There is only one Fred Pierce, and his own response to that would probably be “Thank God.” Starting in comics as a director at the original Valiant Comics in the early 90s, he moved on to become the COO and President of Wizard – a position he held for 14 years. In 2009, the band got back together as Valiant came back with a new published, Dinesh Shamdasani, and Pierce brought his experience with the company to the new venture. Earlier this year, things shifted again, as DMG, a Chinese-backed investor in Valiant, took over heading the company, leaving Pierce as the Publisher, running day to day operations in the New York office.
With such a long track record, Pierce has seen it all and done it all, and all who know him know he’s acerbic and opinionated – but also approachable and supportive. I’ve been wanting to catch up with him to get his perspective on the changes at Valiant and in the industry for a long time – many thanks to Valiant’s Mel Caylo for finally making it happen.
THE BEAT: Hey, Fred, how are you.
FRED PIERCE: I’m actually doing very well. Life is exciting. It’s more exciting than I expected it to be! [laughs]
THE BEAT: Indeed! So how are things at Valiant?
PIERCE: Things at Valiant are actually going very well. As you know there was a big change at the beginning of the year. The big question was one of the major investors took over the rest of the company, how would we all work together and integrate. So that’s always interesting. But you know what, they continued being the way they were. [DMG’s] Dan [Mintz] was very, very hands off with the previous administration and he’s been very hands off with me. He’s really letting us run publishing however we want. We have almost free rein to do anything we want. I don’t know what we don’t have free rein for because he hasn’t stopped me from doing anything! Budgetarily, we have tacit approval to put in for additional staff. So he’s really continuing the way he was. We speak a lot, and since our industry is counterintuitive on a lot of levels, I explain [how that works]. But overall, it’s working well.
THE BEAT: I’m glad to hear that. So let’s talk a bit about what big initiatives Valiant has coming for the next six months.
PIERCE: Well the first thing we have coming is Bloodshot: Rising Spirit in November, which will be an origin book for Bloodshot. The numbers will easily match Bloodshot numbers we’ve had in the last few years – if we don’t surpass the previous numbers, we’ll be in spitting distance. It’s a testament to the editorial team and to how wonderful Mel [Caylo] is as a marketing person, and Matthew [Klein] on the sales staff. We continue to innovate – the Valiant DNA has always been innovation – and we have the glass cover coming up.
THE BEAT: The glass cover!
PIERCE: Everybody laughed at us, but I have a glass cover in my drawer now. So it does exist. It’s hitting the shelves on November 14th.
THE BEAT: I wonder whose idea was this glass cover?
PIERCE: Well, let us just say that the team comes up with these things. But if the glass cover works, it was all mine. If it doesn’t, it was a team effort! [general laughter] Actually, we all worked on it together. Much to my chagrin, I was in favor of it right from the beginning. We’ll also have a glass cover on Livewire in December.
THE BEAT: Livewire, with an African-American female protagonist, is also getting a pretty big push, correct?
PIERCE: Right. With everything that was happening we decided that November is our big coming out party. Editorial has worked through all this without missing any deadlines the whole time. So we have a lot of the books that we’re talking about that are set, although we’re not launching them till the beginning of the year. And we’re working on new ideas now. The editorial team is all working on books of their own. We have a real bench now which is great. We have Vita Ayaya working on Livewire and they’re elevating the character to a much higher level, much as we did with Faith. Part of our goal is to bring in new voices and Vita allows that to happen. And I believe it’s their first ongoing series.
THE BEAT: You have a pretty solid editorial team now with Joe Illidge and Karl Bollers and now Lysa Hawkins joining the team.
PIERCE: Robert Meyers is there as well and don’t forget David Menchel, actually the person who keeps me [on track.]. Lysa is the newest of the editorial staff and she has her own vision and voice. She’s been in the industry for a very long time and she knows a lot of people. She can handle anything. Karl was actually brought in by the previous administration and he has his own vision. At our editorial retreats, everybody weighs in on our direction, and it’s great.
THE BEAT: One of the things that’s very unique about Valiant is, I have never seen a company that had such a loyal and vocal fan base. So that’s both a blessing and a curse, I guess. It’s absolutely fantastic to have so many passionate fans, but they are also highly critical.
PIERCE: I was at Valiant back in the day and they remember that. We are really as passionate about our characters as our fans are. Valiant has always been about the characters, even with editors and publishers coming and going, as at any company. So we just have to remember that it’s wasn’t really about the previous regime or any individual from the previous regime. We embrace the fans. We see them at cons and interact. The beauty of the comic book industry is that anybody who is standing at a con can walk over to anybody and speak to them. [After the changes were announced] I got texts from fans asking me how I was doing. When we relaunched we looked at our fanbase as having thousands of Valiant ambassadors all over the country. We have [a very active marketing team] as well, and I believe our sales staff has gone to more than 100 different shops and about 20 different states, meeting Valiant fans wherever they go. I don’t think any company does anything like that. So we’re in touch with the fans all the time. Emily Hecht, who’s been with the company a long time, is our new social media manager and our online presence is as much fun as it ever was.
THE BEAT: So as mentioned earlier, it’s very “exciting” times in the industry. I think it’s still difficult to launch a superhero universe, to keep it going. It seems that we’ve gone through a rough patch with sales – they seem to have stabilized but there seems to be a lot of uneasiness also. How do you see that?
PIERCE: When we launched in 2012 our great advantage was the success of the New 52. Because the retailers did so well with the New 52 they could take a chance on us and they had a little bit of extra money to spend on us. You know how this industry works: when the industry is successful people don’t trust the success and when the industry isn’t successful, we just wait for it to get out of the doldrums.
The key is the retailers who say what’s going to be successful or not, on a very real level. Retailers can amplify your message or they can quell your message, especially for a company our size. But we believe in being a publisher with a personal touch. We‘ve visited hundreds of retailers and we’re in contact with thousands of retailers, we’re very involved with point-of-purchase campaigns. We sent out Bloodshot Nanite kits, and other POP items, including standees and box cutters.*** We’re in touch with [retailers] all the time to help them take as much of a chance on us as they think they can.
***[used this very day at Stately Beat Manor]
THE BEAT: I was at a panel a few weeks ago that was called “The Future of Comics” and got into quite a lively discussion among the panelists and the audience about digital and the periodical. I 100% agree with you, if you’ve been around this industry for any amount of time you’ve seen the doomsayers. And frankly, I’ve been saying the periodical was doomed for 20 years and, you know what, I’ve been wrong for 20 years. It’s still around. However now it does seem to be becoming more of a hobby item. Your thoughts?
PIERCE: I couldn’t disagree with you more. In 2011 I took Gavin [Cuneo], Dinesh [Shamdasani] and Peter [Cuneo] to a panel where Mark Waid was talking about the different nature of digital. We predicted at the time that digital would become about 15% of the industry, and that’s really what it’s become. I think the future of this industry and the health of this industry relies on the monthly comics – people go into the stores every Wednesday to buy a monthly comic. They don’t go into the store to buy digital. In stores you have a community, the club atmosphere that nobody else has. Nobody runs into a store to get the latest trade paperback. We’ve always focused on the monthly comics. I think companies that don’t focus on monthly comics are doing the industry a disservice. Anybody who pushes digital doesn’t understand that if the whole industry became digital the industry would be much less successful than it is today.
The entertainment world revolves around our industry and that’s only because of the comics shops. Science fiction was once as big as comics. I read as much science fiction as I read comics. And where is science fiction today? People still read it, but the center of the entertainment universe is comic books and that’s because of all these retailers. None of them are in it to make a huge fortune – though some do – they’re in it for the love of the industry. How many retailers do you have in industries who are in it for the love of what they do?
THE BEAT: Well, you raise a great point. I’ve often pointed out that there might be only 2000 comics shops – between 2000 and 3000. That’s still quite a few. And now there’s maybe 50 science fiction bookstores in the United States – if that, as so many have shut down. Even in the discussion that we had at this panel I think most people kind of rejected the idea that monthly digital downloads will replace print comics. I mean it hasn’t happened – there’s been digital comics for 6 years and it hasn’t happened yet.
PIERCE: The other thing is when you’re when you’re buying a digital comic you’re doing it alone – it’s not the communal experience at the comic book store. You can ask people what they’re reading. You can recommend what to read. You can share. It’s not a bullshit conversation. We have a real community and I don’t know who else has that today. Even if it’s not a major store, if they have people who like what we do, they sell far far [more] of what we do. We concentrate on those great hand sellers – that’s a big part of our success.
THE BEAT: What about the bookstore market? I’ve seen many people talking about how indie bookstores are becoming more and more open to graphic novels. Is that also a place for growth for Valiant?
PIERCE: Yes, bookstores and libraries are a huge place of growth but that’s much more mass market. And you’ll see it over the course of the next few years. But the truth of the matter is we still focus more on the direct market than the trade paperback market and the bookstore market. Librarians are already looking at us because they’re savvy buyers. We have the Bloodshot movie coming out in 2020 with Vin Diesel, which we hope will put us much more on the bookstore map. But for mass market, you need somebody who’s going to pick us for one of their major [promotions].
THE BEAT: Let’s talk about that movie a little. It comes out in 2020. I’m hoping I can talk to you about it now, and again in 2020 and we can see what worked and what didn’t. I think it’s really fascinating how media adaptations affect publishing. So what is Valiant doing to prep for this event?
PIERCE: The first thing we have to figure out is how do we believe that it will really affect us and what do we need to have ready. We’ve spoken to a lot of other publishers and Diamond about what they do to get ready for an event like this. So clearly we’re going to be leaning into to our Bloodshot products, including Bloodshot Rising Spirit in November. But don’t be surprised if we do another Bloodshot book towards the end of next year just before the movie. And of course we have to figure out how to get the most attention from the market. If you would have told me five or six years ago that we would have had Vin Diesel being Bloodshot I would have thought you were crazy. But it brings us immediate attention just because Vin Diesel is the star. He’s perfect for the character so it really is just a good match.
THE BEAT: It is just really the dream cast that so many people talked about. And also he’s very savvy about the geek/nerd market, apparently because he is one. So he brings a huge social media presence and his own one man campaign for the movie already.
PIERCE: Luckily he’s huge on social media. In the industry, it’s a Valiant movie, but in the mass market it’s a Diesel movie. I’ll take it.
THE BEAT: So going back to the general situation at Valiant, is there anything that has surprised you under the new ownership?
PIERCE: I think the first thing that surprised me is how quickly the movie got greenlit once they took over. Because this has been teed up and teed up for a long time. But I think within four to six weeks after Dan took over the movie got greenlit so that surprised me immediately.
The other thing that surprised me – and yet didn’t surprise me – was how much they wanted to figure out how we could work together. We’ve had a lot of meetings, and [it’s been very positive.] Any time I’ve asked them “Can I do this. Can I do that.” they said the key is to figure out how to maintain as much heat as you have. We still have the largest sales staff in the industry and that doesn’t happen by accident, and it will get larger. I’ll tell you the funniest thing that happened was a lot of the people who left because of the previous administration have come back. I got calls within a couple of days from some people saying “If you need us we can come back.” So that was nice. If you walk around this place you’ll see that the morale has never been better than it is right now.
The industry is telling us that the covers are better than they’ve ever been. It’s very hard to follow in Warren’s footsteps but we’ll do the best we can. Everybody’s more excited and more ambitious than they’ve ever been. At our Tuesday meetings everybody’s laughing. It’s really nice.
We had the best run New York Comic Con ever. And though I don’t want to mention anyone by name Julia [Walchuk] in sales took a concept that she had in her head for a long time. We had it set for 2019 but she was able to get it done quickly enough that an hour before we actually had to have it, it was delivered from the exhibit company. Our new booth was all Julia from concept to execution.
THE BEAT: I will say that I have known Julia for a while and she is an absolute gem. So I’m happy to hear that. [She’s also just been promoted.] Fred, you’ve been in this business a long time, and we’ve been in the trenches together for a long time. You went through the go-go 90s when things were insane and it’s a lot saner now, I think. What excites you about still being in this business?
PIERCE: I’ll tell you – I love working with the new people coming into the business. I’m an old dean of students of a high school. So I love working with people. I love helping people be better at their jobs. I love learning from people – I will always want to be smarter tomorrow than I was yesterday. And I learned from everybody here. Compared to most of the people here, I’m not a dyed in the wool geek so I really have to defer to everybody and they’ll laugh at me sometimes! But I want this company to explode the way the old Valiant did and rival the other two universes like we did in the past. And in the end that’ll take a bit of time. But we have the team right now to go forward and fight the battle. The funny thing is in our industry everybody’s success is good for everybody. Hopefully if we bring a few more people into the comic book stores, everybody else does well too.
What I’m getting from the other companies is they’re all rooting for us and we’re rooting for them – more retailers are rooting for us. The thing that I enjoy the most is what I hear at cons. When I hear “I hear Valiant is back!” It’s been 7 or 8 years and they didn’t know we were back! Talking to the old Valiant fans about what it was like and what’s it like now. They’re almost shocked when I say it’s still fun. I have to tell you, it’s as much fun as it’s ever been.
[This interview has been edited for clarity and length and the transcript was quote checked.]
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.