Why Marvel’s Winning, DC’s Losing and Valiant is Better Than Both of Them

I’m a bagpiper. Yeah I know, what the heck does that have to do with comic books, right? Bear with me as there’s a point to this. In the bagpiper community, we have a running joke as to how the rest of the world views our music. It goes something like this, “There are three tunes played on the bagpipes; Scotland the Brave, Amazing Grace and everything else.” That stereotype likely came about due to how so many tunes sound alike on the instrument. The same can be said of comic book publishers to the layman. There are three names in the comic book publishing world; Marvel, DC and everyone else. However, that ‘everyone else’ group puts out some of the most incredible stories in the genre.

Before we get to those creative upstarts, let’s look at who is front and center in the public’s eyes. While many may not know or care if Batman is a DC or Marvel property, or if Stan Lee was the mind behind Spidey or Iron Man (or both!), these companies partake in a high stakes dealing of publishing imagination to entice readers’ dollars. Marvel currently has, and for sometime now, maintained their status as financial king-of-the-hill in the comic book world. There are, in my eyes, two main reasons for this. The lesser (but still vital) of those reasons has to do with what Marvel Studios keeps delivering on film. Love or hate these movies, they are nearly all financial juggernauts.

According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the first Avengers movie brought in an eyeball-popping $1.5 billion worldwide at the box office. Yes, that’s cinema money only, not Blu-ray or streaming sales, which is another paycheck to Marvel in and of itself. The list can go on and on with hits like Captain America: Winter Soldier, Thor, etc. These movies can have an unparalleled effect on non-comic book readers, piquing their interest enough to draw them to the pages from which their cinematic counterparts were spawned. Now I say this is the lesser of the two reasons as I would venture to guess while many love the movies, there are still several folks out there who do not care enough to sit down and read a comic book of the film they just saw.

That brings us to the larger reason for Marvel’s success which is their strategy. They fight the comic book market in a war of attrition. I honestly do not know how many Marvel titles are out on store racks or within the depths of Comixology right now. While some publishers focus on detailed stories bubbling with substance, Marvel’s throws a bunch of darts at the wall because some are bound stick, and what sticks is what brings in the Benjamins. I have thumbed through the pages of many a Marvel title and have grown disappointed with book after book in recent years. Moon Knight is one example who has the potential to be a great character and emerge from the depths of obscurity, yet continues to deliver sub-par stories that are either overrated, under-engaging, or both. Ironically enough, it is a business strategy that works.

Go into any supermarket and head down the snack aisle. Chances are the shelves are dominated by Frito Lay products. Because Frito Lay is such a money-earning behemoth, they can afford to buy all the space they want to on those shelves, thus keeping the little guy’s place to a minimum. Does it mean they have the best tasting potato chips? No. It just means they have the capital to overwhelm everyone else’s presence in the market. Marvel pretty much does the same thing.

With that being said, I’m not a Marvel hater. After a comic book reading dormancy since the early 1990’s, I returned to comics with the Deadpool series in 2008. It was a fun and exciting ride that featured the ‘merc with a mouth’ exercising his deadly abilities more so than zippy one-liners. Unfortunately, today’s Deadpool series are so disappointingly cartoonish as he cracks jokes more often than he does opponents’ bones.  I experienced similar disappointment with Hulk.  Planet Hulk was an outstanding work.  Just as well, in the arc that pitted the Incredible Hulk against the mysterious Red Hulk, I was drawn like a magnet to each proceeding issue.  Both of those series were very well done, though recently the Hulk has been ‘meh’ at best.

Detective Comics. Yes that is the actual name behind the DC brand which features two of the more famous, if not the most famous, super heroes of all time; Superman and Batman. With cornerstone titles of these guys reaching issue numbers well over 600, DC took a risky approach in 2011 and started from scratch, releasing what they called The New 52. Fifty-two titles that featured some new heroes, anti-heroes, but many of the familiar names as well, all reset to issue #1. How would this fair? Through some toiling, DC was able to decipher what titles clicked with readers (Batman, Aquaman) and what titles did not (Hawkman, Mr. Terrific). Wait, did I just say Aquaman? Yes, and I was elated for the restart. The character has caught a lot of flack over the years and writers have largely dropped the ball in making the King of Atlantis relative.

With DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns manning writing duties on the Aquaman reboot, we got a rock solid story and an inaugural issue that even found a bystander within that issue poking fun at the water-dwelling hero (a likely nod to so many readers that had before). As the story progressed, we finally got to see what Arthur Curry was made of and why he should be hailed as a super hero. Johns did nothing less than exceptional work, but as is often the case with comic book titles, rosters are shaken up and new writers and artists take over on existing books. When Johns left, the title went south again, just as it had dog-paddled for so many years before its New 52 inception. The story arcs were anemic and anything but enveloping.

Fast forward a few years to today, and all of a sudden The New 52 seems like a distant memory. The marketing catalyst that tried to breathe new life into DC characters seems to be in a constant state of flux these days. So many new tries at new releases, in my honest opinion, fall flat, which is unfortunate because they were my go-to after Marvel focused more on quantity than quality, pushing me away from their releases. For instance, DC’s Final Crisis was a convoluted mess of a story that had me reaching for a third cup of coffee just to make it through it all. This thing was built up to be big, and while what happened within its pages may be huge in the DC universe, it was rather underwhelming and headache-inducing at best. DC may not dethrone Marvel, especially if its film ventures continue to be mediocre representations of their titles (Man of Steel, anyone?), but they can return some greatness to their product if they focus on stronger, action-packed stories.  You have talented writers, DC.  Bring us great stories!

Now it’s time for the “everyone else” players in the industry to get their moment in the spotlight. Like film, it is quite often those independent gems that grab us and leave a lasting impression in our hearts and minds. The 2014 film Whiplash comes to mind as one such example. What studio did it come from? Heck if I know. It wasn’t Disney or Universal or Paramount as far as I know, but it was one of the best films of 2014 and is more memorable than many of the big budget bruisers that faced off at movie theaters that year. The same thing occurs in comic book publishing. Image, for instance, best known for The Walking Dead, continues to deliver fantastic titles both ongoing (Invincible) and in mini-series form (Grim Leaper). But Image isn’t the only small guy out there making waves (though Image isn’t so small anymore).

Publishers like Dark Horse and Dynamite bring us movie-licensed titles like Predator and Army of Darkness, respectively, that do quite well. Then there is Valiant. Valiant has a unique story. In the early 90’s, they were known for exciting titles and flashy foil covers. As the Valiant page on Wikipedia states, the publisher was bought by video game developer Acclaim in 1994, which eventually shut down operations of Valiant ten years later. Before the days of the interwebs, I had often wondered whatever happened to Valiant. Where did their characters go? Where was Turok: Dinosaur Hunter or Ninjak or X-O Manowar? These were all great series that had gone the way of the dodo bird…or did they?

Unlike the extinct aviary species, Valiant came back to life on store shelves in 2012 and oh was it glorious. While some of its titles from the 90’s had gone on to be licensed to other companies (like Turok to Dark Horse and Magnus: Robot Fighter to Dynamite), Valiant maintained their calling cards in X-O Manowar, Bloodshot, Archer & Armstrong and Ninjak, just to name a few. In addition, they have brought us a carefully planned release of stellar new titles in the form of Imperium, Divinity, and Book of Death.

When spearheaded by writers such as Robert Venditti and Matt Kindt, Valiant has focused its efforts on a strategy opposite of Marvel; give readers something to remember that goes beyond the main character’s name. One example is X-O Manowar. The guy is a Visigoth from 402 A.D. thrust into the 21st century who wears a nearly indestructible suit of living armor. If he’s nearly impossible to kill, it can’t be that consistently invigorating of a title, can it? Yet somehow Venditti and company continually deliver, month after month. It’s a regular dose of relentless drama, hair-raising action and jaw-dropping atrocities that make it to be what I think is one of the best titles on the market today.

In all honesty, this is not something only Valiant adheres to. Image is right up there with them and let’s not forget about the aforementioned Dark Horse or even IDW. So like bagpipe tunes, while Scotland the Brave and Amazing Grace are the most recognizable, you may be surprised to find out the best ones are not necessarily the most popular ones (give Hellbound Train a listen sometime). As a comic book fan, I would implore you to check out what these other publishers have to offer, especially Valiant.

By no means am I saying stay away from the big guys like Marvel. After all, to each their own and the Star Wars titles they have been putting out as of late are all really well done. DC’s Vertigo imprint is nothing to turn a cheek to either as they have given us awesome work like Punk Rock Jesus. At the end of the day, however, you can jump into any Valiant title and be given the most bang for your comic book buck that you can get. Okay, you can replace ‘Valiant’ with ‘Image’ if you want, no argument from me, but the point is these other guys that dot the landscape are far more artistically proficient at what they do than the two giants of the comic book industry.


Comments are currently closed.