Interview with Vault Comics
Updated: Jun 13, 2019
If you've been paying attention to the comic book industry, there's one publisher who's been doing absolutely groundbreaking work and has been getting their fair share of attention for it.
Personally, I discovered the publisher almost one year ago, through books like FRIENDO and FEARSCAPE. They were two titles that felt so new and disruptive and razor sharp, it made me want to dive into more of their comics.
Reaching out to Vault on Twitter, I found the entire team incredibly receptive – everyone running the publisher was so friendly and helpful and excited to talk about the comics, which wasn't common for a new critic like me. I'd reached out to other publishers before. In the rare case I got a response, it was only to ask if I was already a part of their review teams. When I said I wasn't? Crickets.
It's clear Vault does things differently. In their comics. In how they interact with fans and critics (and believe me, most critics I talk to are also fans). In just about every way. I'm tempted to compare them to yesteryear's Vertigo, and how disruptive those comics were and continue to be. You can see some inspiration there, and Damian A. Wassel even references them below, but it's clear when you read the comics that Vault is doing their own thing. They're not "The New Vertigo." Vertigo is what came before. Vault is the future.
But trying to research Vault to find out how they're so different only left me with more questions. How can such a small, family-run publisher make such large waves? How can every book be such a hit? Is there some way to study them to find out what makes them so successful? Then, I thought, why not ask them?
I sent over the questions you can see below. Much to my surprise and joy, the entire team answered. In case you're not familiar with them on a first-name basis, here's who each is:
Damian A. Wassel: Chief Executive Officer & Publisher
Adrian F. Wassel: Chief Creative Officer & Editor-in-Chief
Tim Daniel: VP Branding/Design
Kim McLean: Director of Marketing
David Dissanayake: Director of PR & Retailer Relations
COMIC BOOK YETI: How did Vault come to be? And where did the name come from?
DAMIAN: My brother, Adrian, and my cousin, Nathan, spent a few years co-creating a few graphic novels that sold well at conventions and were pretty well received critically. In so doing, we saw an opportunity for a company like Vault, that would deliver the sort of elevated science-fiction and fantasy comics people once expected from Vertigo. With the support of my father, and some of his business connections, we raised the money to launch Vault. The name, I think, came from a pretty ordinary start-up brainstorming session.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Vault self-identifies as a family-owned company. Obviously, the Wassels are family, but is anyone else related? Art Director, Nathan C. Gooden? VP Branding/Design, Tim Daniel? Director of Marketing, Kim McLean?
KIM: Nathan Gooden is Damian and Adrian’s cousin. Additionally, Damian and Adrian’s father, Damian Wassel Sr., is president of the company. They’ve built a business where everyone feels like family, though, and I think that’s why so many people find themselves drawn to Vault.
COMIC BOOK YETI: It seems like a lot of people at Vault are multitalented. Nathan C. Gooden is also the illustrator DARK ONE, due out in 2020, and VP Visual Branding/Design, Tim Daniel has written FISSURE. How in the world is everyone over there so darn talented at making comics?
DAMIAN: We’ve all loved this medium since childhood, and we pour nearly every waking minute into our work. Since we’re all partners in the business, it just gives us extra incentive to see to it that Vault produces the best work possible.
"I would die for our books. I mean that literally. I would die for our stories."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Vault’s editor-in-chief, Adrian F. Wassel, is a powerhouse for the publisher. Adrian, What kind of editing work were you doing before this?
ADRIAN: I am young – frightfully young to some. I’ve been working in comics, in some capacity, since I was nineteen (don’t worry, I’m not that young anymore; it’s been nearly a decade). All my editorial work prior to comics was in the prose and poetry space. I was managing editor of my university’s literary magazine. I also managed to publish some of my own terrible short stories, poems, and radio pieces elsewhere (I won’t tell you where to find them; please don’t go looking). But all the while, I was tinkering in comics. And frankly, I was better at comics. And frankly, I always liked comics more. Before Vault, I only had a few comic book credits on paper – self-published work, back-ups, a little Image thing – but by way of my university’s lit mag, I had edited some 500,000+ words. Then, that seemed like so much. Now, I’m editing close to a million scripted words per calendar year.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Are you the only editor on all of Vault’s titles? Any plans to bring on editorial help as the number of Vault titles grows?
ADRIAN: With the exception of the rare series, yes. Heathen, as well as one of our upcoming series, have other editors attached, too. Those were relationships that existed prior to Vault engaging with the creative teams, and I’d never change something that was working. I still, of course, edit the series. But I’m last in line on those titles – not first, middle, and last. Otherwise, yes, I am the sole editor on every title.
Absolutely. Vault is growing rather rapidly at the moment. No matter how large Vault grows, our catalogue will always stay comparatively small and focused – I’d like to believe it is unrivaled in its focus. But I will need help, and I already have my eyes on a number of talented individuals. Eventually, I’d like to have a small team of editors. Each editor would take the lead on a number of series, but all of our editors would be familiar with every panel of every page of every book we publish. That’s the only way to keep the focus.
"Never trust a general who doesn’t know every turn of the trench."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Tweets from creators make it sound like you work very closely with them through their processes. Many of them have expressed a deep reverence for your work with them. What do you do differently from other editors, do you think? ADRIAN: This is a tough question to navigate without speaking ill of others, so I’m going to focus on the environment that allows me to work the way I do. There are a ton of excellent editors in comics. Not all of them work at equally excellent institutions. Even fewer are as fortunate as I. Vault is my life’s work, which means every single title is my life’s work. I would die for our books. I mean that literally. I would die for our stories.
Not every editor out there is positioned to say that. Many of them would. Many of them can’t, and yet they still do great work. I match the passion of our creators. I match the hours they put in. Never trust a general who doesn’t know every turn of the trench. Beyond that, and quite simply, you have to read. You have to read outside the work your doing. You have to read something outside your sphere every single day of your life. You have to know your creators care that much about their work, and you would be letting them down if you didn’t care just as much. Simply put, I am positioned uniquely, and I’ll stop editing altogether before I allow myself to exist in an echo chamber. “Confident. Cocky. Lazy. Dead.” - from a book I read when very young (go find it; it’s quite fun).
COMIC BOOK YETI: What is the editing process like?
ADRIAN: Exhausting. Exhaustive. KIM: [pokes head into the conversation] As a non-editor watching Adrian work with the creators on their story, I have to cut in here and add the word “passionate.” He’s focused and “all in,” and he’s able to bring a considered approach to both the high-level story arc and the detail of a word choice or phrase. His passion makes all of us want to do better in our own roles. [ducks back out of the editing topic]
COMIC BOOK YETI: Do you feel like you have an overarching creative vision for the titles you edit? A similar goal for every title?
ADRIAN: Yes. But not in a way that’s very exciting. My job is to help the creators access the reader’s experience of their work, and in turn elevate any places where the reader’s experience is less than perfect. You fight endlessly for the perfect telling – perfect communication to the readers of the story that exists within the creators’ minds. And then you settle for getting close. Or, occasionally, you get it just right.
That plus “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
"Science fiction and fantasy are genres positioned to lead the way in diversity among creators and readers. They grant the disfranchised voices. They spawn landscapes in which the establishment has fallen. They places minorities, current and predicted, at the helm of their narratives. They pull apart conceptions of race and gender. They ask the hardest questions — and is often the only genre gutsy enough to offer answers, too."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Damian Wassel is also a very vocal member of the Vault team. Damian, you’re credited in the comics as Vault’s “Publisher.” What does that entail? DAMIAN: Largely, it entails putting values and formulas in spreadsheets, and sometimes copying and pasting from one spreadsheet to another. The more substantive, less wry answer is that it’s my responsibility to manage our schedule, output, budget, and overall publishing strategy.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Vault has offices in Maryland and Montana — is that part of being a family-owned business, or was there a different reason for choosing those locations?
DAMIAN: All the fun happens in Montana – a location chosen largely because Adrian and Tim were both already there, but also because Missoula is impossibly lovely. Our business partners' primary companies are all headquartered in Maryland, so we have a shadow presence in their office, and tedious things like accounting go on there.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Why the focus on sci-fi and fantasy more than other genres?
DAMIAN: Science fiction and fantasy are genres positioned to lead the way in diversity among creators and readers. They grant the disfranchised voices. They spawn landscapes in which the establishment has fallen. They places minorities, current and predicted, at the helm of their narratives. They pull apart conceptions of race and gender. They ask the hardest questions — and is often the only genre gutsy enough to offer answers, too.
ADRIAN: Focus keeps the promises simple. And simple promises are the only kind you’ll ever see kept. Retailers know what they’re stocking. Readers know what they’re buying. Great science fiction and fantasy stories. We’ll be making some more promises over the years. We already have with Myriad, our YA, MG, and YR imprint. But it’s only fair to start with one promise – and keep it – before moving to the next. Also, and this is an utterly subjective opinion, no other genres have pushed on emotional truths more effectively (and affectively, too, I guess) in the current era than sci-fi and fantasy. Damian (my brother, Vault’s publisher) and I often joke that if we could only pass down one author’s collected works to some future alien civilization who finds our ruins, seeking to understand humanity, we’d leave behind Vonnegut. I hope my answer changes many more times before I die – such is the growth of a reader and an editor. But for now, push past the real to push on what is most real. That’s the power of these genres.
"Myriad was named for its mission – many; as in genre, story, voices, choice and readers. Expect the same core values as a Vault book, but a broader, limitless horizon in terms of genre."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Talk to me more about your YA/Middle Grade imprint, Myriad. It was just announced in October, and it looks like we’ve got 3 titles expected this year. Will those have the same focus on the sci-fi and fantasy genres? TIM: You’ve nailed it! Myriad is focused on Middle Grade and Young Adult readers. The first round of titles; Bonding, Unfinished Corner, and Wrassle Castle are currently in various stages of development and are expected in stores staggered throughout 2020. As far as genre, Myriad was named for its mission – many; as in genre, story, voices, choice and readers. Expect the same core values as a Vault book, but a broader, limitless horizon in terms of genre.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Vault was founded in 2016. How is it that it’s only 2019 and you’ve had titles in most of 2018’s Top 10 lists and some of the highest scores on Comic Book Roundup in the amount of time it usually takes indie publishers just to establish their footing in the industry? TIM: I don’t know about how other publishers conduct their business, but I do know that at Vault the quality of our titles, across the entire line, is a testament to our creative teams and Editor-In-Chief Adrian Wassel. He’s the front line in terms of sussing talent and guiding story. I’m pretty confident that we have a strong development process that bleeds into how we design, package and market our books. Most creators find out pretty quickly just how engaged and invested we are and that influences the output in a very positive manner. The books have been making a strong impression as of late not only critically, but with retailers and readers as well.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Have there been any growing pains these last 3 years? DAMIAN: Publishing periodicals is a logistically harrowing business. Suffice to say, yes, there have been a lot of growing pains, but I’d just as soon avoid talking about them in detail.
"Alex Paknadel and Dan Watters are co-creating a new series (as yet unannounced until, well, now) called Earthcrosser."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Obviously, just looking at all those aforementioned Top 10 lists and high scores, Vault titles have disrupted the market with titles like FRIENDO, WASTED SPACE, and THESE SAVAGE SHORES. How do you have comics that are so different from any other publisher? ADRIAN: Ah crapsicle. You’re going to make me sound like a jerk. If I can attribute it to anything, I’d say it’s because we are able to care more, and creators are able to perceive that, so they trust us with their very best work. We care more sounds deeply offensive to people working elsewhere, I know. But it’s part and parcel of what I was talking about earlier: I’m uniquely positioned to be able to care about our books in a way other editors maybe are not. Vault is my entire life. These stories are everything to me.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Speaking of 2018, you had all the White Noise writers making Vault comics at the same time for a couple months there, and word is that they’ve all signed on for another round of titles with you. Any word on when readers can expect to see them on shelves? KIM: Early 2020! Alex Paknadel and Dan Watters are co-creating a new series (as yet unannounced until, well, now) called Earthcrosser. Taking the magic and skill of these two writers and putting them together into one book will likely cause stars to go supernova all over the universe, and we’re here for it.
"No matter if you’re a veteran looking to stretch some creative boundaries or a new talent hoping to be infused with confidence by a nurturing staff, we want Vault to be that place where you can tell that story."
COMIC BOOK YETI: Vault also has titles by comics writing powerhouses like Mags Visaggio, Christopher Sebela and Donny Cates, and other up-and-comers like Danny Lore.
What’s the connective tissue among Vault writers? ADRIAN: Passion – and I’d say it’s shared among all our creators, not just our writers.
TIM: Take any of the examples listed above and add in folks like Michael Moreci, Vita Ayala, Eliot Rahal and Joe Corallo, to name but a few and then read one of the books we’ve published with them and tell me where else would you find those stories? Each book is a display of a powerful creative voice at work – a clear articulation of their vision.
Anyone that has read These Savage Shores (Ram V), Friendo (Alex Paknadel), Fearscape (Ryan O’Sullivan) and Deep Roots (Dan Watters) will know what I’m talking about. Each of those titles came from the White Noise studio. With those writers engaged in a close partnership you’d realistically expect some overlap in style and voice, but what they delivered where four exceedingly distinct stories each critically praised at the highest levels and deservedly so.
COMIC BOOK YETI: What does Vault look for when considering creative talent? ADRIAN: The right story from the right voice. A story that cannot be defeated. TIM: Professionalism.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Are there other comic creators would you love to work with? ADRIAN: Of course! TIM: Of course. We keep lists. Lots of lists. Lots of very, very long lists. Thank goodness for Slack. We’re constantly, endlessly scouting. The names run the gamut from established veterans to unpublished talent. Ultimately, I think we’ve clearly signaled our intent – no matter if you’re a veteran looking to stretch some creative boundaries or a new talent hoping to be infused with confidence by a nurturing staff, we want Vault to be that place where you can tell that story.
COMIC BOOK YETI: What are your favorite comics? And what are you reading now? TIM: These Savage Shores. Wasted Space. Queen of Bad Dreams. She Said Destroy. Fearscape. I’ll sample just about any Image Comics title – I’m a Saga diehard. If Tom King scribbles his name on a napkin, I’m buying it. If Ram V writes fifteen new titles in the next year for 4 different publishers, I’m buying them all. I tend to see the medium as a visual one first and foremost, so that often means I pick up books based on what captures my attention on the rack each Wednesday. You can bet I’m buying if I see work by Mitch Gerads, Paul Azaceta, Hayden Sherman, Christian Ward, Jorge Fornes, Ale Aragon, Liana Kangas, Fiona Staples, Lisa Sterle, Ramon Villalobos, Andrea Mutti, Nathan Gooden, Joshua Hixson...that list goes on and on because the endless river of artistic talent in comics keeps me keenly interested in discovering something new each week. In that regard, the entire Vault staff, often together, makes a weekly Wednesday trip to our local comic shop, Muse Comics & Games here in Missoula, MT. I’d say we’re voracious readers and diligent field researchers.
DAVID: Jeeze, I don’t know where to begin! I read a ton of comics. I try to make it to my LCS every week. I follow a lot of established creators that I’ve loved for a long time, but I also make a point to go out of my way to find new creators. Obviously I read and love all of the Vault titles, that goes without saying. I was reading Vault’s entire catalog before I started working here. These Savage shores is my favorite book coming out right now, and it would be even if I didn’t work at here. I love East of West, Monstress, Kaijumax, The Wild Storm, Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, Action Comics, Bitter Root, Morrison/Sharp’s The Green Lantern, Crowded, Coda, The Dreaming, Livewire, One Piece, Die, The Immortal Hulk... I can’t wait for Hickman’s run on the X-Men. I could go on and on and on…
KIM: Oh my, there are SO many good books...Recent ones I’ve picked up were Thumbs, Little Bird, Ghost Tree, Bettie Page, Blackbird, Catwoman (which I read as a kid and picked back up last year when I saw Joelle Jones’ art), and Saga. Some of my favorites from the past year have been Hot Lunch Special, The Weatherman, Her Infernal Descent and every book Vault has produced – not just because I work here, but because I’m constantly blown away by these stories. Wasted Space, Friendo, These Savage Shores - the ending of which is sure to crush me – Fearscape, Vagrant Queen. (And not to drop teasers, but I know the books that are coming out this year and my pull box is going to be so full.) My daughter just turned 6 years old and is really getting into comics as well, so we’re doing a lot of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Super Hero High, The Tea Dragon Society, and Spiderman.
"If you love books, or even occasionally like or enjoy books, you should probably read some comics too. There are no fences around comic stores. There are no abstruse rituals you have to master to decode comic books. You can just pick one up and read it, whoever you are."
COMIC BOOK YETI: How do you think comics will change and evolve in the future? Do you think people might adapt to reading issues the TKO way, binge-reading a boxed set of issues all released at the same time, for example? DAMIAN: I’m not much for prognostication, but I think the future is bright for comic books and graphic novels, and I expect we will see the comics audience continue to grow, and see reading comics increasingly embraced as a mainstream pass-time. Ultimately – and this answer dovetails with my answer to your next question – comics are just books. Books aren’t going anywhere, and as long as Earth remains populated with people, people are going to keep reading them in a wide variety of formats.
COMIC BOOK YETI: What’s something more people should know or understand about comics, whether from a publishing viewpoint, or in general? DAMIAN: They’re just books. If you love books, or even occasionally like or enjoy books, you should probably read some comics too. There are no fences around comic stores. There are no abstruse rituals you have to master to decode comic books. You can just pick one up and read it, whoever you are.
"When art and letters come in we’re all crowded around someone’s monitor to share the excitement of how amazing these creators are."
COMIC BOOK YETI: What are your favorite parts of the job, both what you do specifically or being a part of Vault in general?
ADRIAN: Lettering proofs. Yep. I’m a geek for letters. Letters are the connective tissue holding most comics together. When I get to see a letter proof (and offer notes/corrections), the comic, at last, becomes real. Also, to anyone reading: Trust your letterers. If you’re not a letterer, admit it and find a pro. They will save your comic. And, of course, treat them well. Buy them a yacht, or a sandwich. Tell them thank you.
DAMIAN: I love books. I think stories are the most powerful tools human beings have ever created. Publishing books that tell stories is just about the best job I could imagine. TIM: Seeing our creators rewarded for their hard work. Holding one of our new books in my hands. Watching the office rack fill up with every passing month. Helping to shape and amplify our creators' amazing stories via design. Working closely with Damian Wassel, Adrian Wassel, Kim McLean and David Dissanyake. The challenge of every new Vault Vintage homage cover and being stunned by artist Nathan Gooden’s versatile talent every single time. Watching the ever growing cascade of tweets from readers and retailers praising our creators. Sharing the responsibility of growing a company into something that will last as long as Image and entertain people all over the world in multiple mediums.
DAVID: Easily it’s getting to see these books develop. There is nothing cooler than seeing new pages come in. I love going to shows and talking with fans. It’s a wonderful experience to meet the readers who enjoy these books as much as you do. KIM: Favorite part of the job is seeing the engagement that happens around a story. We all love the pitch and the storyline, and when art and letters come in we’re all crowded around someone’s monitor to share the excitement of how amazing these creators are. Then we get to share that conversation with readers and retailers, and see their excitement, engagement, and anticipation for the story. Everyone is supportive and encouraging; it’s just so nice. My favorite part of Vault is the family. We share our own stories, our frustrations, our joys. We have long-running jokes, we know the type of candy everyone likes, we know that Adrian will always be warm while Tim and I will always be cold (no matter where we sit in the office). David knows that if I send him a text that says “Very important news!” the next sentence isn’t going to be important at all and will likely be a silly gif. They’re all good people and I love them.
"Michael Moreci and I did write Curse & Burning Fields a while back and we’ve always hoped for a chance to finish our 'horror trilogy.' That time is upon us."
COMIC BOOK YETI: What advice do you have for indie creators who one day hope to make comics with Vault? TIM: First, read our books. If you can’t buy them, we’ve got several titles downloadable for free on our site. In other words, know what we’ve done and what we’re doing. Second, tell your story and set the bar for yourself as high as possible. A publisher once said to me, “Is your book better than what I’m publishing right now?” Is that too harsh or is it simply realistic to ask that of yourself, “Does my book belong?” Then work. And if you want it, simply never stop. I’ve seen a lot of folks destroyed by rejection. I’ve tried to keep in mind that “no” or a “pass” from a publisher just means, “not that book, here with us, at this particular moment in time.” Move on. To another publisher. To the next idea. But most importantly, keep moving.
DAVID: Stay in regular communication with retailers. Go out of your way to befriend them and do whatever you can to help them sell your books.
COMIC BOOK YETI: While mostly publishing comics, Vault recently announced its foray into audio dramas and video games. Should we look for any Vault movie or TV show announcements in 2019? Is Vault planning to become more of a multimedia company? And will they all be written by the cosmically talented Michael Moreci?
KIM: I’m so psyched that Mike has been signed to multiple projects with Vault, some of which have already been announced and some are yet to come! We work with so many deeply talented creators whose stories are rich and robust, it just makes sense that those stories would translate well to other media. We just recently announced that Vagrant Queen will become a TV series on SYFY, and as Vault’s books make their way through their journeys I know people are out there envisioning who would play the role of a favorite character if and when the book became a film. I think people are hungry for new, meaningful stories that make us feel or think something, and the opportunity for that is one of the things I love about indie comics.
COMIC BOOK YETI: You know, we’ve talked about Tim Daniel writing comics, Michael Moreci and future plans, and it reminds me that Tim and Michael wrote CURSE together awhile back. Any chance we’ll see another team-up anytime soon? Or a return to writing in general for Tim, now that the FISSURE trade paperback has been released and people have seen what kind of great stuff he writes under the Vault banner? TIM: Can Tim answer this question himself? And why is Tim suddenly speaking in third person? Awful. YES! Michael Moreci and I did write Curse & Burning Fields a while back and we’ve always hoped for a chance to finish our “horror trilogy.” That time is upon us. We’re neck deep in the mire. However, horror has not been something we’ve specifically explored at Vault. While we’ve had titles that certainly veered in that direction, we’ve maintained a very strong Sci-Fi & Fantasy focus. We’re about to change that while staying the course. Retailers at the recent Diamond Retailers Summit in Las Vegas got a quick tease of what that means.
To say any more about our plans at this point would be to spoil The Plot – I could not be more excited about our next step as it is something we’ve discussed almost from day one, so you can bet we’ll be sharing a whole lot more news very, very soon (and I’ll sneak you some peeks!).
COMIC BOOK YETI: If you had to sum up the next year of plans for Vault in a single word or phrase, what would it be? “Expand”? “Dazzle”? “Eisner”?
DAVID: Get ready.