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Damian & Adrian Wassel give us a peek inside VAULT COMICS with BARBARIC: BORN IN BLOOD

Andrew Irvin, Interviews Editor, welcomed the Vault Comics leadership into the Yeti Cave to discuss the novel new approach they've been taking around providing inaugural issues free to retailers, and the unique collaboration with Zoop they've organized for a "crowdbuilding" campaign to support the latest release, Barbaric: Born in Blood.


 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Damian and Adrian, thanks for stopping by the Yeti Cave today. How are things going so far this year? I hope you’re both staying warm up north!



ADRIAN WASSEL: Thanks for having us! It’s freezing, but I’m currently helping foster a dog until she finds a permanent home, and she’s keeping my feet warm at least.


DAMIAN WASSEL: Here we are, reporting live(ish) from two very different parts of the North. Adrian is squirreled away in seaside Maine, while I’m weathering a fairly temperate winter in Montana.


CBY: Glad everyone has found a way to last until spring! Okay, so this is a bit different from my usual interview, in that you’re both running the company putting out BARBARIC: Born in Blood, and I usually sit down with the comic creators. BARBARIC has been going for a few years, now three volumes in with a fourth on the way. I’ve seen Born in Blood referenced as a good jumping-on point. For those new to the series, can you share what makes BARBARIC unique and how Born in Blood shakes things up?


AW: There are two things that make Barbaric unique. First, Nathan’s art. You cannot find more fun art in all of comics. Second, the voice. Barbaric is equal parts angry and funny. It fumes and laughs at the absurdity of life. In a world full of endless injustices, that balance feels like an antidote for the reader — and it all hinges on irony.Barbaric is layer after layer of irony.On the surface, Owen is a barbarian without scruples, but a curse forces him to help people.

On the surface, Axe is the moral adjudicator, but actually he's the most bloodthirsty (literally) of them all.

On the surface, Owen hates witches because they cursed him, but actually the person he cares about most is a witch.

When I’m put on the spot, I’ll tell people that Barbaric is like Rick and Morty meets Conan. It’s sword and sorcery updated for a modern audience. Born in Blood shakes things up by taking us back to Owen as a kid, while introducing a brand new villain. It really is a great jumping on point.


DW: To Adrian’s excellent answer, I’ll add only this: Mike and Nate have such a deep appreciation for fantasy literature, and it shines through on every page. They set out to bring some of that glorious 80s-style pulp fantasy back to the pages of comics, and I think the results speak for themselves.



CBY: Let’s talk a bit about the philosophy behind Vault Comics; you two started things up in 2016 with a creator-owned model not dissimilar to Image. What choices at, and since, that inception point have allowed you to differentiate yourselves and pull together the award-winning catalog of comics you now offer, eight years in?



AW: From the editorial perspective, it’s been our focus. We launched as a genre-focused publisher of science fiction and fantasy. That genre focus not only allowed us to communicate to readers and retailers what we do, but also kept us honest. Instead of chasing trends (oh, what’s selling over there), we stuck to our mission. Every year, our catalog was built from the ground up to serve fans the very best science fiction and fantasy. Only after we earned their trust did we slowly start expanding, adding focused imprints like our horror line Nightfall, which grew into mainstays.


DW: We have always chosen focus over volume of output. Audiences are inundated with “content,” whatever that even means. We don’t publish content. We publish stories we know people will sit with for hours, days, heck, even years. So, everything we do, we do in service of story.



CBY: Speaking of philosophy, Damian, I know you’ve got your PhD. in the subject, and have done years of teaching. I know you’ve both mentioned you’re huge Calvin & Hobbes fans, which remains one of the more introspective and philosophical comics in any format. How has this shaped your ethics around creation and collaboration, particularly coming at the comics industry specifically from the publishing and business administration side of the business?


DW: I trust Bill Watterson to forgive me for a broad comment about his work, but if there’s one really central philosophical lesson from Calvin & Hobbes it’s that the treasure of this life is in the experiences to be found and the relationships to be fostered. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… let’s go exploring!” (The humor of this is magnified for those folks who have read Hobbes the philosopher.) If I were to distill from that some sort of organizational principle, I suppose it would be: aim for excellence in the experiences you create and relationships you foster with the people you encounter through work.



CBY: So you two are brothers, and Nathan, the artist behind BARBARIC, is your cousin. So distinct from a company like the aforementioned Image, where independent creators came together from a whole bunch of different backgrounds, you guys obviously all have a lot of foundational perspective in common through shared experience. How does that help you in your decision-making process while running a business? If there are conflicts and disagreements, how do you settle things and partition your business practices from your intertwined personal lives? Does the comic conversation bleed over into the rest of your lives, and what does that mean in terms of the broader family interaction at dinners and on vacations, for example?



AW: We have slept, breathed, and eaten Vault every day for the last seven years — more, if you count all the work leading up to our launch. In other words, there is no partition. In interviews, there’s the underlying pressure to gesture at all the great stuff and ignore all the tough stuff. The toughest part of running an independent business is that it becomes your entire life. You don’t get to enjoy any reprieve, and frankly no one wants you to. Everyone needs you to be on, dreaming up the future while solving today’s problems, all day, every day, through family deaths and your own medical scares, through global pandemics and national economic collapses. Often, even when you ought to be sleeping. The best part of it has been doing it with my brother, my cousin, my friends, and a team that pours their heart into every series we release. That mutual trust and respect isn’t just the easy part; it’s what I depend on.

DW: If we revisit the above lesson from Calvin & Hobbes, the relationships are what make it worth it. When you’re trying to build something new like Vault, it takes everything you’ve got and more, at times when you think you have nothing left. If I had been working with anyone other than Adrian and Nathan I don’t know if I would have kept at it. But getting to work with them and the other amazing people on our team and the creators whose work comprises our catalog is what makes it worth it. Getting into some of the specifics you asked for: Adrian and Nathan and I have decades more practice communicating with one another than nearly anyone else who has ever started a new company together. So, far from fostering tricky disagreements, it has enabled us to move past them with ease and care. Yes, business bleeds into personal life, but that’s mostly because personal life is sort of permanently on pause when you’re trying to grow a new business. Regarding settling disagreements, we have a pretty clear decision making process that gets the job done for us. In business, just as in life, constant, respectful communication gets you through most things, especially if you take the extra time to communicate about how to communicate.



CBY: I had the opportunity to interview Zack Kaplan over Beyond Real (with an absolutely amazing visual world built across the issues I was able to read), and I know it followed Unnatural Order as another Vault Comics release with a free-to-retailers first issue. Obviously this model is working well enough to continue with Born in Blood. Can you share a bit about what sort of discussions led to the decision to roll out this marketing approach? How has it paid off in terms of follow-up issues since you began this approach, and what sort of response have you had from the retailers, creators, the broader media, and other publishers?



AW: 2023 was a tough year for direct market comics. What was selling like hot cakes on one side of the street was failing on the other. It left the industry feeling fractured. Even the regression of Twitter to X meant that the community chatter, spread out across continents, suddenly wasn’t so easy to find. Our Free-to-Retailer program is about two things. One, achieving an audience at scale. Two, being the best publishing partner to direct market comic shops. Between our first two #1s offered Free-to-Retailer — Unnatural Order #1 and Beyond Real #1 — we’ve shipped over 250,000 issues. When sell-through data came back and it was official that we had two top 10 best-selling comics (by actual sales at stores, not just orders) in November and January, and the only non-Marvel or DC comic to make the list in both months, we knew this program was something we’d continue to offer. In short, we now have a scale of audience no other independent publisher in comics can capture with creator-owned series.


DW: I’ve already said a lot about this publicly, so I’ll leave this one to Adrian.



CBY: This interview opportunity was brought to me through Jordan Plosky at Zoop, who mentioned the partnership on Born in Blood as another new approach towards building readership and community in the comics world. There’s a Direct-to-Consumer component to this partnership - can you unpack further what you’ve cooked up with the Zoop team for this joint venture?


DW: Like most ideas actually worth exploring, it’s pretty simple. We wanted every reader to have a chance to read our books, no matter where they live, or how they prefer to read comics, or what their budget is. And, at the same time, we wanted to create a public gathering place for our biggest fans, where they could get rewards and spread excitement for what they loved. So, after a lot of thinking through possibilities, we connected with the team at Zoop, and put together the first version of what we’re calling a Crowdbuilding Campaign. I’m sure the idea and the implementation will evolve as we go through some iterations of it, but the gist is: Anyone can come along and read BARBARIC: BORN IN BLOOD #1 for free. As more people show up, we’ll offer more free and premium rewards. And for folks who want unique, special, or exclusive items, we’ll have plenty of those on offer too.


AW: All I’ll add here is that there is no funding goal to this Crowdbuilding Campaign. It is categorically not crowdfunding. This is a way to bring our audience together, where the more they show up, the more their fandom enriches the thing they love.



CBY: Seeing how both Vault and Zoop have picked up steam with a raft of quality releases in recent years, can you share some reflections on where you think the success originates? How much is a product of the business model you’ve been exploring, and how much is a result of the aesthetic style and artistic qualities you seek in curating your catalog of titles? 



DW: The business model of publishing periodical comics is hard. And it’s symmetrically hard on every player in the game. So, it really all comes down to connecting with readers and retailers and giving them the opportunity to become fans. The only way to do that is with incredible work from ambitious creators. Story is everything in this business.



CBY: Vault now boosts nearly 60 different series under its banner, with a range of diversity across genres and intended audiences, young and old alike. Beyond the unique offerings and visual styles you’ve elected to bring to the market, what commonalities do you both identify in the acquisitions and partnerships you make with creators? What sort of thinking goes into building brand cohesion and quality control so audiences know, when they pick up a book with Vault’s name on it, they know they can expect an experience worth the money they’ve dropped on the book?  



DW: I’ll defer to Adrian on this one.

AW: We have an editorial checklist that we run through at every stage of story-development, including acquisitions. It helps to keep us focused and honest. But the very simple answer is that I’ll always be most interested in stories that believe in their audience. Stories do not need to start with an agenda. Nor do stories need to develop an agenda, other than the desire to be told. It is, however, the work of an editor to think about stories and what you hope they can achieve. What I hope all our stories can achieve is an audience. And so, I look for the pitches that believe in their audience, no matter how big or small — that believe that for their audience, they might become the definitive story. Heathen believed it could be an enduring epic fantasy for queer readers. It believed in its audience, and you could feel it from the first panel. Barbaric believed that readers of sword and sorcery were hungry for a new tone. It said loudly (through the mouth of a slobbering drunk axe) I know you’re there, and I know you care, and I want you to have what you need, so here I am, trying, hoping, I can scratch that itch. Finally, I look for creators who want to build a home for their work, who want to return and create with new collaborators and old friends alike. I doubt my best work as an editor will ever be my first foray with a creator. I look forward to the second and third time I get to work with them, and so on.



CBY: So with your recent novel approaches and partnerships, what’s the immediate future look like for Vault? What comics would you like to tell our readers about, and for those creators out there looking to work with publishers, do you have any guidance around how they can capture your attention and put forth the best possible pitches to have their comics make the necessary first impression to elicit a second look, and perhaps, a publishing agreement for titles going forward?


DW: Folks should expect some exciting moves from us both within and outside the comics and graphic novel category. I won’t say much more than that, because I don’t want to spoil anything. With regard to making a first impression, I think there’s a broad principle that applies not just to Vault but to every publisher you might want to work with: Get to know the editors you’re trying to work with. Meet them if you can. Editors aren’t merely casting about for excellence. That’s not how commercial art works. They’re casting about for excellence they can put on a path to success in the market. Learn what their objectives and criteria are, and then offer them projects that align with those objectives and criteria.



CBY: Now I usually like to finish by asking creators what work they’re getting into beyond their own, but since I’m sure you’re both constantly keeping an eye out for new comics, I’m a bit curious, what other businesses inspire you both across any and all industries? What sort of entrepreneurs and business leaders inspire both of you with their ethos and output? 



DW: I’m obsessed with businesses that create spaces for people to build relationships, connect with their community, and have fun. I spend a lot of time thinking about businesses like local breweries and coffee shops and wondering how we can bring more of that to a business like comics publishing.

AW: I’m obsessed with our new partner Aethon Books. Not only have they sold millions of books, they’ve helped usher in this new renaissance of Progression Fantasy and LitRPG that I can’t stop devouring.



CBY: Damian and Adrian, thank you both for making time to unpack some of the behind-the-scens elements of what makes Vault Comics work. Please feel free to drop any relevant publication and social media links in below where our readers can check out more of what you two do. We look forward to seeing more of your comics make their way to the Yeti Cave!



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