Brothers Adrian and Damian Wassel, both voracious readers, grew up in rural Virginia. Now bearded and hip but with a splash of nerd thrown in, the pair are smart, friendly and funny—eager to think critically, explore ideas and tell stories. Adrian, 25, graduated from the University of Montana in 2013, with a focus on creative writing, and Damian, 32, recently finished a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan. During visits to see his brother, Damian fell in love with Missoula, and the pair decided it was the right place to pursue their dream: a comic book publishing company called Vault Comics.
"Comic books and storytelling were interests we had together," Adrian says. "I'm the more voracious comic book reader, Damian is the more voracious literature reader. He reads an enormous amount of books and says, read these, not those. I read an enormous amount of comics and say, read these, not those."
The brothers teamed up with their cousin, artist Nathan Gooden, to write silent graphic novels a few years ago, and their small but critical successes led them to found Vault Comics, which they envisioned as a company that could harbor and promote independent creators. When one of their father's friends offered to finance the venture, they jumped at the chance.
- Spiritus is a sci-fi series about a female MMA fighter of the future convicted of murder.
A year into the process, the team has grown to include Missoula comic book author Tim Daniel, whose day job is doing web design and data management for UM. In addition to writing and illustrating Vault's series Spiritus, Daniel helps the Wassels with their logos, branding and design. Spiritus is a brightly, boldly drawn sci-fi adventure series about a female MMA fighter of the future who is convicted of murder and placed in automated confinement, i.e., her consciousness has been transferred into a state-programmed labor machine.
"[Damian and Adrian] showed me some of the work, and I was absolutely flabbergasted," Daniel says. "It was beautiful and polished and looked like it could stand on the shelf with anything. Instantly, I was convinced I wanted to bring my own books there and I wanted to be involved."
Spiritus, with its female protagonist, political undertones and philosophical questions, is par for the course at Vault. Some of its other offerings include Heathen, the fable of a lesbian Viking created, written and drawn by Oklahoma artist Natasha Alterici; and Alien Bounty Hunter, an action-filled romp about—you guessed it—an alien bounty hunter who must capture the most wanted fugitive in the universe.
The latter series was created in partnership with actor/film and TV producer Mark Wahlberg and TV producer Stephen Levinson (Boardwalk Empire, Entourage). The team hopes that the series, whose first printing sold out within a month, will be developed into a blockbuster film franchise in the next few years.
The Wassel brothers have lofty aspirations for Vault. They want to be commercially successful across all sorts of media. They want to be the go-to indie publisher of science fiction and fantasy comics for both readers and creators. They want their comic books to have the hands-down best writing, storytelling, and art in the industry. They also want their comic books to be socially inclusive, disruptive and thought-provoking.
- Alien Bounty Hunter is being developed in partnership with Mark Wahlberg for a possible film franchise.
"Good research shows that reading literature makes people more compassionate," says Damian before his brother picks up and continues his thought (as they often do for each other): "Narrative is the simplest and truest way to convince a person to align with different values, particularly if they come from different backgrounds," Adrian says. "It's definitely part of our mission."
That mission is based not only on their desire to give different voices a platform, but also on research that indicates a change in the comics landscape toward more-diverse audiences—more than half of which are young women.
"The market is in a shift," says Adrian. "I don't want to say it's a troubled time, it's a time of change. The two power players, Marvel and DC, have been constantly talking about why their sales are going down, but what's happening is the independent comics scene is chipping away at them and you now have a few independent powerhouses."
Vault Comics are available on shelves at Missoula's Muse Comics and digitally via Amazon's ComiXology.