Uhhh, hi. This is my second of five interviews with various creators at Emerald City Comic Con.
I sat down with Adrian Wassel, Editor-In-Chief of Vault Comics, a publisher entering its second year. They had a huge table with lots of space, so I was actually able to sit down with Adrian right there which was nice. It was the only interview from the weekend that I wasn’t on high alert wondering if a security guard was gonna make us move.
Morgan: So you all have blown onto the comics scene in the past year or so. For those who don’t know what Vault is, describe who you are and what kind of comics you publish.
Adrian: Vault’s in an interesting place right now because some people know us really well, have been with us the whole year and have seen the explosive growth. Some shops are ordering from 200-1000 copies of our comics. And then some shops don’t even know our name which is like, sort of frustrating but also good. It’s a good place to be because it means you can point not just to the fans, but the retailers who order the books, and you can say “Hey look, don’t take it from us. Just look at the fan feedback from the people behind the books. We came into the market with a very clear intention and a very clear ambition and it was something readers responded to. We wanted to publish the very best of science fiction and fantasy because we think those genres allow people, allow creators, to explore, and they can subvert all sorts of constructions that need, right now, absolutely need to be talked about. And it’s nice to see. Comics don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s in conversation with all the other media out there. Sometimes it’s kind of the lifeblood. It’s like the spring of so much. Movies, T.V., games. The mission statement of Vault is to give creators the platform that they deserve to tell stories that right now, absolutely need to be told. And that means not the same voice that’s been dominating the industry for far too long at the expense of voices that have been doing the really great work. It’s not like it hasn’t been there. It’s been there the whole time. And people that really love this genre have always known that and have fought for it and it’s nice to see not just Vault, but other publishers finally doing what’s always needed to be done in embracing that.
M: You’ve gotten so big, but you’re still so new. What’s your submission process like? Do you do open submissions, or do you seek people out?
A: It’s a little bit of both. When we first started it was almost entirely open submissions and me just calling on favors from friends like “Hey look, we barely even have a logo.”
M: Which is dope by the way. Honestly, that’s the reason I first picked up a Vault book. I looked at the logo and thought it was clean.
A: That is music to my ears. Brand is so important. We want our books to feel good. We want them to look good. We want the content to be good. We want the art to be good. So yeah, submissions process—it’s a bit of both. When we first started, it was really me saying to friends that I’ve had in this industry for a long time from the days when I was self-publishing and I’d be like, “Hey, I know you have rad stories in your books. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen them in your sketchbooks. We will do those. Other publishers aren’t gonna do them. Who cares if it even sells? Bring it here. Just try it”, and it was amazing to see how many creators, some of them really big names, come and do their passion projects. And then the fans responded. So now, the submissions process has shifted a bit to where I definitely know people I want to work with, creators that I see out there that are rising, like recently on Long Lost, Lisa Sterle and Matthew Erman, a husband and wife team. That book’s over at Scout and I think it’s a phenomenal book and I preordered it before I’d even had a chance to look inside, ’cause I could just tell that it had a really strong vision, and a very strong creative voice. And so then I talked to Lisa and Matthew, and Lisa ended up working on a book with Vita Ayala that we’re gonna announce soon. And so there’s a lot of seeing what I know is really, really strong out there from rising creators and trying to help pair them with creators that have a bit more of an established brand. That’s one of the best ways to boost up a new voice.
M: With your growth, is there a different process for submitting now to maybe stem the flood a bit? Or do you still always have open submissions?
A: We still always have open submissions and honestly the best way to connect is with me or Kim McLean our associate editor, through social media or conventions. Meeting us face to face and talking, that’s a really easy way to learn about each other and about the books that you like, the books you want to create. Social media too. I think we’re pretty open on social media. We’re pretty accessible. And that’ll never change. Because I think great art is always in conversation with other great art. And I think editorially the only way you can floss through that is to be in conversation with the community that’s creating.
M: So talk a little bit about being really young, and running this budding publication. Because I feel like that’s a feat in and of itself.
A: I don’t even let most people know my age ’cause they kind of shrug you off. But I’m 26. I started writing comics in high school and kept writing all through undergrad and when I wrote one of the first things that was halfway decent my cousin Nate (illustrator of Zojaqan, and Powerless) illustrated it. It was this really weird graphic novel that was mostly silent about a wolf. We did the con circuit and we sold a couple thousand copies of an original graphic novel, and we ended up winning Forward Review’s graphic novel of the year in 2014 and even though that’s not like a huge industry award, for a first book ever self-published, it definitely got us sort of in front of a lot of people. A lot of people have the understanding, especially talking about old white men, young white men too, that if you work hard enough, you deserve something. That’s just white privilege in a nutshell. I didn’t deserve the success that I had with that book. We got lucky. There’s always somebody out there that will help you. And there was somebody that connected with the book that gave it that award and that’s phenomenal, but there are a million other books out there that are probably better. Honestly. That were probably better than our book. Our book had a lot of mistakes. But one person really connected with it. And then more people connected with it. And so that’s when we wanted to take the step back and say that we want to offer other creators that we know have these same books in them the opportunity to actually do it instead of getting shut down. So many other publishers will say fantasy doesn’t sell. And then Heathen comes out and sells out of seven print runs. So the industry is old and entrenched but it’s also too reactive a lot of the time. And so we got lucky. I got lucky. I’m 26-years-old and I run Vault but mostly it’s everyone else steering the ship. I just read a lot of comics. I know what’s out there. I talk to a lot of creators. And I want to let them create the stories that I know are their best.
M: So that leads me into my next question. I know Image has little to no editorial insight. Do you run Vault like this, or do you give input to your creators?
A: We definitely curate. I was actually talking to Shelly Bond over at Black Crown who, with Karen Berger, started Vertigo. Having her blessing means the world to me. I think we share a lot of similar philosophies even if the way we edit is very different in that we want to curate a line of books that work to boost the other books in the brand. Every Vault book should give a reader more confidence that the next Vault book is something they want to read.
M: That’s something I’ve noticed. I’m always advocating for you all and I was telling one of my friends in San Francisco that he needed to check your stuff out. And he was kinda like “Yeah, yeah whatever.” And then he finally bought a book and now he advocates more than I do! And he can’t even read anything else. It speaks to how everything feels so distinct and strong. So I can appreciate that, and I know he does too. I think that’s a really good approach in terms of curating. Because when creators are really close to something, it can be hard to see what’s missing and what can make it better.
A: It can be such small things too like tangent lines and panels next to each other. I was working with a phenomenal artist the other day, Magdalene Vissagio and Jason Smith’s book Vagrant Queen coming out in May, and there was just a simple thing where Jason had a character swinging an axe and then you turn the page and then I noticed that the axe’s motion looked like it was now suddenly going the other direction because he had sort of reoriented the angle.
M: That’s a good catch! I see stuff like that a lot.
A: Yeah! It was enough. It was like a 40-degree angle shift and it looked a little weird. And it’s amazing how just paying attention to those small details can keep a reader from getting that sensation of getting kicked out. Where they’re like “Oh, what happened?” and if you can keep them in, you can deliver the experience you want to deliver to them and open them up to experiences that you weren’t even sure your art was going to create.
M: So I just did 5×5 Fest hosted by Ghost City Comics a couple of weeks ago and I saw that Nate, the illustrator on Zojaqan was one of the judges. Is that one of your strategies? To go out and do competitions like that to look for talent?
A: Yeah, absolutely. So I was on Ghost City Comics competition as an editor that was giving feedback as well. Ram V, who has a book coming out with us, was a judge. And because I’m in constant communication with all of our creators, any time they’re working on one of these competitions, they say, “Oh, man! Check out this amazing thing I saw”, and they’ll put it on my desk so to speak.
M: So I’m really trying to make comics & music a thing. When I read Zojaqan, I put on “On The Nature of Daylight” from Arrival, and the building emotion and tone really compliment the book. What are some things you listen to, if anything, for some of the titles you read at Vault?
A: So I know Tim, our designer, likes to put on the music from Vikings when he’s reading Heathen, which fits you know. It’s like this cool Scandinavian music with, like, really deep intense vocals and it works really well. So I love instrumentals. You were talking about Zojaqan. It’s cool that you were referencing Arrival. Sometimes I put on Explosions in the Sky or other post-rock bands when I’m reading Zojaqan because I like that mounting big sort of ethereal, epic scale.
M: And sometimes the music hits at like the perfect panel, or the perfect line of dialogue, and it just enhances the experience so much.
A: Absolutely! You can actually reach out to most of the writers or artists, ’cause they have their own playlists. Sometimes, like you were saying, the degree to which it syncs is amazing. You’ll reach a double page splash right on the crescendo.
M: What’s next for Vault? How do you continue to grow?
A: We’ve got a lot of things in store. Some big launches coming up. Definitely some game changers in terms of the line of books we have coming out. We’re branching out into different ways of physically publishing the books, and different formats which will be cool. We’ve got a lot of trades coming from our series from the first year.
M: ‘Cause right now it’s just Heathen, right?
A: Exactly. And so it’ll be cool to see the rest of these start coming out in trades. Cult Classic: Return to Whisper, the first one just dropped this past Wednesday. I’m really excited about that universe. It’s kind of like this extended episode of like a Simpsons‘ Halloween special. And it’s set in this town called Whisper and every story whether it’s set in the ’70s or the ’50s or 2030, they all sort of pull towards this nexus. There’s a kind of force, like a spooky gravitational core at the center of this universe.
M: Are different creative teams gonna be working on this?
A: Definitely different people. Elliot is gonna be writing a couple things. But Elliot is also helping curate this world. And so every issue has shorts as backups by different creators, but then we’re also looking at doing some sort of cool anthology magazine things. And other series by other creators as well. So we’ve already got stuff in the works from completely different creative teams that Elliot and I are just sort of like “Hey, this is everything we know about Whisper, fill in some other creepy, twisted, dark corners.” So I’m really excited about that. And then, there are a couple of other things we’re working on, on the other side of things. Like being able to preorder books more easily. I can’t talk too much about that because we have to launch it and get it out there, but we’re trying to make our books accessible to more people than what’s considered the standard comics brick and mortar world.