Comic Book Biography: JIM VALENTINO

jim-valentinoJim Valentino has had one of the most varied careers in the comics industry: from small press creator, to independent comics doyen, to fan favorite superhero writer/artist, and finally, now publisher. His projects have always bisected a line from the intensely personal to the entirely pragmatic choices made in an industry dominated by lycra clad creations. Valentino spent some time recently chatting with Rik Offenberger about his career and the path that lies ahead for Image comics.

First Comics News: You started working in underground comix, could you tell us how you broke in and explain a little about underground comix for fans that may not have been around in those days?

Jim Valentino: No. I started in what we now call the “small press” that is, xeroxed comics of various sizes and shapes sold mostly through mail order, traded and given away. There was a whole network of guys in those days as, I imagine, there are now. Talented creators like Par Holman, Brad Foster, Rick Geary, Gary Whitney, Bob Vojtko and others and guys who were promoting us like Clay Geerdes, Everyman Studios and Bruce Sweeney. It was a very cool little community.

I actually only had my work published in a couple of undergrounds as they were just about dead by the late 70’s.

As for what undergrounds were, they were, basically, comics for the counter-culture – sex, drugs, rock and roll, political and social commentary. They were comics unencumbered by the Comics Code Authority. Things, at the time, you couldn’t do in a mainstream comic.

1st: From there you did some work on Cerebus, how did you make the transition form small press to independent comics?

Jim: I didn’t really see any transition between the two; one was merely an extension of the other in my mind. The only difference was that being published by Aardvark-Vanaheim would net me some much needed money and it would expand my potential audience base.

1st: Dave Sim also published your comic, normalman how did this come about?

Jim: Dave had seen a piece I’d done, “In My Life,” about the assassination of John Lennon and he wanted to publish it in Cerebus#50. Deni, his wife and partner at the time, wanted to expand their publishing to include other creators. They had already signed on Bill Loebs (Journey) and Arn Saba (Neil the Horse) and were looking toward me and Bob Burden (Flaming Carrot) – again, really good company to be in-something I’ve been lucky with my whole career.

I came up with normalman, which Deni loved, but Dave wanted me to do the more autobiographical stuff that I’d been doing in the small press. Problem was I couldn’t do it on a regular basis, so we opted fornormalman as the series with Valentino as an annual, at best. Incidentally, it was Dave who wanted to call the book Valentino – I hated it, but relented. I wanted to call it Vignettes, which is what I wound up calling the trade paperback version of the series.

1st: Next you moved over to the major publishers with some work onWho’s Who, What if? and Silver Surfer, how did you break in?

Jim: Patience. Lots and lots of sample pages, pitches that got ignored and ideas that got tossed out. I was also fortunate enough to have two friends who were working their way up editorial at the time, Craig Anderson at Marvel and Mark Waid at DC. They both tossed me a couple of bones for which I will be forever in their debt.

1st: Would you mind telling us about the Metamorpho series you were attached to at DC?

Jim: I’m kind of surprised you even know about it, this may be the first time it’s ever come up. It was for Mike Gold, who was editing Action Comics Weekly for about five and a half minutes many years ago. The conceit of the series was that Metamorpho would have been a Swamp Thing like character for the Periodic Table. Basically, an elemental, if you will. I know I did some drawings, wrote a pitch, think I plotted out the first installment, but I can’t remember much beyond that.

1st: How did you land the Guardians of the Galaxy assignment?

Jim: I had been doing a little bit of work for Marvel here and there, some Savage Sword of Conan stuff, I think a fill-in or two on theSilver Surfer. I knew that Mark Gruenwald and Tom DeFalco were going to be at Wondercon, so I decided to pitch them some ideas-figured I had nothing to lose. I worked up several proposals, including one for the Defenders, one I was working on with Rob Liefeld called the Young Avengers (Captain America trains young heroes – which was very similar to a book Tom was creating at the time called The New Warriors, but we didn’t know about – and a couple others. The very last one I did and the one I’d put the least amount of sweat into was the Guardians. So, naturally, that’s the one they picked!

1st: How did you deal with the fact that Marvel had zero advertising budget to help support the book?

Jim: That’s not true. They ran a contest for it and the other books that debuted that year in Marvel Age. In fact, they ran several pieces inMarvel Age about it. I mean it wasn’t an X book, so I never expected a brass band. I never felt as though they slighted it, though and the book did have a positive sales slope the entire time I was on it.

1st: What was your relationship with your editor like?

Jim: It got real bad toward the end there. I didn’t care much for my inker. I felt he had the exact same drawing weaknesses I did. So, he would only accentuate those weaknesses, rather than improve the piece. Inking is so much more than merely tracing-and a compatible inker is every penciler’s dream. I didn’t like the colorist, either. I thought she was unimaginative and added nothing to the mix.

At the time I thought he was just taking it personally, now I realize that I was being a royal pain-in-the-ass. But it ended with him telling me that he thought the colorist was more important to the book than I was. And I was writing AND drawing it!

That was both unprofessional and unnecessary. Things kinda went downhill from there, oddly enough.

1st: Is that why Image had no editors when it started?

Jim: Because of ME? I never had that much influence over the partners. No, this is one of those lovely things that got so blown out of proportion in the early days that it became ridiculous. What we were saying [is] that [we] didn’t [want to] have anyone we had to pitch an idea at or answer to. If Rob wanted to do Brigade, he did it – he didn’t have to go to an “editor” and ask permission. He was in charge. I have never understood why these things weren’t obvious to people right from the start.

Did it mean we didn’t have proofreaders or traffic managers? No, it didn’t. Even though we, obviously, were not very good at it. You learn as you go.

1st: How did you get involved with the founding of Image?

Jim: Rob had been talking for over a year to his three closest friends in the business, Todd, Erik and myself, about wanting to do an independent comic. In September of 1991 he took the plunge and advertised a book that would be coming out from Malibu on the “Image” label called the Extremists, I believe. When his editor at Marvel, Bob Harras, saw the ad, he phoned Rob up and told him that if Rob went through with this, he’d be fired.

This just pissed Rob off. He mobilized us as he and Todd were leaving for the first Sotheby’s auction for original comic art (the entire contents of X-Men #1, X-Force #1 and Spider-Man #1 as I recall). I was in it right from the start.

1st: Originally Image was run as a guild with totally separate studios, how did Shadowline, Ink. fit into the whole?

Jim: A guild? Where did that come from? Image was an umbrella – a co-op, if you will. Each partner had his own fully autonomous company. Image was the umbrella these individual companies would use to create an economy of scale. The notion was that by banding together under this umbrella we would have more negotiating power with distributors, advertisers, printers and the like. And we did. Shadowline was my company as Extreme was Rob’s, Homage was Jim’s and so forth.

1st: Why did Image decide they needed a publisher?

Jim: The Publisher runs the day-to-day operations of the central office. The central office acts as the conduit between the various partner run companies and the printers, distributors, etc. It also handles the non-partner books.

1st: How did you move from founder and partner to publisher?

Jim: I didn’t. I will always be a founder, that’s a matter of history and public record. I remain a partner and I’m the publisher. None of these things are mutually exclusive.

1st: What’s it like to have your job go from being artistic to being a businessman?

Jim: For me it was a very natural and very welcome transition. I had stopped creating for about a year before I became the publisher. I enjoy the business side a great deal. I enjoy solving problems, meeting challenges, Hell, I actually enjoy stress to a lesser or greater extent. And it’s a darn good thing, too, cause this job’s got plenty of it!

I think people change and grow over the course of years. What interested you, how you feel about things and what your goals are at 20 is quite different from what they are at 40 – or, at least, they should be. For me, this is just a natural extension. I’m still in the industry I love and still trying to make a difference, however minimal, in the art form I love.

1st: As publisher what exactly does your job entail?

Jim: Oy! Well, as I said, it’s overseeing the day-to-day operations of the office. Anticipating, finding and fixing whatever problems come up – be they creative, legal, whatever. In any given day I can talk to creators, accountants, attorneys, the media, whomever.

My job is to bring new books into the company, to approve or reject all non-partner books, to set the rules of engagement for all non-partners. To present a public face and voice for the company as a whole. To report to the Board of Directors. To ensure that partner needs are taken care of. To find new revenue streams for the company wherever I can.

It can also include copywriting, ad and book design, copy editing. Negotiations of contracts. It’s a pretty wide range of responsibilities and it takes everything I’ve learned over the last twenty odd years to do it. And then some.

1st: Do you have any responsibilities to the other founders or are they still separate?

Jim: Each partner, as I stated above, is an island unto himself. Each runs a fully autonomous business. I do not dictate to them, they tell me what they need and I move Heaven and Earth to accommodate them – they own the company.

This goes back to our first meeting and something a lot of people still do not seem to get. At that first meeting we decided on the following rules:
1.Image would never own anything save the Image “i” – we have stuck to that. Image owns no character, no property.
2.No partner would ever interfere with the business practice of any other, whether they agreed with them or not. The only adjunct to this is if a partner’s actions were so egregious that it hurt the body politic. We have adhered to this as well. and
3.That partners would never share monies, copyrights or trademarks. We have adhered to that.
All that said, I must report to the Board of Directors and give them a State of the Union address at least once a year according to both our by-laws and California State Corporate law.

1st: When Image started, it was Marvel’s hottest creators, at the peak of their popularity, leaving in mass to create super hero comics, at the time what did you really feel were your chances of success?

Jim: Once Todd signed on, I knew we had a great chance – when Rob and Todd recruited Marc and, especially, Jim, I knew we had an atomic bomb.

Was I nervous? Sure. I was the low man on the totem pole. My book wasn’t a million seller, I was not a millionaire, I had a large family to support. But, I was willing to take the risk. We all had to believe in it, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.

1st: After the 7 of you were successful, a second wave of popular creators started publishing creator owned super heroes, how did this rapid growth affect Image?

Jim: There were growing pains, to be sure. Like any fledging company, we had to sort things out a bit. The only difference is that we were under a microscope while we did it.

We always considered and had always said that Image was an experiment. Larry Marder always likened it to a volatile petrii dish, which I always thought was an apt description. We said that things would change and they did, have and will continue to do so for as long as we’re around.

1st: Image largest studios went back to Marvel for “Heroes Reborn” how did the partners react to Jim and Rob wanting to work at Marvel again?

Jim: I think Todd got a bit pissed off, none of the rest of us cared. It was certainly within their rights to do so. We have all done work-for-hire at some point since we started Image. If the work interested us, we’d do it. By having the “noninterference” rule we allowed ourselves and one-another to follow whatever whim took our fancy. Jim and Rob want to work for Marvel, God Bless ’em! Hell, Marc is doing a four issue X-Menstory as I write this – my reaction? I can’t wait to see it!

1st: You were the first writer on Avengers why didn’t that continue?

Jim: Well, it was around that time that we were kicking Rob out of Image. That kinda put a strain on the relationship. Don’t ask me why, just one of those silly little things.

1st: Three founding members of Image have left the company; can you tell us about the circumstance around each of their departures?

Jim: We incorporated in 1993. At that time Whilce decided that he did not want to become a partner. It was a personal decision and his to make. He certainly lost no face for it inside of the body. Rob was, as is well documented, thrown out of the company for reasons we will not go into. Jim decided to sell his company to DC, another thing that was perfectly within his rights to do. Three partners, three completely different reasons. We have never been anything save fierce individuals.

1st: Image went from a place for super heroes to publishing mostly non-super hero comics, was this a plan or a slow evolution?

Jim: If you take a cursory glance through Image’s history, you’ll see that it wasn’t just super-heroes – we did The Maxx, Splitting Image,Shaman’s Tears, Groo, Bone, all kinds of books right from the start.

My vision for the company, right from the start, was to be more like a traditional book publisher. Simon and Shuster, for example, publish everything from Western Novels to Cookbooks, children’s storybooks to hard-boiled detective fiction, art books to how to knit books. My belief was that a comic publisher could do the same. That the way to attract the widest potential audience base was not to narrowcast to a singular style or genre, but to reach beyond that.

1st: Through its history Image has survived the loss of founders and changes in direction; to what do you attribute Images success?

Jim: I think, honestly, sticking to the three rules the company was founded on. I think that’s the secret and the ticket. I believe that’s why we’re still standing when all of those other companies that were supposed to save this industry from the “evil” Image – The Ultraverse, Legend, Acclaim – all of them–are gone.

1st: Is Image where you want it to be in the market place?

Jim: God, no. But we’re working on it every day. I still believe that quality will win out, despite all evidence to the contrary. I genuinely believe that we are publishing one of the most diverse and smartest lines in the industry’s history and I intend to make us even better.

1st: What is your vision for Image in the future?

Jim: [To be at a point] wherein creators have a place to express their vision unencumbered, take their own destiny into their hands and own their own creations. I know that probably sounds corny as hell – but I really believe it and I have dedicated my entire career to doing just that. Image allows me a means to do it. And that’s where I want to be – that’s where we should be.

1st: Spawn, Savage Dragon and Youngblood were all projects that the creators had carried with them for years, was ShadowHawk like that for you?

Jim: The character started several years prior to the formation of Image. There was this guy, Scott Fullop, I believe, who was an editor at Archie. In the wake of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, he tried to do a darker take on some of the Archie super-heroes. A couple of them were done including The Hangman by Kelly Jones and another project by Len Wein, I believe. At any rate, they were after Rob to do The Shield. I pitched a proposal for the Fox to them. He was their Bat Man/Wildcat character. But, the owners of Archie are very conservative and they got cold feet and nixed the whole thing.

A few years later when I was working on the Guardians I had Starhawk absorb Aleta back into his body in issue #16. This caused a psychic feedback that turned his power from light to dark. The plan was to reintroduce him in issue #22, doing a riff on the cover for Defenders#28 and change his name to ShadowHawk.

Tom DeFalco told me that they didn’t want to change Starhawk’s name, but said he liked the name ShadowHawk and asked me to come up with a proposal for a new book starring a new character with that name. By the time I did, we had formed Image and I decided to use the character here and own it myself.

I originally wanted Mark Texeira to draw it because he was more popular and a much better artist than I was.

As it turned out, he flaked and I did it anyway. It’s all good in the end.

1st: It was announced that ShadowHawk was going to return with the launch of the new heroes line at Image, when can we expect the new series?

Jim: I wouldn’t hold my breath. I’ve suffered from a writer’s block for around five years now. I know what I want to do in my head, but I just can’t connect the dots. If the block ever goes and if I feel so inclined, I may revisit ShadowHawk. If not, there is still the body of work I did on it.

1st: You have also said there would be more of A Touch of Silver in the future where does that stand?

Jim: More or less in the same place, although were I to revisit one or the other, it would be A Touch of Silver. Obviously, this is a very personal book to me and I would want to be firing on all cylinders for it. I do have a basic plot. I know that it will be an original graphic novel and not a series of periodicals and I have a title; “Standing On The Corner of Four Dead-End Streets”. Oh, yeah, and there is an ending, one that may surprise people, but will make perfect sense once you read it.

It is the one piece of unfinished business I hope to get to.

1st: What else do you have in the works?

Jim: Um, running Image, outrunning incontinent husbands, staying one step ahead of the law. I think that’s enough for any one man.

1st: Thank you for your time and candor.

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