Founded by Damian Wassel, Sr., Adrian Wassel, Damian Wassel, and non-Wassel Nathan Gooden (clearly, we know who the villain will become), Vault is a new comic book publisher aiming to become the destination for creators who want to tell science-fiction and fantasy stories. From its location in Michigan, Vault has already published six well-received titles and has already made a production deal with Mark Wahlberg. Wanting to learn more about the company and its future, Damian and Adrian allowed me to interview them for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some comic books that you two loved reading?
Adrian Wassel: Comic strips were my gateway drug. I was obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes and anything Charles Addams touched. From there, I found my way to Frank Miller’s Ronin via an old box of Damian’s comics. I’m a baby, so for me, growing up pretty much equaled 90s X-Men. I remember being particularly fond of X-Cutioner’s Song—largely because of those gaudy covers. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to find Bone, Sandman, and everything Alan Moore penned—even his more pornographic tales. I wrote my high school senior thesis on comics, despite growing up in a town without a comic store. I think, in some strange way, that forced me to hunt for the stuff that endured. I wonder if I would have come to seek out and cherish indie comics quite so adamantly if I’d stood in front of a wall of shiny Marvel and DC covers every Wednesday as a kid.
Damian Wassel: I fell for newspaper comics early. The original run of Calvin and Hobbes was coextensive with my early childhood. When Watterson ended the series in 1995, I distinctly remember feeling like I lost a friend. My grandfather, a designer by trade, was also a timid cartoonist whose work never left the house. I pored over his scrapbook archives of Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and we spent many hours taking turns each adding panels to absurdly delightful, if fifty percent poorly drawn, comic strips. I got my first four-color fix from a box of water damaged DC back issues my grandmother gave me sometime in the late eighties. My small collection contained gems like Guy Gardner Green Lantern, Sandman—the mortal Wesley Dodds, not the eternal Morpheus, and Arnold Drake’s Doom Patrol. Negative Man was the first superpowered character I ever really loved, and he remains my favorite today; his power wasn’t just a moral burden, it was a physical one. Drake had a stroke of genius when he thought of that.
Yanes: Are there any comic book characters or stories from your childhood that you still love today?
Damian: Well, I still think of Calvin and Hobbes as dear friends. I can’t overstate how big of an impact that strip had on my worldview. And I love the whole ragtag bunch that comprised Doom Patrol, Negative Man most of all. He continued to be pretty awesome through Kupperberg and Morrison’s runs on the series. But he hasn’t been much of a character since.
Adrian: The Bone cousins and Thorn, Calvin and Hobbes, the St. Croix family, Blink, Moon Knight—most of them, it seems.
Yanes: Damian, like me, you also have a Ph.D. How did you transition from the academic track to the business world?
Damian: Graduate school taught me at least as much about myself as it did about philosophy. I learned, for example, that being a quick study made me something of a poor scholar. I also learned, after a lot of grueling hours spent trying to understand things, that I was moved more by the goal of building something. When the opportunity to create Vault arose, I leapt at it. Finishing the dissertation while laying the groundwork for this business meant sleep and I became strangers for a time. But I have no regrets about my departure from academia.
Yanes: What was the motivation behind founding Vault Comics?
Damian: My brother, cousin, father, and I had created some well-received though slow-selling graphic novels, and we discovered we loved making comics. Some generous investors enabled us to take on the outsize ambition to launch our own publishing company. From that point the question wasn’t whether, but how we would approach that goal.
Adrian: The part Damian left out was that while we loved making comics, we were not as fond of some practices in the industry. Vault was, and always will be, our chance to treat creators, fans, retailers, comics in their totality, well.
Yanes: The comic book industry is incredibly competitive and difficult to break into. How will Vault Comics differentiate itself from other indie companies?
Damian: Entering the comics market is a war on two primary fronts. There’s the battle for shelf-space, and then there’s the battle for readership. We’ve brought a similar strategy to both fights. Our goal is to build a strong, cohesive, and clear brand identity so that retailers and readers know exactly what to expect when they pick up a Vault title: excellent science fiction and fantasy with superlative production values.
Adrian: I can’t stress brand cohesion enough. Every fan of science fiction and fantasy will find at least one new series from Vault that they truly adore, each time we roll out a new season of titles. And, if I’m doing my job well, more than one.
Yanes: What have been some of the biggest obstacles in getting your comics to readers?
Adrian: Being new to the game. We’re small, we’re new, but we’re also bringing a lot of excellent comics to the market. We have loads of fans ordering from retailers who are just discovering us in Previews. We also have loads of retailers out there stocking our books and encouraging readers to try them. As Vault continues to grow, I imagine those gaps will narrow, and the hurdles we’ve run into with Diamond will be sorted out. It takes a few laps around the track before you learn the twists and turns.
Damian: In a word, timing. The machinery under the hood of this industry is elaborate, and some components are antiquated or unpredictable. We have to coordinate production, printing, fulfillment, and marketing, and at every stage firing too early or too late is equally problematic.
Yanes: One of Vault’s titles that stood out to me the most was Powerless. What did you two see in this series?
Damian: For me it was more what I saw in David Booher, the creator of Powerless, than what I saw in the series. As anyone who has ever worked an editor’s desk knows, good ideas come cheap. But David had more than a good idea, he had the focus, patience, dedication—and most critically—the desire to ensure that it became something extraordinary. He was the first creator we ever signed, and I think we discovered an authentic talent there.
Adrian: I’ll echo Damian’s answer and add to it briefly. Not all creators, certainly not all first-time creators, have the confidence to listen to editors. I say confidence because taking notes means admitting the work can be better. David knew when to incorporate notes and when to stand his ground. Every issue of Powerless gets better, because David works ceaselessly to become a better creator. Beyond that, Powerless is one of the most nuanced and ambitious series I’ve read in years.
Yanes: On this note, how much guidance is given to creators?
Adrian: It varies from series to series. All the same, there’s a lot of editorial involvement. There’s not a script in our catalogue I haven’t read a dozen times. Not one page of thumbs I haven’t pored over. Often, all that review results in rather minimal notes. I think editors can take a page from writers in that regard. Spend enough time with a script, or a page design, drafting notes, that you don’t hand over superfluous comments. Good guidance is about knowing the destination, and where the team is relative to that point, not shouting orders incessantly.
Yanes: What are some projects Vault Comics is working on that people can look forward to?
Adrian: I’m absurdly excited for Reactor by Donny Cates, Dylan Burnett, Dee Cunniffe, and Taylor Esposito. Reactor is the sequel to Interceptor, but also a whole new entrance to the story. The creative team, geniuses that they are, have managed the rare balancing act of opening a new arc with an issue that will capture old and new fans alike. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who managed to track down the Interceptor single issues who didn’t love them. If they escaped your grasp, Reactor #1 is the place to jump in – its vampires, giant mech suits, laser swords, diminutive presidents, and acerbic, hilarious social commentary.
Damian: We’ve got a project in the works called Alien Bounty Hunter that you may have read about during WonderCon. We’re working on it with Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson, who aim to see it produced as a feature film. But I don’t make movies, I make comic books, and I love this project because the writers—Adrian and David Booher, and the artist, Nick Robles, have made an amazing romp of a comic book. It’s the perfect blend of sly pastiche and sincere badassery, and there’s a healthy layer of Blade Runner-style mystery. I love it.
Yanes: Finally, what are your long term goals for Vault Comics? Specifically, where would you like to see it in ten years?
Damian: In 10 years, I’d like to be the publisher of first resort for anyone who is serious about creating amazing science fiction and fantasy comics. I’d like to be publishing 25 – 30 series a year under the Vault label. I’d like to have had some major successes in international markets. And I’d like to have launched a couple of other imprints that do for other genres what Vault aims to do for science fiction and fantasy.