinger as new movie franchises.
But before Valiant can make multi-million dollar fetches happen, the success from “Summer of Valiant” has to happen outside comics too. “This is the long-long-long term plan,” Shamdasani explains. “Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe allows us to take a step into the broader world, and make all [people] fans of Valiant, bring them to the comics. And then continue to grow with films, television shows, video games.”
Taking it one step at a time isn’t just a safe strategy: It’s also a smart one. Today, Hollywood superhero cinema is a battleground between Marvel and DC, and both companies have had varying degrees of success in their interconnected films. Valiant took two years to study the playing field. “We’ve watched everyone very carefully. And our point of view, the best way to fight Marvel and DC is to not. We’re not going head-to-head,” Shamdasani says. “We’re not going to jump out of the gate and try to make this universe. We’re going one brick at a time. Everything we’re doing is just making the first as good as possible, and build from there.”
Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe, Valiant’s first series in development by nerd studio Bat in the Sun, stars Valiant’s British assassin Ninjak in a gauntlet against the publisher’s other biggest hitters like Bloodshot, X-O Manowar, and the duo Archer and Armstrong. The series is independent from the “pocket universe” that’s underway with Sony, but Valiant isn’t ruling the giant universe out. “Once these are successful, then we’ll figure out whether they connect, whether that’s best narratively for the stories.”
Does that include casting? Michael Rowe, who played the DC villain Deadshot in Arrow and Jason David Frank, known for his role in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, are the most recognized actors attached to the series. Shamdasani wants to keep them on board for the films, but it “isn’t just our decision,” he tells Inverse. “Movies take an army. You’ve got studios, financiers, a lot of concerns in terms of marketability. We’ll be rooting for them, using all the political power we have to get them their shot. Ultimately, it’ll be the best idea wins, which is how we approach when we have full control.”
“Everything’s progressing. We don’t need to rush,” adds Shamdasani, who says Valiant has been waiting for moviegoers to start behaving and thinking like comic fans did in the ‘90s. “When Valiant took over [back then], they understood the tropes, and now they want something fresh. They want us to defy expectations.” Shamdasani brings up oddball hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, which are “mile markers.”
“That means the audience is ready to be blown away by Valiant,” Shamdasani says.
Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe will premiere on YouTube in 2017.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.