Two former Hong Kong students fulfil a dream by rescuing their favourite comic book company
On a busy Sunday afternoon at the recent Long Beach Comic Con, a steady stream of people stopped to chat with the people manning the Valiant Entertainment booth, lingering to pick up crisp, glossy new comics. For an independent comic character-based company, the booth was attracting a surprising amount of attention. One fan was even begging to be allowed to work the booth, such was his love of the company.
And the story of Valiant itself is a compelling one, culminating with its acquisition by two men who have been friends since attending school together in Hong Kong.
Shamdasani and Valiant's New York-based vice-chairman Jason Kothari, both 31, bonded over a love of comic books at Hong Kong's Island School. Kothari was already showing some of the business prowess that would lead to him and his friend, two decades later, taking over one of the most iconic comic book publishers in the history of the business.
At the time, comic books were hard to find in Hong Kong and Kothari's father, the head of Asian operations for a multinational firm who regularly travelled to the US, would bring them back for his son. He would share them with his school friends, but if they wanted more, they had to either buy or trade for them.
Kothari and Shamdasani were fans of Valiant characters Harbinger, Rai, Shadowman and Eternal Warrior. Years later, after graduating from university and armed with some work experience, when the opportunity arose to parlay their affinity with the comic book world into a business, they grabbed it.
"When I was in the business programme at Wharton [the MBA school of the University of Pennsylvania], I read about the turnaround of Marvel Entertainment," Kothari says of the comic book giant behind Thor, Iron Man and Captain America. Marvel had gone from bankruptcy in 1999 to being sold to Disney for US$4.5 billion less than a decade later. "It was one of the biggest turnarounds in recent history. I wanted to see if I could marry that special business model with these great Valiant characters that I was passionate about while growing up."
Valiant has been around since 1989, the brainchild of former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and gradually introduced a series of characters that are flawed, human and therefore easy to relate to, Shamdasani says. For example, the Harbinger series is about a group of teenage outcasts with paranormal powers, Eternal Warrior revolves around the power of discipline, while Shadowman is about facing one's deepest fears.
Under the Valiant umbrella there are about 1,500 characters, selling more than 80 million comic books. At its peak, its top 10 characters outsold Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, and was the third largest publisher after Marvel and DC Comics.
Then, in 1994, Valiant was sold for US$65 million to video game firm Acclaim Entertainment, which focused on building up the gaming aspect while letting the publishing side fall into disarray. While some of the games were successful, the business made some serious missteps and, by 2005, Valiant was in bankruptcy.
That was where Kothari and Shamdasani stepped in. Kothari was then interning at corporations such as McKinsey "but I realised what I was most passionate about was building a company, especially in media and entertainment", he says.
His first job was an internship at Media Asia Films in Hong Kong, where the then 16-year-old served as an on-set assistant to Jackie Chan and helped review film distribution contracts. "Seeing the inside of this company and how quickly it was growing always stuck with me," he says. "I was mentored by alumni of Wharton who had done some incredible things. They were people who had co-founded movie studios and large media companies, and that inspired me to give this a shot."
Meanwhile, Shamdasani went to study law in London. After one year he decided this wasn't for him, and enrolled in the University of Southern California to study film. He graduated with honours and got a job he described as a "lowly development executive" at Universal Studios. If there was one thing he learned there, he says, it was that "all of entertainment comes down to storytelling". However, he adds: "I didn't want to spend the next 20 years climbing a ladder I didn't know existed."
So when Valiant became available, Shamdasani and Kothari decided to bid for it. "Dinesh was still following Valiant and interacting with the industry," says Kothari. "He told me that Acclaim was filing for bankruptcy and therefore I knew they would be liquidating their assets. We thought what better time to buy Valiant because there was a possibility of getting it at a bargain. We didn't really think we'd be successful. But we needed to give it everything. Otherwise we knew we'd regret it."
The two raised money through private investors, friends, family and pooling their resources. Valiant went to auction - and despite everything, they were only the second-highest bidders. "We lost by a small margin - just US$10,000," says Kothari. "But we had no more money at the time."
However, as providence would have it, the team who won Valiant became mired in a trademark dispute with another company. Kothari and Shamdasani had another tactic: with the new ownership of Valiant looking tenuous, and aware such disputes could take years and millions of dollars to resolve, they stepped in again.
"We decided to take the risk and fight," Kothari says. It took 18 months and a lawsuit in federal court, but there was a settlement, the trademark issues were resolved, and ownership was transferred to the duo in 2007.
"After we resolved that, we were in business," he says. "We put together a new business plan, and got really accomplished people on our management team and advisory board."
The newly invigorated company does indeed have a dream team: Valiant's chairman and a key investor is Peter Cuneo, formerly the CEO and vice-chairman of Marvel Entertainment, and responsible for Marvel's striking multibillion-dollar turnaround. Others include the former marketing chief of Pixar, Donald Evans, who oversaw the marketing of films such as Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3.
The former head of Electronic Arts' worldwide studios, Bruce McMillan, is an adviser, bringing his expertise in successful video game franchises, while the previous CFO of Marvel, Ken West, advises on that aspect of the business. A former head of TV at Lionsgate, Barbara Wall, is also on board.
Now, after some stops and starts, Kothari and Shamdasani believe they are truly in business - and their love for the comics of their childhood has been perhaps the biggest impetus. "I believed that if you couldn't see what it was, it would be hard to see what it could be again," Shamdasani says.
The company has already turned on its head one of the presumed inevitabilities of the comic book trade: typically, Shamdasani says, the first book in a series is a whiz-bang success. Then, with each subsequent issue, sales tend to drop until around the seventh issue or so, where it finds its home. "But with our books, each issue has sold more than the last. So we've already bucked that trend."
Next up, some of the Valiant characters are being primed for the big-screen treatment. The company has struck development deals with some filmmakers: Neal Moritz, behind the Fast and the Furious franchise, Sean Daniel of The Mummy franchise, Brett Ratner of Rush Hour and X-Men 3, and Matthew Vaughn, also of X-Men, are in varying stages of development.
"There have been the inevitable comparisons to the most well-known characters," Kothari says. "We don't have a Spider-Man or a Batman, but we do have characters that have outsold Thor, Iron Man and Captain America during Valiant's peak."
And that, his business partner says, is probably where the future of Valiant lies - in its storied, successful roots. "The Valiant characters have always been fresh and exciting," Shamdasani says. "For us now, it's really about going back to those tenets of storytelling."
Valiant's most popular series
Aric is a Visigoth warrior from AD402 whose people are being abducted by aliens. The "X-O" stands for armour that is actually a sentient being, which Aric discovers and wears while he and the rest of the Visigoth rebels fight with the invaders.
Pete Stanchek is a telepath who takes drugs to help him block out the thoughts of everyone around him, which he hears in his head. He meets people with similar powers at the Harbinger Foundation, which is run by a mysterious man named Toyo Harada.
Blood laced with nanites - microscopic machines - are given to Angelo Mortalli in a secret military experiment that grants him the power to heal wounds and counteract machinery and weapons. However, it also takes away his memory. He goes on to become a one-man killing machine, hence the name Bloodshot.
Archer and Armstrong
A Christian fundamentalist-themed amusement park, a mysterious device that detonates and destroys civilisation, the pairing of a highly trained young man from a cult, a rowdy immortal who happens to be a giant, a villain named "The One Percent" - it's all in this recently relaunched series.
A New Orleans musician named Jack Boniface by day and a crime-fighting superhero by night, Shadowman's powers came about after he was drugged by a mysterious woman. There are also close encounters with "Bloodrunners" - people who reanimate after they die and run riot.