By Charles EP Murphy
Imagine if a successful video game company bought a successful, well-loved comic company. Imagine the possibilities for transmedia entertainment and what all this extra cash & attention could mean for the comics. Imagine the success!
Unfortunately, we’re not talking about Rebellion’s purchase of 2000AD.
In 1994, Acclaim Entertainment bought Valiant Comics and ten years later, both companies had died ignoble deaths. What went wrong, and how, if at all, could it have been averted?
Valiant Comics was originally created by former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and funded by private equity firm Triumph Capital, and used a mix of new creations like XO Manowar and old 1960s Gold Key characters like Turok, Dinosaur Hunter. It was famous for its very tightly knit continuity and set of characters (which Shooter ensured by working excessively long, health-shattering hours). Valiant happened to be doing its first big crossover, Unity, in 1992 when Image Comics was having shipping delays, when readers and shops were hungry for something to fill the hole; Valiant also had had relatively low print runs on early titles, making it speculator bait. The two facts made it extremely profitable! Shooter was then replaced as editor-in-chief (against his will) with Bob Layton (against his will) in 1993…which, as we’ve discussed before, is when the wheels started to come off for the direct market.
At the same time the market was ripping itself to shreds, Valiant and Image (or rather a few head people at both) decided to do a crossover miniseries, Deathmate. On paper, this should have been a hit. In practice, Image’s parts were marred by delays and came out of order; half the Image creators didn’t want to take part and so top characters like Spawn were absent; and neither publisher knew enough about the other’s characters. This left comic shops stuck with orders for a massively expensive comic that wasn’t going to sell, burning many of them on Valiant. In the summer of 1994, Triumph Capital decided to sell Valiant off. Enter Acclaim Entertainment.
In contrast to Valiant’s record, Acclaim was, in the words of former programmer Ray Peña, “known as kind of a lousy developer” that relied too heavily on licensed properties. Acclaim saw comics as an obvious source of properties and rushed in to buy – Image, a company owned by its creators! After Image told them to go away, Acclaim bought Valiant instead. Layton told journalist Ryan McLelland in 2003 that “the ‘geniuses’ at Acclaim paid 65 million for us–although, if they had done their homework, they would have discovered that we were only valued at around 30 million.” This was not a good start.
To kickstart the new era, there was a marketing push called Birthquake: eight titles were cancelled, the remaining ten ran fortnightly for two months, and new, big-name artists like Bart Sears were brought in. This led to sales going down. Speaking to McLelland, Valiant’s Jeff Gomez blamed this failed relaunch on “no creative visionary at the helm”, with Layton burned out and nobody else imposing their will; Layton himself blamed it on pushing “twice as many units a month” on the existing readers. Thus, the relaunch led to massive layoffs to recoup costs.
In 1996, the company was rebranded as Acclaim Comics and all the titles rebooted as VH2 (“Valiant Heroes 2”) under the editorship of Fabian Nicieza, then famous for his successes on X-Men. (Layton claimed to McLelland that part of this was to cancel all the expensive Birthquake era contracts) New characters and concepts were brought in, most popularly Quantum & Woody by Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright. Every returning old character was rebooted as a whole new version with the same name, and Nicieza recruited top names like Mark Waid, Kurt Buisiek, and Garth Ennis to work on them. Nieceza told McLellan this was a “business decision. How can we make the most noise? How can we get fresh creative voices on our books? How can we best reposition our properties for the marketplace and for the needs of our parent company?”
It was hoped these new versions would be more video game friendly – and indeed they were, with titles like Armorines, Shadowman, and Turok coming to consoles. That part worked.
The part where this increased comic sales, not so much. Sales dropped to around 12,000, while many of the new writers departed soon into their runs. Waid himself would disparage the period in a 2000 interview with Warren Ellis, listing it as proof “I would make the STUPIDEST POSSIBLE CHOICE. … Kurt followed Marvels with Astro City. I followed Kingdom Come with X-O, Manowar. Good plan.”
By 1998, the comic line had crashed and production was slashed to a few one-shots. Nieceza would consider that this was partly because the company had burned too many bridges with comic shops. Still, the new editor Jim Perham tried to revive it the next year – Quantum & Woody had a relaunch gimmick of returning with #32, the issue they would have been up to, before skipping back to the old numbering. Shadowman and Armorines followed, the former because of the game, but Armorines #4 sold only 2,500 copies! Priest and Bright were assured Q&W was secure until #34, which turned out to be not true at all – it died five issues in, halfway through a spoof crossover with Priest’s Black Panther.
Editorial chaos got so bad that Shadowman writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning found that their editor had been fired and nobody was receiving their emails. Abnett was also shocked to find out from McLellan that three more issues had been published than he thought!
In 2000, Acclaim Comics asked Jim Shooter to return to write a new crossover, Unity 2000, that would reset and clean continuity, and then help them craft a bible for the new Acclaim Universe. The plot was going to feature the uber-powerful ‘VH1’ Doctor Solar on a quest to destroy the multiverse, believing the other realities to be distorted shadows, and the ‘VH2’ villain Alexandre Darque (with pals including Satan) stuck trying to defend existence by using various catspaws from across the universes. They fail but in a twist, it turns out Darque’s world, the Acclaim-but-slightly-different refreshed continuity, is the real original universe and is the only one to survive the collapse; then, Satan’s daughter has her dad erase everyone’s minds of what happened.
U2K was cancelled on its third issue. At the time, Shooter publicly said he’d not heard anything from editorial (who had been shedding people in layoffs) and hadn’t been paid for #4 and #5, so “I'm not going to give them the last issue. They've got the art and they've got the plot, so maybe they'll just get someone to write it. Who knows? I don't know. I've lost interest in them. When people don't pay me, I lose interest in them.”Priest would also refer, when talking about failed Quantum plans, to trying to tie into this but “[Shooter] frigidly ignored us and resisted any logical attempts to tie into us (which included a sarcastic and hostile email)”.
In late 2000, Jim Perham gave a brutally frank interview with Comic Book Resources, who said people had “the impression that Acclaim is… a comic book cancer victim; holding on by a thread, but never quite dying.” Perham admitted Infinity 2000, “this Crisis on Infinite Earths wannabe”, had been a mistake and wasn’t what the fans wanted. It still hoped to carry on though, with Perham referring to planned one-shots and a web comic anthology. The Bloodshot movie, finally set to be released in 2020, was still in the works and in McLelland’s interviews, creator Kevin VanHook mentioned WWE wrestler Triple H was rumoured to play Bloodshot.
None of this happened. In 2002 and 2003, Acclaim suffered a series of lawsuits alleging it had fibbed about its earnings before a stock sale, and these allegations are likely true since Acclaim finally went bankrupt in 2004 with mass failings in its game division. When talking to Kotaku, Acclaim Studios Austin designer Marshall Gause said he’d picked up “a tradition of fast-and-loose bookkeeping”. Gause and Peña recalled an atmosphere of unease that ended when they came to work to find the offices had locked.
Adding insult to injury, two of the last Acclaim games were licensed adaptation of the comics 100 Bullets and The Red Star – neither of them Acclaim Comics properties. Clearly, by this point they’d been written off.
(Valiant Comics was revived a few years ago and has been quite successful. And Bloodshot is getting a movie!)
A Valiant Return
So, could Acclaim Comics survive?
No, because Acclaim Entertainment was a shoddy parent company and would die.
But could Acclaim Comics survive until that point, possibly to be sold off to another company? There are a few options here.
The first is for Deathmate to never happen at all. This simply requires Image’s Jim Lee, who was eager to do it, convinced not to when he sees the other partners aren’t as keen. If the market doesn’t associate Valiant with losing them a huge amount of money, Acclaim’s attempted rebrands will be given more of a chance.
The second option is for Birthquake to do better, which of course is easier for it to do so if Deathmate never happens. It would be better for Acclaim if it never happens but it was not unreasonable for them to think big names would boost sales, nor to reduce their line of titles during a market slump. If it does not double the frequency of existing titles and has a specific creative plan then it would at least not fail badly, leaving the company in a stronger position to do well. A specific plan requires Layton to leave earlier, though Nieceza was not available until the next year – so who would replace him?
The third option is the VH2 relaunch. Here, a clear sticking point is the mass reboot. This is not unique in comics, with the most famous example being DC’s Silver Age revamps of the Flash, Green Lantern, and others. What is out of the norm is doing it when the previous version was out last month! Any potential new readers will be offset by pissed-off older ones. This is especially a risk so soon after Birthquake, and when Acclaim is already losing (because it simply isn’t sustainable) the selling point of Shooter’s tight continuity. Instead of new versions, streamlined takes on existing characters would make more sense here – similar to how Ennis would streamline The Punisher a few years later, quietly ignoring recent stories and having him get back to just shooting mobsters in New York.
(If this happens after Birthquake does better, the relaunch will also be quite different as someone else will be the one doing it)
The relaunch also suffered from a lack of communication between the editors. Stronger control from above would have greatly helped. And this leads into another thing that needs to be changed.
One thing that stands out in recollections of the company is the incredible freedom Acclaim offered and, before the crash, the friendly nature of the people working there. Creators have spoken about how much scope they had for doing what they wanted on their comics, and Nieceza and Perham both spoke about their great freedom as editors. This, however, has a trade-off: as Perham admitted to Comic Book Resources, “there was never anyone to stand and say, "Are you sure that this is the right thing to do?"” Acclaim Entertainment left the comic side to do what it want and spend money, up until it could not allow that anymore – wasting a $60 million investment.
It’s really unlikely this will be changed too much because it requires Acclaim Entertainment to be a better company. What could be changed, however, is Acclaim being at least slightly more concerned and asking questions – even just a perception of vague oversight could make Acclaims Comic tread more carefully.
Past the point of the VH2 relaunch, Acclaim Comics was probably unsalvageable. Certainly, Unity 2000 would not turn things around if it did come out - as Perham notes, it was a mistake to think this is what the market wants, and the plot as pitched only makes things more confusing and impersonal.
Now, what happens if things turn out fine and Acclaim Comics does better? If sales are stable and the company has rebuilt its bridges with retailers, it will be able to attract creators with the promise of greater autonomy. This will give it a cachet with readers and sales will remain good. The 2000s saw the earliest stabs at online comics (both Marvel and CrossGen began putting some issues online) and greater trade paperback collections, the latter leading to bookstore sales (in this they were catching up with manga). Acclaim Comics would be involved in this and would further expand their market.
And then 2004 will happen and Acclaim Entertainment goes bankrupt! What happens then, when Acclaim Comics is still profitable and has a good record? Who buys it?
Well, CrossGen was another comic company that went bankrupt in summer of 2004 and they were bought out by Disney, who were interested in some of its creative assets. What if Acclaim catches their eye first? This would give them assets, especially ones useful for targeting young boys (a thing Disney was keen to do at the time), and a profitable new sub-company! And if Disney has bought Acclaim and is getting Bloodshot films out, it’s unlikely to buy Marvel out. Disney not owning the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it hits its height – the profit of which allowed it to grab Lucasarts – would change the entire face of the global film industry!
This is just one possibility. A more mundane result – some other company, maybe another comic company, absorbs the publisher – is more likely. Even that will have a huge impact on the comic industry, giving it a powerful publisher capable of stealing creators and editors from the ‘Big Two’ and not reliant on licensed properties.
But either way, it was really dumb for Acclaim to pay $65m.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.