The Big Idea: Alex de Campi

And now for something a little different: The Big Idea focuses primarily on books and their authors, but I think it’s fun to mix things up from time to time and hear from folks trying new ways to tell their stories and get them out to readers. Alex de Campi, along with her collaborator Christine Larsen, are doing just that with Valentine, their tale of intrigue, war, and mystical creatures, set in the year 1812. Why 1812, and what new thing is being brought to Valentine? I’ll step back and let de Campi take it from here.


It all started with the map. Well, to be honest, it really began with my being a contrary little miss who didn’t like dolls, who forced my father to seek out compendia of folk tales as souvenirs for me when he was on business trips to places American daddies didn’t tend to go in 1979: Leningrad, Romania, Shanghai. But the map was the catalyst which brought Valentine to its crackling, electric existence. Not bad, for an accident.

The map is Minard’s 1869 “Carte Figurative des Pertes Successives en Hommes de l’Armée Française dans la Campagne de Russie 1812-1813”. It fell out of a book on quantitative information that I bought. Now, you can say Napoleon lost 90% of his troops in the retreat from Moscow in 1812, but when you see it in Minard’s mix of statistical chart, temperature scale (“-30 le 6 Dicembre”) and route map, it manages to bring home the sheer stupidity and horror of that campaign in a way that simple words can’t. In short: Napoleon marched half a million men into Russia one summer, and made it all the way to Moscow. There he dithered, trading letters with the Tsar, until – too late, too late! – he decided to leave for better-provisioned quarters. By the time his army limped across the German border, there were barely 50,000 men left.

Why had an otherwise brilliant military commander made such a catastrophic error? And why, while we’re asking uncomfortable questions, do so many cultures have such similar folk stories about mythical beings, undead, faeries and so forth? There was clearly an almost universal agreement, centuries ago, that magic and magical beings existed, and it can’t just be blamed on superstitious people needing an explanation for thunder. How do unicorns explain anything? Whither vampires, from the Arabic ghūl, Indian vetalas, Romanian strigoi and Ashanti asanbosam, to sparkly chaps who chastely fulfil certain young ladies’ penetration fantasies? The biggest lizard in Western Europe is a shy little Spanish fellow who grows to eighteen inches at a push. How in blazes did we end up with dragon stories, then?

Napoleon’s retreat from Russia gave me this richly atmospheric, under-utilised setting to tell Valentine, which in big terms is the story of how magic has drained out of the Earth as it aged, and how certain magical creatures were stuck on Earth because they, like Napoleon, dithered too long as the shadows of autumn’s age lengthened.

1812 is a good year for such a story. It’s sufficiently after the Enlightenment that my characters are not overly superstitious people, or at least not more than soldiers usually are. Europe has been at war with itself for long enough that a comparatively young man of 24 might easily have been a professional soldier for seven years. Placing the beginning action in 1812 also allows me to indulge in a particularly wonderful narrative twist, about which I shan’t say more.

That is where Valentine begins: two cavalrymen, their horses long dead, become separated from the main army by a blizzard as they scavenge for food. A package is given to them by a dying general, with orders to get it to French high command. Soon they find themselves pawns in a desperate rush for home by the marooned creatures of wonder, for whom every further day on Earth means one more step towards becoming stuck in the leaden forms they inhabit, the way each day of winter grows shorter by a hen’s stride until, for those far enough north, the solstice arrives and the sun deigns not rise at all.

Minard’s map, in the end, provided only a beginning – don’t pick up Valentine if you expect the entire story to take place during the Russian campaign. I could write an entire book on the retreat from Moscow to the Beresina, but Valentine is not that book.

Valentine is written in the classic fantasy/thriller pulp tradition – you’re never more than a few pages away from love, fighting, or cliffhangers. And it is, you may be surprised to hear, a comic book. More than that, it’s a comic for your wireless device. New episodes of 70-75 screens are released monthly in 14 languages simultaneously, and cost 99 cents each – except for Episode 01, which is a bit on the short side, and is free. Episode 04 was just released yesterday. The series is set to run for 24 episodes.

This brings us to the other big idea at play here: Valentine’s format. This has been written about extensively elsewhere, so I shall be brief here. I’ve written comic book series for IDW (the Eisner-nominated sci-noir thriller Smoke); Tokyopop, French sci-fi/fantasy publisher Humanoids, and Dark Horse. I’ve long been fascinated by the possibilities of wireless devices for comics, and thought what an interesting narrative and visual challenge it would be to create an episodic story for 480×320 screens. I also have lots of friends around the world, so have always wanted “whatever I did next” to be available in as many languages simultaneously as possible. (Initial sales of Valentine have supported this, in that English has a plurality, but far from a majority.)

And while what John says here about publishing not going away is absolutely correct, what do you do when, for your format, publishing hasn’t yet arrived?

Well, you cobble together a network of excellent publisher-distributors specialising in particular devices. Valentine is available for iPhone/iPad, Android phone, Kindle and eReader right now. By the end of February it will be available for web, from Comics by Comixology (whose content-persistent iPhone/web reader is in beta). By around the time of mid-autumn when Napoleon really should have been getting on from Moscow, the first printed-book edition of Valentine (collecting Episodes 01-07 into a circa 250-page full-colour digest) will be out from Image Comics.


Valentine: Comics by Comixology (iPhone and Web) | Robot Comics (iPhone and Android phone) | Amazon (Kindle) | Valentine Store (ePub)

Read Episode 01 online. Go to the Valentine website. Follow de Campi on Twitter.

36 Comments on “The Big Idea: Alex de Campi”

  1. This sounds wonderful, and the timing couldn’t be better as I just acquired a Nook this weekend. I can’t wait to check it out!

  2. Just read the first episode, really cool. Shows you can read comics on an iphone. Good choice for Big Idea John.

  3. That’s pretty cool. Reminds me more than a bit of the Sandman, which is definitely meant as a compliment.
    Also I like a comic book series that knows from the start roughly when it will end. Too many just end up running for far too long…

    On the other hand I’m without any kind of electronic reading device, so I might just wait for the old school dead tree version…

  4. I’m only a few pages into issue 1 (free via Comics by Comixology on my Touch) and have already bought issue 2. It’s good. If the quality holds — and I think it will — I’ll get the collected editions as they come out, too.

    I second Theyis comment re it being reminiscent of Sandman. It’s not at all a cheap copy of the style, but I’d be surprised if neither of the creators was familiar with the work.

  5. Hi everyone, and many thanks to John for the opportunity to write for the Big Idea – it really is a terrific way to connect with readers.

    If you have any questions about Valentine, I’ll be checking back throughout the day so just ask and I’ll do the best I can to answer.

    – Alex

  6. I followed the “Read Episode 1 online” link, using the desktop computer I use to read this blog, and got to the statement “For those of you wondering what reading Valentine on an iPhone or iPod Touch might be like, you can read the entire first episode in English on our online iPhone simulator courtesy of our friends at Comics by Comixology! Please be aware that the simulator is a far inferior experience to reading the comic on the actual, intended mobile device, but nevertheless it offers a solid example of the comic in adapted form. (And it doesn’t involve a contract with AT&T.)

    Try it out! Go to the Comixology iPhone simulator.”

    However, I could not make it work. Is anyone else having this problem, and am I missing something here? I’m trying to do it on a desktop Dell.

  7. I get as far as the blue “read online” button. Clicking that causes a large gray window to appear with “Instructions” but I can’t get any farther than that. Clicking on that causes it to disappear and takes me back to the preceding page.

  8. Lyle: hm, I just checked and it’s working for me (geriatric mac G5/firefox). I clicked in the middle of the instructions box and it took me to the beginning of the comic.

    The only thing I can think is… are you do a flash update? Otherwise, see if the Robotcomics simulator works on your machine:

    Sorry for your troubles; if you let me know your OS version and browser version, I’ll log it as a bug.

  9. Thanks, the Robotcomics simulator is working and the comic looks great. Folks, check it out.

  10. Really love the story so far and the art is always beautiful. I think there’s only room to grow at this point. Feels good to be in on it from the start! The first book will be a beautiful piece.

  11. Worked fine for me under Firefox.

    I really loved how the artwork came up first, then the words after a click so you could appreciate each drawing in its entirety without having any of it covered up.

  12. Dear Alex is always ahead of the curve and it seems like this curve is bending round to meet her now. We’ve sat in cafés together and talked these Big Plans through… and I’ve been closely watching the trail she’s blazing pretty much on her lonesome through this multi-language/multi-format/multi-platform jungle.

    The digital comics-making community at large is already benefitting from her experience; in fact, her running column on Bleeding Cool about these adventures ( is an invaluable resource of this new workflow process.

    Also: VALENTINE is quite a cracking read both in its story and storytelling; Alex and Christine are clearly having fun with their strange new format, like Pre-Cambrian lungfish flopping out the water and teaching themselves to tap dance like Savion Glover on the riverbanks.

  13. It’s worth noting that Dan (above) writes and draws the excellent supernatural/absurdist drama RED LIGHT PROPERTIES at – Pablo at has been a big supporter of new ways of distributing comics and runs several free, serialised graphic novels on the website (web/internet viewing only, for the moment).

    Here’s RLP:

    Dan and I have indeed drunk much coffee and talked much rubbish about Teh Futorz. It’s great to have co-conspirators.

  14. Sounds like a neat idea.

    Love the Minard diagram – I first saw it in Edward Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”.

    Everyone – PLEASE contemplate the diagram and think it over, if you’re considering a winter campaign in Russia!

  15. OK, so the first episode was really good, I’m considering just waiting to get the collected edition, but I don’t think I could survive without finding out what happens next, so either I need to get an iphone (would an ipod touch work as well, I am considering getting one of those anyway) Or I need to start reading comixology.
    So yeah, good work, this is awesome.

  16. How totally cool!! I don’t read comics or graphic novels (my brain has trouble tracking them), but I love that story line and so want to read it.

    Kudo’s for coming up with the distribution process.

  17. Jamie: an iPod Touch works just as well as an iPhone.

    Amanda: I’d be interested to see what your reaction would be to the simulator. Because Valentine is done so that each “panel” is a full screen seen by itself, it’s a very different reading experience from looking at a printed comic page with many panels. You may find what we do easier to track…

  18. Dan #@ 16: “PLEASE contemplate the diagram and think it over, if you’re considering a winter campaign in Russia!”

    But what if you’re thinking of going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line?

  19. Wow, this entry really made me want to read (and — gasp! — even pay for) the story. Even the format and distribution choices make sense.

    (Being a Flash refusenik and an alternative-OS enthusiast who doesn’t keep up with what people now apparently call “devices”, I guess I’ll keep an eye open for the print version, though.)

    Having trouble submitting the comment, let’s hope it doesn’t show up twice.

  20. I read this and decided to give the free first issue a try: I’ve now purchased all four current issues and read the first three. I am very impressed with the way you have adapted the small screen to add to the dramatic effect of the story.

    Those of you waiting for a print version, I really recommend the iPhone/iPod Touch version if you have the means.

  21. Hi all, David from comiXology here. Thanks for trying our app out, or checking out Valentine online. We’re proud to be a part of the experiment – Alex makes our platform look great.

    A couple of notes and links:

    Search for Valentine in all languages:
    (page three has the free #1, readable online)

    Our app (iTunes link):

    A couple of other comics made for the comiXology platform:
    Box 13 (also available on our site, for free)

    X The Unknown (#1 free on our site and app):

  22. Hi Alex/David;

    I tried to download this direct to my iPhone; I have the comiXology app installed ok but when I go to “My Comics / Series / Valentine” I see page 1 of 4 with a spiel about the comic and a “buy in print button”. At the top right is a greyed out button that shows “0% downloaded”.

    Now what do I do?

    (apologies to John for using his page as a tech help forum!)

  23. B. Durbin@18

    And 50,000 is five times more than what the Minard diagram gives as the size of the returning army.

    Although one point not usually emphasized is that a majority of the losses in the Minard diagram actually came BEFORE the army made it to Moscow.

  24. “except for Episode 01, which is a bit on the short side, and is free”

    As of right now, Episode 01 does not appear to be free for the Kindle – it’s 99 cents like the rest of the episodes.

    C’mon – where’s that free taste to get us hooked? :)

  25. Having read the first chapter using the iphone simulator on the webpage, and the ePub format downloaded to the Nook, I would *highly* recommend the iPhone/Touch version.

    Leaving aside the color screen of an iPhone vs. the black and white of an eReader, the experience on the Nook is just painful. The right side (the bottom of the Nook) gets slightly cut off – not a huge problem, but if a word bubble is close to the edge, you’ll lose one or two letters. I like the concept of one panel per screen, but the page transitions on an eReader can be slow, and sequences of panels with the same or very similar image, with only two or three words on each screen… it gets annoying, and I find it difficult to lose myself in the story.

    It’s a shame, I was really looking forward to reading this on my Nook. I’ve put some Manga on there, converted with Calibre, and it’s actually a pretty great format for graphic novels.

    However, I think the iPhone experience is fantastic. The transitions are great, and I agree with mensley’s point about showing the art before covering part of it with text (the ePub version doesn’t do this). Luckily, I have an iPhone as well, so I will surely grab further chapters on that.

  26. Russ: I’ve asked David@Comixology to come along and respond to your tech question. Is your iPhone by chance jailbroken? Also, you can always just look for the Valentine stand-alone app from Robot Comics:

    Tony: Amazon (who are… frustrating) won’t let me list the first issue free for Kindle. But if you go to, you can download the first issue free as an epub and swap it in calibre. Or just read it on the simulator.

    JC: We eliminated the fade-in versions for the ePub due to the page turn time on some eReaders. It’s funny, some people are really enjoying the kindle/eReader experience with the comic ( , for example) but I’d agree that if you have the choice, the colour iPhone/Android version is preferable.

  27. Alex – thanks for the response. And I’d just like to clarify, my frustrations with the Nook experience are in no way a criticism of the story or art itself – or even the format. I love that you are experimenting with these new electronic formats, and I am loving Valentine so far. In fact, I just put my money where my mouth is and grabbed Episode 2 on the iphone. I didn’t have any *pressing* deadlines today anyway…

  28. Just read the first issue on my G1, which was a very pleasant experience, so I bought the next three. Bravo! It’s exactly the right length for my daily subway commute.

    Alex, others— any other Robot Comics, err, comics you’d recommend?

  29. Hi;

    Sorry – I’ve been away for a few days. I thought to check back and now have the comic available to read, so it looks like I either had a slow connection or just closed the app before it had had a chance to download.

    Now I can go read your comic :D


  30. The biggest lizard in Western Europe is a shy little Spanish fellow who grows to eighteen inches at a push. How in blazes did we end up with dragon stories, then?

    The link at my .sig is to an essay that leads off with the answer to that question on a global scale — why does every culture have stories about dragons? The essayist refers to a newspaper article in which he read that the answer

    became clear when one tried to define what was a “dragon,” exactly. The definition that fit the greatest number of stories, as well as our own understanding, was that a dragon was a giant creature whose form included some elements reminiscent of a serpent, some of a great cat, and some of a raptor. And in this definition an answer became apparent: here were the three great predators with which early man shared the world. The lions and tigers, the birds of prey, and the invisible serpents were the dangers that generations of humans learned to avoid. So when those humans turned their minds to constructing a symbol of great and deadly power—well, what would you expect it to look like?

    What, indeed? (And that’s not even the main thrust of the article, as may be inferred from its title: “A Dragon in the Time Machine: The Gross Anatomy of Horror”.)

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