On Panel: Adrian and Damian Wassel on the Way Vault Works and Going the Kickstarter Route
On Panel is a monthly-ish, text-only sister series to Off Panel, my weekly comics interview podcast, in which each interview features two or more guests as I attempt to simulate the idea of a panel conversation from a conversation. By that I mean it’s a moderator – myself – guiding a free-flowing conversation between multiple panelists about a subject that unites them. It’s meant to be less of a traditional interview and more of a back-and-forth between myself and the guests or the guests themselves, as we talk about a central premise while discussing connected ideas in the process.
With the publisher’s first ever Kickstarter campaign launching today for the Wasted Space deluxe omnibus — a tome that collects all 25 issues and 672 pages of Michael Moreci, Hayden Sherman, Jason Wordie, and Jim Campbell’s series — it seemed like it was about time to check in with the team over at Vault Comics. They’ve been doing interesting things in recent years, whether it was launching a middle-grade and young adult imprint in Wonderbound, embracing direct-to-consumer sales on its website, or bringing in funding via a fascinating mix of investors. Going down the Kickstarter path is only a continuation of the intriguing moves they’ve been making.
To dig into what is going on over there, I recently sat down with Editor-in-Chief Adrian Wassel and CEO & Publisher Damian Wassel to talk about all things Vault. While much of it is about that Kickstarter, why they went that route, and what they’re doing to succeed in this new space, The Brothers Wassel also discuss how their roles mesh, how they decide which new projects to embrace, how they view Vault’s place in the industry, and more. It’s less about any one thing than it is about the pair’s approach to running a comics publisher at a singularly strange time in the space, making it an insightful view inside the thinking at an ascending comics house.
It’s a sprawling conversation, and one I’m leaving open to non-subscribers with the arrival of that Kickstarter today. If you enjoy this chat, consider subscribing to SKTCHD for more features just like it.
One of the things I find the most interesting about Vault as a company is how you two split your roles. We could talk about titles, but just to simplify things, the way I see it is, Adrian, you’re the story guy, and Damian, you’re the business guy. Obviously, there’s a significant amount of overlap between those two sides. I am curious as to how you feel those two roles feed and reinforce each other in determining Vault’s path. Starting with you Adrian, how do you view your two roles? Are they two halves of a whole or is it different than that?
Adrian: I would say it’s a little different than that. Damian and I are really good at supporting each other’s weaknesses with our strengths. That’s something that we learned a long time ago when we coached and ran a lacrosse team together, which was fun growing up. That was one of the first of projects that we took on as brothers, but also as collaborators. I was a player and Damian was a coach, and that’s continued here at Vault. I would say, yes, we’re two sides of the same coin. Obviously, like you noted, it’s an oversimplification to say I’m the story guy and Damian’s the business guy.
I think where that does hit the nail on the head is that, whenever Damian’s in doubt about a storytelling decision, he will go with my call. And whenever I’m in doubt about a business or strategic decision, I will go with Damian’s call. We don’t argue the point past that. When we put that question to each other, “What is your call on this? I’m stuck.” Whatever the other person determines, we stick to, and we don’t ever push back when the other one makes that call. That kind of staying in the lane has been really beneficial for Vault, and I think also just for our relationship as brothers and business partners.
Damian: The thing is, Adrian’s obviously really good at one thing. He’s good at lots of other things, but he is just obviously really good at story. And I’m adaptively mediocre at lots of things. (laughs)
Adrian: You’re underselling. You’re adaptively excellent at many things.
Damian: When it came time to figure out, how are we going build an IT system that can support this when there are only three of us? I was like, “I can figure out a version of that.” Adrian’s like, “I really want to tell this story,” and I’m like, “I can figure out a version of a thing that supports that.” That’s led, I think, to developing the roles as the company has grown. Ultimately, for me, I think building the business has been a really fun creative project in its own right. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re mired in spreadsheets, but at a certain point, if you take a step back, we now fill three linear feet of bookshelf, and that’s not even everything we’ve put out.
Seeing that come together feels like it’s its own brick by brick creative process. I don’t ever feel like I’m separated from it. Adrian and I obviously used to work out of the same office, we don’t any longer, but we try to be as much hand-in-hand as possible when we’re thinking through big decisions or tricky decisions. Then, that principle that Adrian mapped out of respecting subject matter expertise is something we try to extend throughout the business. Very rarely do either of us gainsay a sales and marketing decision that David (Dissanayake, Vault’s Vice President of Sales & Marketing) makes or a design decision that Tim (Daniel, Vault’s EVP Production & Design) makes. We tend to try to respect the expertise that we’ve tried to build a team around.
I think one of the interesting things about comics, and this is true for all art forms to a certain degree, but I feel like the distance between art and commerce can be really close, because the ability for a series to continue going is very much dependent on immediate sales. Is it going to be viable continuing forward? You need those two sides to be very collaborative and to connect. I am interested in how, when it comes to deciding on new projects, and the books that you want to take on… Every publisher, you have more comics you could be publishing than you are, because there’s just a lot of talent out there.
I’m sure if it was up to the two of you, you would be publishing all of the greatest talents in the history of comics, because they’re all amazing, and you want to publish it all, but you can only do so much. Also, I know that Vault very much deliberately keeps its line tight with intent. When it comes to deciding on those new projects, what’s the process like? Is it the two of you mostly hashing it out? Is it you bringing David and Tim and other people from the team on? What’s that process like?
Adrian: You’ve articulated the absolute worst part of my job, which is having to tell a bunch of amazing creators, “No,” who have incredible pitches. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve said, “This book absolutely deserves to be published, it just isn’t right for Vault in this moment,” because of that very tight catalog you gestured at. The process there is largely me in the driver’s seat working with a lot of creative talent that I’ve spent a lot of years developing relationships with. The pitching process at Vault, I’ve heard time and time again from creators, is very different than pitching elsewhere. I like to make it very dialogical, and have continued conversations with creative talent that I really see, and believe in. I try to read everything that they’re working on, whether they’re very established, and have a robust bibliography, or they’re very new, and they’re working on their first few self-published shorts.
I try to read everything that they put out, engage with them about their work, and set up a series of conversations where I help shed light on what I’m trying to accomplish with a catalog in a given year or season, and see if that excites them, and they have a pitch ready or they have a pitch they want to create for that space and in that space. Once I’ve done that first stage of things, which is curating a list of potential pitches, developing those relationships with creators, it’s about approaching the rest of the internal vault team with those pitches to make sure that sales and marketing are excited about it, that design and production are excited about it, that the other editors that I work with, Der-shing (Helmer, Vault’s Managing Editor) and Tay (Rebecca Taylor, the Managing Editor of Wonderbound, Vault’s YA/middle-grade line), are both excited about it, and of course, that Damian is excited about it.
I think every single year since we’ve launched, Damian has picked our standout book from the lineup where I’ve said, “I really believe in this one,” and Damian says, “Yeah, you should. That’s going to be the best seller. That’s the one that the market’s going to respond to the most, not because it’s the best book, but because I see the market responding to this at this specific moment, and here’s why your intuitions are right, why your gut is rumbling.” It’s a very collaborative process once we’ve crossed that threshold. The first half of the process really is largely me just spending a lot of time engaging with creators, and learning what they’re excited about, and shedding light on what I’m trying to do with that small catalog.
Balancing big pillars in every genre, to then support exploring really fun, myriad sub genres, and new emerging sub genres that we’re seeing in other mediums. Yeah, it’s me in the driver’s seat for the first half, and then a very collaborative process with the Vault team where I present all of the books that I have been working on slowly getting ready for the next slate, and seeing what sticks, and what people get really excited about, and where they go, “Adrian, you’ve completely lost your mind. What is this?”
How many times do you have to say that, Damian?
Damian: Rarely. (laughs)
Adrian: But it has happened.
Damian: I think that gets said to me more often than it gets said to Adrian. I will have wouldn’t-it-be neat-if-we delusions and people are like, “There’s no way to implement that delusion. Go back to your desk.” (laughs) I’m a big believer in the entertainment business, broadly construed, being what I would call an essentially hunchy business. That is, you have to allow yourself to be led by hunches, not data. We’ve seen the disastrous routes of chasing data in this business broadly, whether we’re looking at certain choices publishing companies have made about how many copies to print of certain ex-first lady’s next books, or whether we’re talking about the slate of a streaming giant. I think there are two things at stake there that don’t get paid attention to. First is that, mostly the data can only lead you where you’ve already gone.
Also that–and this would require a far deeper dive into thinking about statistics and data science than I want to get into–mostly we don’t have the right kind of data to actually answer the questions with data. We don’t have a bunch of different planets to compare data on. We’ve just got one Earth with a relatively small number of new things getting made, even though that number seems really big now.
We try not to be too numbers oriented when we think about what we’re going to make or not make. With that said, we do think a lot, and I don’t… There’s some closely guarded pseudo secrets here. I call them pseudo secrets, because everyone else probably has the same ideas and thinks they’re unique to them. (laughs) We’re probably all thinking about the same things, and thinking they’re proprietary. (laughs) Big picture, the question is often, who’s the audience for this thing? How many people comprise said audience? How well does the thing activate that audience? A thing that activates a potentially big audience very well is great, but sometimes a thing that activates a smaller audience perfectly is also really great. We know we’re always looking for the right multiple across those categories. We’re always asking, are there ways we can help it pick out its audience better or help it activate that audience more clearly? That’s how we approach what we’re thinking about bringing to market.
I remember Tze Chun from TKO Studios tweeting back in 2020 about how everyone needs to get ready for all these Ted Lasso-like pitches because everyone’s like, “We got to deconstruct this.” I think the interesting thing about trying to reverse engineer success is, a lot of times the reason why something succeeds is because it’s different to begin with. Reverse engineering success based off of it being different is antithetical to the entire concept of that idea. I think you’re right, trying to chase what success looks like, it can be very mercurial, and it can backfire, and it’s not the best path necessarily.
This does tie into Vault going down the crowdfunding route. It’s a really interesting direction to go in with Wasted Space, this deluxe omnibus, Kickstarter, the Cosmic Collection with 672 pages, 25 issues, et cetera, et cetera, because it’s a book that you already have done, and it’s a way to activate the audience in a new way than just selling it…I mean, you’ll probably sell it eventually through the direct market and everything as well, but it’s a way to directly engage with the people who are most passionate about it, but also to engage with the people who are more engaged on the Kickstarter site and get some discoverability that way. How early on did crowdfunding a deluxe version of, not just necessarily Wasted Space, but the idea of crowdfunding a deluxe version of one of your titles enter into the conversation? Has this been in the works for a while?
Damian: It’s definitely been something we’ve thought about for two or three years. Honestly, thinking when is the right time to do that? What might be the right book to do it with? I think Wasted Space has always been neck and neck with one other title in our catalog. This is the one we wanted to move on first, and we ultimately went with Wasted Space, because it’s just the biggest book we’ve ever made.
It’s fun to be able to bring the biggest book we’ve ever made to everybody between just two covers. It feels like a really amazing milestone to put something that big out in the world. I couldn’t agree with you more that one of the most amazing things about Kickstarter is its power as a market maker in the stock trader sense of market maker, of matching would-be sellers with would-be buyers of interest that might otherwise never meet. It’s really amazing as a discovery engine. We know that in particular with Wasted Space, it’s a book that was beloved by everybody I’m aware of who read it, but we really want a lot more people to read it now.
Adrian: And we’ve grown. We have a lot more fans. Vault is in a unique position where we’re such a new publisher still, though we’re tipping past that point of being shiny and brand new, which is fun. It’s fun to evolve, and it’s good and exciting. There are still a lot of people who haven’t read a Vault title who are comic book fans. Wasted Space is our longest running series, and it’s a big pillar in our catalog. We want to make sure that we get as many fans as possible now to engage with the series, and make it feel new and exciting. Offering our first ever oversized hardcover omnibus is a really cool way to do that. A way to make sure that it doesn’t just slide under the radar, is to have this big, splashy, fun campaign that engages with the fans directly. That’s one of the things that’s most exciting about it is, like you’re saying, it’s audience activation in that way, and it brings a whole new audience who you love Kickstarter comics, but maybe haven’t found their way to a comic book store yet to pick up a Vault title. The opportunity to go, “Oh wow, what? Vault is doing 672 page long series. That’s really cool. I’ll check this out.”
Speaking of Wasted Space specifically, you’re talking about in the lead up to the question how reverse engineering something that’s already successful is antithetical to creating another success. We have another secret in house that I’m sure is not really a secret, because like Damian said, everybody thinks about this, but I like to think about creating stories at Vault that aren’t trying to turn things on their head, or be disruptive, or flip a trope, and instead bring stories to life at Vault that codify a sub genre, an audience. Lord of the Rings isn’t Lord of the Rings because it disrupted fantasy, it’s because it codified it. It’s because it took all of these disparate pieces that had been pushing toward fantasy, epic fantasy, and it made it. I think one of the things that drew me to Wasted Space, and one of the things that draws me to basically every title in our catalog, is that they are all filled with the ambition of being the definitive story in that space.
Wasted Space from day one said it wanted to be the most ribald space opera, and the most philosophically intricate space opera at once. Do highbrow and lowbrow all at one time. That was exciting, because it’s trying to codify, it’s not trying to disrupt necessarily. Wasted Space is one of those series that we didn’t just stand behind because its sales were there to sustain it for 25 issues like you were talking about earlier, where you get that immediate feedback from the direct market. We also stood behind it because we had a creative team that was going to support 25 issues that had a dream that was going to work their butts off for it. And they did. The proof is in the pudding. This is the final reward for the team too to turn their story into our first oversized omnibus, and see if the market is really excited about Vault doing more of those.
Damian, I remember you previously had said that you were interested in getting more into direct to consumer. I think that one of the things that’s really interesting about this moment in time for Vault is that, I think one of the most difficult things you can do as a new publisher is get to the point where you have those fans that are basically ride or die. The ones that will buy everything.
That’s one of the things that really astonishes me about Vault. Not that I think you guys aren’t good at what you do or anything like that, but Vault has those hardcores, those people who are like, “I’m not only going to get Wasted Space, but I’m going to get Wasted Space in single issues, trades, and then when omnibus comes, I’m going to get that too.” The thing that’s really interesting about direct to consumer as an option in this current state, and what you’re doing with Wasted Space, is those hardcores are going to support you, and you know that, but on top of that, there’s going to be, to use a Warcraft 3 term, there’s going to be an area of effect from their efforts where, they’re going to start hyping it up, and the next thing you know, people are going to be talking about it.
Then, you get blessed with that Kickstarter Project We Love, and then all of a sudden it’s in this whole new level of discoverability. That’s the thing that’s really interesting about the place where you’re at is, you have your evangelists and they will talk about you. Now you can motivate them to not just pre-order at a shop, but to get this now. That’s the thing that makes this really interesting. Not that you’re the first to ever do this, but you’re in a unique position to be able to capitalize on that, because you’ve reached that point now.
Adrian: I would agree, and I think that the thing that’s most exciting from my perspective, is that Vault fans have been clamoring for this opportunity to do exactly that for a while now. One of the reasons we chose Wasted Space, is because it is so beloved among those ‘evangelists.’ It’s one of those books that the very early Vault fans, and the middle of the road, halfway along the journey to now Vault fans have all picked up and fallen in love with. It spans so many years, it spans so many of our fans, and that was one of the reasons for doing Wasted Space, was it would bring in the most people who were like, “I can’t wait to show my support for this creative team that made something that I genuinely love and adore.”
Damian: Earlier in this call you mentioned we keep the catalog small, and one of the reasons we did that, one of the reasons we kept the catalog small in terms of the genre sandbox we play in and we kept the catalog small in terms of the number of titles that we put out in a given year, was to create the opportunity for people to be fans, not just of the books, but of the line. We wanted to keep a catalog structured so that it was not just conceptually possible to be a fan of it. That’s the genre focus. It’s conceptually possible to be a fan, because these books are exploring adjacent terrain, but practically possible to be a fan of it. We wanted to keep the catalog always small enough that if somebody really wanted to buy everything we put out in the year, that was manageable. We didn’t want to create, no offense to the Warhammer players of the world, but the Warhammer problem where it’s like, “I can have everything I want, or a home and a family.” (laughs)
Is that stated as a Warhammer player, because that makes it seem like you know a little bit about that world.
Damian: So, deep cut, but my middle school friend Peter and I could not afford to play Warhammer, way too expensive. So, we took his digital camera to the hobby shop, and we photographed the front of a bunch of boxes, and then we printed them out, and stuck them on little cardboard cutouts that we made, and played Warhammer with our own make it at home pieces. Please don’t sue me, Games Workshop. I think the statute’s probably expired on that anyway. (laughs)
There is a line from an interview I was going to bring up later unrelated to this, but now I wonder if it is related. There was that Forbes piece about, and I’m going to go with another oversimplification, because I don’t really feel explaining the funding coming into you guys right now. I’m going to call it Vault getting Metallica Money. Vault was invested in by a range of investors, and you had this line in there, Damian, that was in regards to BRZRKR and Keanu Reeves getting involved with comics. You described that as “a motivating insight.” It’s funny, because all this time I think people have thought it was about you getting a famous person to make a comic. It might be true. You might have a deal with some celebrity that I don’t know about.
But one thing that is a motivating insight from BRZRKR and Keanu Reeves and all that fits into this is, that title launched on Kickstarter. That was a situation where BOOM! recognized that the potential fans of this comic weren’t limited just to the direct market, so they wanted to find those people. Am I reading too much into this that maybe that that was the motivating insight, the discoverability aspect, or are you secretly finding a celebrity right now that is going to write or draw a comic for you?
Damian: There were, I should say, probably multiple motivating insights. You are not reading too much into it at all. I mean, ultimately…I think, one thing you and I have talked about a couple times previously informally and formally, on and off the record with respect to comics is that a great challenge the medium faces still, and it will be for a while, is the discoverability problem. It goes all the way down to certain physical features of the format. A typical comic book trade paperback has such a tiny spine that just physical discoverability on the shelf in a bookstore is a challenge, let alone figuring out where to buy it, let alone figuring out what you should buy in a sea of offerings, and all of that.
Then, as I think anybody who’s tracked–you’re probably a really weird person if you’ve tracked all of the interviews I’ve ever done about comics over the years–but anybody who has done that will know that I’m a great lover of the direct market. I think it’s a really amazing thing. I think nearly any other vendor in any other business category would kill to have that. The only other nationwide independent retail I can think of, apart from books and comics, is hardware. There are lots of independent hardware stores.
Comics and nails. That’s it.
Damian: Yeah, comics and fasteners. It supports innovation in an exciting way. The challenge, of course, is that rather than trying to direct a few very focused heads when it comes time to market a thing, you’ve got to coordinate this giant constellation of businesses in a marketing effort. And that can be really hard, because they don’t know want to do it the same way for good reasons. Part of the insight in seeing what BOOM! did with BRZRKR, if you can make a single impression loudly enough, that can really shape the trajectory of the thing moving forward.
I remember when, I think it was Archie of all publishers, first launched a Kickstarter as a publisher, and people were mad. They were mad. They didn’t think they should be doing it. That’s not the domain of publishers, this is a creator thing. Then, BOOM! did it and a variety of others did it, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know if that’s as vocal as it used to be or if it’s as big of a concern. I mean, I think it was C. Spike Trotman who said that she welcomed BRZRKR and Keanu Reeves there, because if anything, it’s going to bring more people to Kickstarter and make it more visible. Did you have any concerns going into this as a publisher of, “This isn’t our domain so we need to tread carefully,” or anything like that?
Damian: By you, do you mean me, personally?
I mean Vault.
Damian: The answer for me is, not really, because I saw a pretty clear narrative as to why this is a good thing. Us collectively, Adrian and I had to navigate the doubt being raised by nearly everyone on the team, and with good reason for the very the historically accurate reasons you just presented, that this is not always been met with universal enthusiasm. I think that comics are just sitting a little bit behind tabletop role playing games right now in terms of what people think is the right way forward, because tabletop role playing games just simply wouldn’t have been able to engage in the exciting innovation they have over the last close to a decade, six years in particular. We went from that being a fringe case to that being the default business model for launching new tabletop role playing games.
I’m not saying it’s going to be the default business model for comics anytime soon, but it’s a really incredible way to discover an audience. I think the trick for us, the thesis that we have in mind as to how and why we will use Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platforms, is to do stuff that’s new, stuff that sits outside our ordinary way of getting stories and books into the world. We’ve never done a giant deluxe hardcover edition before. We have no ability on the nitty gritty financial side of it to model this with any degree of confidence. On the go to market side, we know that it’s something people will love. We want to make sure we’re giving folks the opportunity to get it without having to navigate a bunch of vaguery between when we offer it, and when we can deliver it to them.
I’m not saying you guys are going to get addicted to Kickstarter, and all of a sudden you’re going to be rolling these out all the time. I’ve never done one, but from what I hear it sounds stressful. (laughs) If people only knew all the work that goes into launching these things. It’s a lot. But when I was at Emerald City Comic Con, I was at your table, and I saw, I think it was a Heathen all in one collection, where it’s the whole story all in one book, and there are always opportunities for things like that. This could be a playbook for something you have in your belt going forward. So, obviously you want it to go well.
To help do that, you are working with a freelance marketer for this in Jazzlyn Stone. Jazzlyn’s great. You also have an ace in Vice President of Sales & Marketing, David Dissanayake. Why did you want to supplement your marketing efforts on the crowdfunding front with Jazzlyn?
Damian: We’re huge believers in being led by experts. We’re not big fans of wandering into novel terrain without somebody by our side who knows what they’re doing. As you mentioned, it’s a lot of work to navigate a Kickstarter. Those two things together were reason enough. We don’t want to stumble in any predictable way in the first outing. I talk sometimes internally about there being two kinds of holes you trip in. The ones you can see that you should have fenced off, and the ones that you couldn’t see because somebody had covered them over with leaves and dried twigs.
We might step in one of those, but I don’t want to step in any of the obvious ones we should have fenced off. Having an expert on hand helps with that. It’s also just the workload of making sure the campaign is built, is launched correctly, all the communication back and forth with the comics liaison at Kickstarter. That’s something that our core team doesn’t have extra bandwidth to manage. We knew we needed somebody to do it.
Adrian: Jazzlyn’s fantastic, and everything Damian just articulated goes back to one of his earlier points about subject matter expertise at Vault, and really trusting the person who is the subject matter expert. We wanted that person, and the whole team wanted that person, because that’s our ethos as a small team. I mean, internally Vault is a very small team despite our pretty kick ass output. We brought in Jazzlyn for that reason. We wanted the subject matter expert. We wanted the person who could always give us the tiebreaker, and steer us around those potholes. We know Jazzlyn by way of numerous creators that we’ve worked with. The list is too long to even rattle off. It was a really obvious fit to start up that conversation with her.
She understood our mission statement behind these Kickstarters immediately and recognized precisely why we were excited about trying to engage this new audience. I think ultimately also, if I can speak a little bit for Jazzlyn having had so many conversations with her, she respected the fact that we wanted to step into this space very respectfully. We wanted somebody who knew how to run a Kickstarter, who’d done it, who’d worked at every level, and had so many successful campaigns, tell us the way to do it that was genuine, and it was going to produce great results for the creative team behind Wasted Space. I cannot sing praise for Jazzlyn loud enough. She is the best. Always just extremely focused, keeps everybody moving fast and delivering on time.
Once it moved from the introductory conversations of, “Hey, we know a bunch of people who love you, and we’ve got an idea to maybe try our hand at some Kickstarters,” it just became a no brainer. She’s an integral part of the team. She communicates with everyone on our side so well, and respects each expert on our side and always turns to Tim for expertise on design rather than dictating to Tim. She Likewise understands that David knows the direct market basically better than anyone, and wants to make sure that everything we’re doing to structure our Kickstarter is also paying attention to the direct market and servicing them as well. Jazlyn was just a perfect fit, and I’ve been thrilled working with her on the Wasted Space Kickstarter.
Damian: Working in comics, comics get such a bad rap publicly so frequently, including getting brow beaten by some of your journalistic colleagues. (laughs) “What the heck is wrong with this business,” is a clarion call that we hear over and over again. One thing that I’ve learned working in comics, over and above the fans being the most discerning audience for any media I’m aware of, comic fans can see through bullshit in a way that almost no one else can. It’s also just that the creative and business talent that exist in comics, the folks who find a way to stick it out, they’re often just amazing in what they know how to achieve. Part of it is that the stakes they navigate, the amount they’re responsible for, and the number of repetitions they get in, are just unlike any other business. There’s no creative executive working in film or television who’s output in terms of stories they’ve shepherded into market, even vaguely resembles a medium output comics editor. (laughs)
Adrian: I say this all the time about writers, and artists in particular in comics, the creative lifeblood. I’ve had many conversations with writers who are excited to work in other mediums and want to work in television or want to work in film and there’s a lot of apprehension, and a lot of that nay saying about the comics market gets lodged in their head like a splinter. They don’t think that maybe they’re ready for that kind of work in another medium. It frustrates me to no end, and I try to explain to them why it frustrates me. It’s that sheer number of repetitions Damian was talking about. The best comic writers out there produce so many scripts in a year, and such a high quality that it’s really difficult to find anyone anywhere who’s producing as much work that is actually being consumed by fans, and across any other medium. The same is true for artists.
I say this all the time. I adore fine art, and I think the idea of there being some clean delineation between comic art and fine art is nonsense. It’s like, eat your heart out to the rest of the world. I know comic artists that can do full painting quality in every panel, compose every panel so that it could stand alone as a fine art image. They do it across an entire 300 page series in one year’s time while they’re running another book too. That’s not just talent, that’s work ethic, and that’s repetitions. I try to remind the creators behind all of our books that, you won’t find anyone who works as hard or as passionately as you do in any other space. That is one thing that is very true of comics. Like Damian was saying, it leads to people that just know their business, and will get stuff done. Whatever naysaying we may do or others might do, comics is a space where we make a lot of great stories, and we make them fast.
Damian: I raised that point just to say, circling back to Jazzlyn and why we’re excited to work with her. I feel like you could scour the industries of the globe, Fortune 100 companies, and major ad agencies, and you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who is better able to carefully, sincerely, and effectively communicate with a community of fans than Jazzlyn.
One thing that you brought up Damian, I think, is very important here. Of all the roles in comics that fans don’t understand, number one is probably editors. I often say that editors are often the easiest to blame but the hardest to thank because a lot of fans don’t really know what you do. You’re just the ones who ruin our lives on occasion. The other one though would be marketers, because most of the time when you talk about comics marketing, you’re just talking about how it sucks, and it’s just throwing the baby out with the bath water. Most don’t really know what the good things that are going on on that side.
It’s really tough to really say, “This is what David (Dissanayake) does.” The thing about what he does is, David is managing a whole lot of things for you guys simultaneously. Multiple markets, multiple this, multiple that. Being an expert in everything is impossible, and that’s what makes it necessary to have somebody like Jazzlyn, because she is that subject matter expert. She’s the person that knows crowdfunding. The one note I had from the announcement of Jazzlyn doing it, is the fact that it was suggested this could be a series of Kickstarters. Is your current plan for Kickstarter one campaign depending on success, or is it, you have a roadmap now for more instances of this going forward?
Damian: I mentioned earlier, we think of this as a really cool way to do new things, things that sit outside our well-trod business model. Yes, we definitely have more in mind, but I wouldn’t expect them all to resemble the one we currently have at format. There’s some new things we want to be able to offer. We will definitely be bringing some of those new things to the world with a crowdfunding approach.
I do think you’re in a really interesting position, because you launched Wonderbound, your middle-grade and YA line, in the last couple years with lots of great books coming from that. Then you also have the aforementioned investment money coming in that changes the arithmetic, I presume, to some degree as to what you can or cannot do. You’re selling comics straight through your site. You actually have that direct to consumer. I could go on your site and I could order comics through there. You’re doing a lot of different things that are trying to move the needle for you.
We’re in an interesting time in comics right now. When you look at industry-wide numbers, comics are thriving. You look at that Comichron/ICv2 report that John Jackson Miller and Milton Griepp put together, and it’s a bonanza. It’s hard to argue that anything but great things are happening. If you have some conversations, though, which I’m sure you do, there are warning signs. There are things that could be going better, particularly in the direct market. I wanted to ask about how, through the prism of all that, how do you two view the current state of the market, and where do you see opportunity for Vault within there?
Adrian: I approach that question from the perspective of an editor whose job is mostly communicating with creators. I think the market has never been stronger for creators, and for creator owned series, which is excellent for Vault, and excellent for the creative talent we work with. It’s just sparking more ambition and more daring. I think creators had been in a mode for, call it a decade of hearing a lot of “no” to the things that they wanted to do that were ambitious, whether that was a single story or something like Tiny Onion, that we’re watching unfold. I am thrilled to see creators pushing back against that “No,” and going, “Wait, I can make a yes for myself.”
Then also, there are publishers who want to build career long relationships with me, and help make those yeses something robust, and successful commercially, and financially for them. I think the market right now is creating probably the most awesomely set of creators I’ve ever seen. I’m just getting more and more really daring and interesting kinds of thoughts from creators feeling empowered to want to take a risk on format, want to take a risk on even who they’re partnering with. I see an enormous amount of opportunity there for Vault, and for everyone who’s willing to engage with creators, and recognize them as also not just pumping out stories, but being strategic partners.
Damian: I think I am now and always will be somewhat reluctant to prognosticate about the future of the comics market, but I think at this moment in time, we’re in a room full of elephants and some of the elephants are fighting (laughs), and it’s really hard to point out the one thing we should be paying attention to. Amid all of that, what we see is just a continued trend toward retail excellence in the direct market that continues to be buoyed by a growing market. I think one thing that we can be sure of for the next little while at least, because who knows when the asteroid is finally going to extinct us all, but one thing we could be sure of for the next little while at least, is that we’re living in the era of the greatest comic stores there’ve ever been. It’s really fun to sell stuff to the world that way.
To work off of what you’re saying, Adrian, you’ve worked with Liana Kangas quite a bit. Liana is a great example of how creators aren’t just storytellers today, they’re good at evangelizing for themselves and having…agency might be a dramatic term for it, but it’s more control than creators have ever had. I think that some entities in comics are hesitant about that type of thing because it’s different than it’s ever been.
I think that the ecosystem you’re working within, where everyone has their own part in it, and it’s got this collectivism aspect to it, I think that helps a lot. Because if you have somebody like Liana, who is empowered to do the best things they can do and then bring a book out. I think that it is a really unique environment where everyone has a little bit more power, and I think that gives the ones who lean into that a little bit more strength. I mean, that’s one of the things when I talk to creators about working with you all, they’re always very happy about the experience, which is not always the case. That’s a good thing.
Adrian: That’s something we pride ourselves on. We want to make sure that when creators come and do their work at Vault, that they’re supported in all of the right ways, which means the Lianas of the world have the opportunity to flex all their different muscles, and wear all those different hats that they can wear so effectively. And that some of the other creators that really don’t feel creatively fulfilled by doing that, and instead feel pressured and want to stick to the one thing they love doing, they don’t have to be distracted by the other stuff. We try to be very, very flexible here with every single series. That’s only possible because our team is small, super passionate, super dedicated, and always works really hands on with all of our creative teams.
I mean, every single person on the Vault team has direct communication with every creator on every series we put out. Half the time I’ve checked Slack, it’s chatter back and forth between Tim designing an element or David thinking about marketing or Syndee talking about the book market or Dan and Alex talking about a social media campaign with that creator. It’s great, because obviously comics is collaborative, and almost every book has a team of a few people, and each different personality will find their person that they like interacting with on the Vault team. That can then bring out some of those other… What’s the word I’m looking for? Some of those other creative outputs that they want to explore. You find somebody who’s maybe newer as a comic book creator, and hasn’t discovered that they are multi-talented, like a Liana Kangas, yet.
I hope that they find some of those other places where they’re like, “I actually really loved doing social media in support of my work. That’s something I enjoy, and I didn’t know that I would enjoy it until it became less scary, because the Vault team helped show me that it’s not, it doesn’t have to be scary.” That’s just one example, but the hope is that people come in and do their work here and then feel empowered to understand different facets of the market better and take that away with them. And then hopefully come back too. (laughs)
Damian: I mean, there’s no book we’ve published that hasn’t made us smarter, better, more engaged with what we do after putting it out. We try to learn something from every book that we take to the world. Similarly, we try to be a resource. Maybe some folks don’t need that learning resource, some folks don’t want it, but there are folks who both need and want it. We try to be as instructive and helpful and supportive as we possibly can every step along the way. In particular, as you mentioned, with somebody like Liana, being supportive of the multifaceted nature of the way they engage with the world.