In 2005, Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari, two slight, sleep-deprived undergrads from USC and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, respectively, sat in Kothari's dorm room surrounded by the towering boxes of legal documents that had consumed their lives for the past six months. The childhood friends had just failed in their quest to purchase Valiant, their favorite comic book company.
It had been a long shot. In the 1990s, Valiant was the third largest comic book company in the world, rivaling DC Comics for market share and boasting more than 1,500 characters. With no prior experience in the industry, and only Shamdasani's vast knowledge of Valiant's library and Kothari's nearly completed business degree to guide them, the two fans had gotten in the ring with millionaire Marvel execs and wealthy industry insiders to fight for the rights to Valiant.
Shamdasani and Kothari grew up together as comic-obsessed expat teens in Hong Kong. They read DC's traditional Batman and Superman but were drawn to the flawed and controversial characters of Valiant.
Bob Layton, former senior vice president of the original Valiant, explains that at the time, "The mainstream titles were becoming overwhelmingly art-driven. We wanted to offer the public something that had been lost, namely well-written, character-driven stories."
One character, X-O Manowar, was a primitive warrior trapped in the present day, wielding the most advanced weapon in existence: a sentient suit of armor, much like Iron Man's elaborate suit but with its own conscience and enough power to level a city. Bloodshot's veins were filled with billions of microcomputers, making him the perfect soldier, but he was in search of the memories the computers wiped clean, no matter how evil his past.
Although Valiant's heroes strived to be noble, they were more prone to human failings than their predecessors. They were greedy, prideful, base, even apathetic. The villains they fought often were as relatable to the audience as the heroes. It was in this morally ambiguous space that Valiant's storytelling thrived.
The company sold more than 80 million comics in its day, and Diamond Comics Distributors, the leading distributor of comics worldwide, named it Publisher of the Year in 1993.
Then in 1994, Valiant's venture-capital investor, Triumph, sold the company to video game company Acclaim Entertainment for $65 million. The comics abruptly disappeared. In 2004, Acclaim filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, liquidating its assets.
Shamdasani and Kothari, meanwhile, had moved to the United States to follow their respective passions for film and business. But they also began googling their favorite childhood pastimes, and their nostalgia for Valiant reignited their obsession. Dinesh rejoined the Valiant fan community and began tracking what had happened to the company. To average fans, Acclaim's filing for bankruptcy would have been noteworthy trivia, but to Shamdasani and Kothari it was a calling.
"I wasn't going to sit back and watch another conglomerate feed these characters we loved into their corporate machine," Shamdasani recalls. "When I heard Valiant was for sale, I knew I wanted to help the universe of characters that had inspired us as kids return to prominence and inspire a new generation."
He approached Kothari and asked him to partner with him to buy the company. They created a detailed business plan and gathered investors, but on the day of the auction, they were outbid. In comics, the underdog may always triumph, but this was real life, and they lost.
Post-battle, sitting in that Philadelphia dorm room, they were excavating their regular college-student lives from the rubble of contracts and annals they had used to wage their war. Then, from somewhere in the chaos, the phone rang. The lawyers handling the sale were calling to say the top bidder had pulled out. An unnamed, mysterious company had leaked to the press that it planned to sue the new owner of Valiant over trademarks for which it had previously filed applications. Could it be Marvel or DC posing as a shell company, trying to kill the new Valiant before it was reborn? That would result in millions of dollars in legal battles. The other buyers all pulled out.
"Dinesh and I quickly did an incredible amount of research," Kothari says. "We got a strong idea who was behind this lawsuit faster than anyone else because, I think, we wanted it more badly than anyone else. We decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we would go forward and fight them, no matter what it took."
After two years of legal battles with the rival company, Shamdasani and Kothari won full rights to the Valiant universe (Valiant Entertainment signed a nondisclosure agreement, so the rival company cannot be named).
In April 2005, Shamdasani became chief creative officer of Valiant, and Kothari CEO. Bandaging their battle wounds, they began to work on their original goal: to bring back the Valiant universe. Their first challenge was building a league of creative and business-savvy superheroes to help them.
"Our goal was to recruit the best and most passionate people at every level," says Kothari, who is based in New York; Shamdasani will be based in Los Angeles.
"The opportunity to rebuild a library with such an enthusiastic and established fan base is an attractive opportunity," Shamdasani says. "We were able to put together a team of people who didn't treat this as a job but rather as a mission."
Former Marvel CEO Peter Cuneo joined the team as chairman early on. He had played a leading role in taking Marvel out of bankruptcy in 1999, before it ultimately was sold to Disney in 2009 for $4.5 billion. Valiant's senior advisory board grew to include a flock of former Marvel bigwigs as well as Pixar's former head of worldwide marketing.
One of the most important roles to fill was executive editor. Valiant's universe is interconnected. All of its characters exist in one world. In the original comics, when heroes interacted, it was always part of well-structured story arcs rather than the gimmick editions Marvel and DC put out teaming up Batman and Superman to boost sales. It was important to find an editor who could plan stories with the precision and complexity of the original Valiant thinkers.
After reading hundreds of comics, they finally approached Warren Simons, the Marvel editor responsible for relaunching Iron Man and Thor. "It was abundantly clear to me that these guys had a tremendous love for both the medium and Valiant's characters," Simons says. "They wanted to build the company with a commitment to compelling stories above all else. As an editor who strives to put out great comics on a monthly basis, this was music to my ears."
This month, seven years after their purchase, Shamdasani and Kothari are launching "the Summer of Valiant." Each month through August, one of the four original characters' sagas is set for release. The comics will feature all new artwork and material penned by a slew of award-winning artists and authors. X-O Manowar's No. 1 issue will feature the first talking comic book cover, utilizing QR code technology. Readers place a smartphone over the mouth of the character on the cover and scan a code; that launches a video on the phone, bringing the mouth of the character to life. Each issue will have pullbox covers -- special covers designed only for customers who order the comic for their account in advance from comic book stores.
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The Valiant characters also will be tackling the big screen. A Bloodshot movie is in the works at Sony with Neal Moritz (21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious) of Origin Film producing, alongside Shamdasani and Kothari. A Harbinger film is in development as well, with Brett Ratner set to direct.
"No matter how popular or unknown a character is," says Simons, "it's up to the creative team to put their heart into the book so they can share that love of the character with their audience."
This summer, Shamdasani, Kothari and the Valiant team are hoping that love is strong enough to help them face their biggest challenge yet: the marketplace.