All the way back on March 24th, when the global pandemic/recession was just getting up to speed, we spoke with Valiant Entertainment publisher Fred Pierce and VP, Sales and Marketing Matthew Klein. It’s a snapshot of those early days of Diamond shipping breaks, retailer closure and pencils down.
Valiant reached out at the end of May to update their news and schedule with another interview. This interview was conducted on Thursday, May 28th, a few days before the murder of George Floyd. Hence this interview does not mention the current national and global movement towards addressing racism and police accountability. However, Valiant has released several statements across their social media accounts in the interim:
Black lives matter.
We stand with our Black colleagues, friends, and community against the injustices of systemic racism.
— Valiant Comics (@ValiantComics) June 1, 2020
Valiant also participated in #BlackOutTuesday.
Valiant will be pausing regular social media activity today to support #BlackOutTuesday, and will be signal boosting ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against systemic racism.
— Valiant Comics (@ValiantComics) June 2, 2020
The interview was also conducted before DC announced its split with Diamond, though I did ask Pierce and Klein about some of the moves DC had made prior to last Friday.
In the interview, we talk about Valiant’s upcoming release schedule, and in order to clarify, they supplied their releases through August, revealed here for the first time:
6/24: DOCTOR TOMORROW #3
7/8: QUANTUM & WOODY #4
7/29: DOCTOR TOMORROW #4
8/5: RAI BOOK ONE TPB
8/12: BLOODSHOT #7 “FULLY LOADED” EDITION
8/19: RAI #6
8/26: DOCTOR TOMORROW #5
As you can see it is a modest slate, but as Pierce and Klein make clear, it’s in keeping with what they are hearing from discussions with retailers, Diamond and fans.
MACDONALD: So what has been happening at Valiant since we talked two months ago?
PIERCE: Since we spoke two months ago, in the last few weeks it had been pencils down, now it’s pencils up again. So we are we are working on if not everything, on a significant portion of the work that is in progress. We’ve been paying talent and the talent is working again. So that’s a good sign.
KLEIN: On the sales and marketing side, as far as retailers and the fans go, one of the things that we’ve been doing is we’ve been offering free PDFs for everybody, literally Monday through Friday, for the last three months. We also have been reaching out to retailers every day, doing surveys with them to check in, see how many stores are open and how we can be supportive of them. We’ve been donating items to auctions through companies like BINC. We’ve also created a giant social media campaign making sure fans and creators knew which stores were open, promoting their Facebook live sales, Instagram sales. We’re continuing to do that on a daily basis. We’ve also been making sure that we’ve been spreading the word for any Valiant creators past, present and future, about any kind of virtual con appearances they’ve been doing. Any time their commissions lists are open, we’ve even had the staff members getting commissions from creators to show support. We’ve also been doing some anonymous online shopping with a lot of the retailers – one more way that we can try and help out. Everywhere that we can, we’re doing fan-run podcasts and staying on top of all the forums, making sure the fans know we’re here, and you don’t have to worry about Valiant and the books are on their way. And of course, we’re talking to Diamond every single day, what they’re hearing from the marketplace, trying to take their temperature about how they’re doing and how we can be supportive to them. So it’s been nonstop. The joke is that we’re busier now than we were when all the offices were open before the coronavirus.
PIERCE: True. I’m working more hours now, being in touch with everyone. I don’t get to do a lot of the exciting things that Matthew was talking about, but I make sure to speak to two or three retailers a week at the very least just to see what’s going on and how are they doing. Also it’s wonderful to hear that the retail environment in the comic book industry is opening up much stronger than anyone expected. So many of the retailers that we’ve spoken to have weathered this storm very well in terms of their financials. From Facebook auctions to curbside delivery and selling online. I think that the industry has acquitted itself well. [The pandemic] is a terrible situation and a lot of retailers are also going to be a little bit circumspect about opening. But I think the industry has acquitted itself very well.
MACDONALD: I would also agree. I’m interested in what you’ve learned from retailers. I mean, certainly, the Diamond saga during this has been riveting. But how specifically is Valiant going to come back? How will you be rolling out your product?
PIERCE: We’re evaluating that right now that the industry is reopening and we’re [shipping] our first issues, with how people are ordering. We need to make sure that we listen to the retailers. We’re not Marvel and DC — they are rolling out and cutting back a bit but they’re [still] putting out a lot of products. We’re not pressured to put out a lot of product. We’re ascertaining as we go and speak to Diamond and the retailers and listen to the fans, what is it that we should be putting out there now and how to get all the new launches in place. As we reopen, we need to make sure that the cash flow of the retailers is really what they’re telling us. The main thing I’ve learned is a confirmation of how I’ve always felt about this industry: We are a community and we’ve been very supportive of each other as a whole industry. I think it’s been very important in these times when people are locked down and can’t get out, that we know that people of like minds are out there and working together.
KLEIN: I wasn’t around in the industry in the ’90s when that crisis was going on. So for me, it’s been an incredible affirmation to witness the support of the community. And also to see the goodwill between publishers — how open we all are, how everybody’s working in the same direction of wanting to support the industry. As a result of our conversations [with retailers] we want to make sure that as we roll out our releases, we want to deliver what we’ve been promising to the fans. We want to make sure that we have books coming out every month. We’re not in a rush to do more than what the retailers are telling us would be most beneficial for them and their cash flow and their customer base.
MACDONALD: Well, I wanted, to clarify that a little bit because I checked the Diamond website to see Valiant’s release schedule, and X-O Manowar is on the schedule but I didn’t see anything else?
PIERCE: No, no, we have Doctor Tomorrow which was in the next book, and then we have Bloodshot. [See above.] We have Quantum and Woody, The Visitor, Shadow Man.
MACDONALD: Just so I’m clear — these are the books that were pencils down, but are now pencils up? Pencils are scribbling away on these?
PIERCE: Correct. They’re in the works. Again, fans want us to do everything right away and we’d love to do that, but is that what the retailers want? None of this is easy.
MACDONALD: What are some of the concerns that you’re hearing from retailers? What are some of the signals that they’re giving you about this?
PIERCE: Everything that’s in the works is in the works and nothing is ending. The retailers are telling us that they’re not sure of their businesses right now. They’re sure that their businesses will be fine — but not when. As Marvel and DC come back it makes their cash flow flush, and that’ll be good. I never forget that when we launched Valiant, the industry had a lot of money because DC had just launched the New 52. But for now, I want to see how well they do with Marvel and DC, especially since a lot of the promotional products that the retailers were counting on, and the big launches, aren’t going to be there. So from my perspective, we’re in a very luxurious situation, because we’re not getting pressured on any level. Retailers are telling us very clearly, they want to take it a little bit slower. For us, the key is to make sure that they order for their shelves [as well as subscriptions] so that we can get new readers. The Bloodshot movie was going to be a big launching pad for us, and unfortunately was in and out of theaters in a week. But it has been number one on video on demand, on Amazon and iTunes – which is great, but I don’t know if the retailer is going to feel that.
MACDONALD: I did notice that Dan [Mintz, owner of Valiant] had gone out and done some media rounds, and called Valiant “the wrecking crew.” I was wondering if you guys think you’re the wrecking crew!
PIERCE: He can have that swagger. He’s great. He’s treated us really well. We work very closely with DMG and Dan has been saying do what you think is best for you. And we’re taking that to heart. Valiant is the third biggest [universe of characters] and Bloodshot will still be the launch of that, but it’ll just have to happen in a different way.
MACDONALD: So I was going to ask you guys, obviously every day has been here at Stately Beat Manor, red alert, newsroom, sirens flashing. I have a great writing team that helps me out and do much more than I do to be honest. And I’ll say, Oh, you guys take the day off and then it’s like, Oh, DC has got two new distributors and it’s all hands on deck. The last two months have been such a roller coaster, so many momentous things. So Fred, you’re an industry veteran. Matthew, you’re on the front lines. I mean, what are some of your thoughts about some of the changes we’ve seen, and new ways of looking at things? What have you learned from the last two months?
KLEIN: One of the coolest things that I’ve seen is the embracing of retail through social media, Instagram live sales, Facebook Live sales — the dexterity of mail-order systems, watching more and more retailers start embracing those practices. These are things that they had thought about but maybe didn’t have time for or didn’t make a priority. And now it’s a whole new revenue stream. I think that this is going to add an entirely new dynamic to doing comic book retail. I ask stores, are you guys going to keep doing your Facebook Live sales and Instagram auctions and they say, absolutely yes. For some stores it’s as good as an entire day’s worth of earnings in those two to three hours, which is phenomenal. It creates an entirely new way of communicating to the customers out there that really hadn’t been explored to its fullest. So I think this has really revealed a whole new stream of revenue for the industry, which is really exciting, quite frankly. I also think that you’re going to learn a whole new way of managing subscription services in shops. I think every store has got to reevaluate those practices so it’s not going to be necessarily a risk factor for them in terms of cash flow. I think you’re going to see a lot of innovations in terms of how stores are going to be marketing themselves. and utilizing social media and new platforms. We’ve learned that there are even more possibilities out there to reach fans, which I take as a sign of hope for the future
PIERCE: Comic book conventions have become such an integral part of the industry and the socialization of the industry. And conventions also had become a big part of [retailers’] revenue stream. I think when the conventions come back, it will just be another revenue stream, in addition to all of these other things that they’re looking at. The other thing is I think that we have a greater appreciation for [how much we all love the industry]. Nobody’s involved in this industry because they don’t love the industry. When I visit any place, I go into the local comic book store. We have family wherever we go. And I think we know that even better now.
MACDONALD: We do, but we know that this family usually congregates on a Wednesday. What would you say if the family got together on Tuesday – DC wants its books to go on sale on Tuesdays.
PIERCE: Most people don’t remember that it used to be Tuesdays. But I don’t think it makes a difference. I like having one comic book day when things are released. I think the key is the local economy.
MACDONALD: Matthew, you said something that I’ve actually heard from everyone that I’ve talked to – that subscription services have to change. Everyone from Steve Geppi on down has said that. Allowing your customers to pile up boxes full of unpaid for merchandise probably is not a great idea. But one other idea that came up was the ComicHub thing, while others talked about Bookshop.org. Do you think some kind of online ordering service for periodicals is something that you would support in the future?
KLEIN: I think it all depends. I mean, the idea of it, absolutely. It all depends on the actual functionality. It’s gotta be easy to use, it’s gotta be adaptable and it’s gotta be able to be updated very, very frequently. It’s not like clothing stores where you turn over your line every three months. It’s astronomically more data, and more product. I’m all for innovations in how we have POS systems in the stores. It’s all just a matter of can the functionality keep up with the amount of product that’s coming in every week? The other thing to remember is that not every shop has the exact same needs. So they have different locations, amount of staff, amount of technology. And so it’s really hard to create that kind of one-size-fits-all system. So it’s a big Herculean effort. My hat’s off to any and everybody who wants to take a stab at it and as they come about, we’re always open to learning more about it. I’m a firm believer that we can always find ways to improve.
MACDONALD: Well, there are a lot of learnings that people have gotten out of this. It’s interesting what you’re saying, Matthew, about all of these new methods, Instagram sales. I think people have learned a lot of what they’re capable of and just different ways of doing business. So, Fred, one more as an industry observer: What about all this talk about the multi-distributor model that also DC experimented with. We don’t know really what’s going to happen with that, [now we do] but do we need more periodical distributors?
PIERCE: Let’s be clear, when the industry had a lot of distributors, I liked the way it worked. I was a publisher then. It worked really well when Capital and Diamond would fight for this or fight for that. But I think that people need to respect what Diamond does. Steve Geppi, in particular, loves this industry and I believe he’ll do anything to protect this industry. The industry fell apart when people tried to use distributors for different ends rather than just getting product out. So if there are more distributors to work with, that’s fine. We’re exclusive with Diamond and we haven’t had an issue with that except for the two months that we closed down. So if it’s better for the industry, let’s have a lot of distributors. But I’d like to see a distributor develop the critical mass and the ability to move products, pay the publishers, be able to amass all the data that Diamond amasses. It’s a bear of a project. So yeah, I think the more the merrier, but it’s more than just picking a product and dropping it off. I understand it’s scary to have one major distributor, but I need to know what the advantage will be and who’s going to do it because it’s a tremendous infrastructure to create. I get a call no less than a couple of times a year on doing this with people in the industry who are thinking about it. And I just explain to them what our distributor really does, and their eyes glaze over.
MACDONALD: [Laughter] I feel like this crisis really has kind of prompted a lot of reexamination of some of the central ideas behind the business. It sounds like it’s going in a positive direction, but it does seem like there’s been a lot of introspection about it.
KLEIN: This is one of those times that has forced us for better or worse, to reevaluate all of our practices that we kind of took for granted. Everything that we assumed we should do, we need to re-examine and say, well, why do we do this? Is there another way that we can evolve? Is there another way that can innovate? And unfortunately it’s one of those time-honored lessons that necessity prompts innovation in a way that is maybe a little quicker than you would have seen otherwise. And that’s something that I think all publishers are doing, all retailers are doing. It’s not just one section of the industry; it’s the entire industry. That kind of evaluation can only help in the long term. And that’s where we’re at right now. We are in the rebuilding phase and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just one of those things that we all have to work together towards and understand that we’re here, we’re going to be here for the long term.
PIERCE: The way that things worked two, three months ago, we have to build the new normal. And I don’t think any of us really know what that new normal will be right this second. In our case, right now, where do we want to be a year from now? If there is a Free Comic Book Day next year and what that will be. So I think that as people panic a little less, they look at it more long term. What should we be doing? How do we protect the creators as much as we can? How do we protect the stores, the distributors, the fans. That’s what the industry has to do. But I’m telling you, Heidi, the feeling I get with everyone I speak with is how proud everyone is about how the industry has reacted.
MACDONALD: I don’t disagree with that. I think everybody’s shown a lot of resilience throughout this. I do want to bring up a tough question, but I know Fred loves tough questions. I will say, everyone has concerns, and I have heard people express concerns about Valiant because, obviously, the Bloodshot movie was a victim of the pandemic.
PIERCE: We’re not in this for the short term. Dan’s not in this for the short term. We’re continuing going where we’re going. We’re looking at what we should be doing near term and long term so Valiant is here to stay. We’re not being pressured to publish more than we should or more than the industry wants us to. We’ll do what we think is best and Valiant isn’t going anyplace.